Should The IRL Go Radical?
It will probably come as no surprise to regular readers of this site that I am not a proponent of this so-called “radical” new chassis that the IRL is reportedly strongly considering for use in 2012, when a new engine/chassis package will probably be put into use. There are two chassis under consideration by the IRL brain trusts. Dallara has a conventional but updated version of their current chassis on the drawing board. Supposedly, the evolutionary car maintains most of the distinctive features of what we have called an Indy car for the past thirty-five years; open-wheels, narrow body with sidepods, open cockpit and front & rear wings.
However, former Lola designer and current Ganassi racing engineer, Ben Bowlby has a revolutionary concept chassis that supposedly resembles NOTHING that we have grown accustomed to seeing race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May. I would say that one of the few similarities between them was that they both had four wheels. Then again, I’ve even seen reports that say this revolutionary chassis was originally designed with only three wheels. Fortunately, word has it that the FIA stepped in and nixed that idea with the thought that in order to be classified as a car, it must have four wheels. What a concept.
I don’t normally pay a whole lot of attention to hearsay and rumors such as the three-wheeled concept. But with so little information coming out of the IRL bunker these days regarding the chassis, you have to give some credence to whatever is out there. One report I have heard on several occasions is that the new design looks like something between a motorcycle and an ALMS car, which is a somewhat curious description.
Keep in mind; I come from an era where change, innovation and radical ideas were the norm at 16th and Georgetown. The first IndyCar race I ever attended was as a wide-eyed six year-old at the 1965 Indianapolis 500. That year, there were six front-engine roadsters in the field along with many different chassis that embraced the outrageous notion of the engine in the rear of the car. That was the first time ever that a rear-engine car won the Indianapolis 500 and it has been that way ever since. That year was also just one year removed from the radical Smokey Yunick sidecar, which placed the driver in a separate capsule to the left of the engine. The car crashed on its qualifying attempt in 1964 and never made the race, but it was emblematic of the radical engineering of the day. Two years after my first race, I was lucky enough to witness the dawn of the jet engine powered turbine cars of Andy Granatelli. I grew up and witnessed the most change-ladened decade in the 100-year history of the Speedway.
I say this to make the point that I am certainly not opposed to change in the design or the appearance of an Indy car. Quite the contrary. If you’ve read this site for very long, you know that I have chastised the league for limiting innovation and risk taking in recent years. I am opposed to a spec series where every car looks identical, sounds identical and is identical to every other car on the grid. Innovation is what made the Indianapolis famous in the first place. The fact that innovation has been stymied in recent years is what has made the IndyCar Series become so stagnant.
So after being saddled with the same chassis for seven years (and at least two more to go), the Izod IndyCar Series is seriously considering a futuristic design that supposedly looks nothing like what we have grown accustomed to being an Indy car. My question is…why?
In the past, radical designs were pursued by either a team or a chassis manufacturer in order to gain a competitive edge over more traditional engineering. Sometimes they worked as in the case of the George Salih designed “laydown” roadster. He got the idea of tilting the Offenhauser engine on its side in order to lower the front cowling. His creation was the sleekest car to ever grace the Speedway up to that point. The result was a car that won two consecutive Indy 500’s; in 1957 with Sam Hanks and in 1958 with Jimmy Bryan. The car could have just as easily been a dud. Tilting an engine 72-degrees on its side was a risky proposition, which could have produced unusual wear on the internal parts along with other potential problems. However, it was a radical idea that gave the car a clear edge.
Such was also the thinking of Mickey Thompson’s cars in the early sixties. Known as the “skate”, these cars looked more like go-karts than Indy cars. The skate was low-slung, measuring only thirty-three inches from the ground to the top of the rollbar. They had small, wide tires to fit the 12-inch wheels. The skate was extremely lightweight, weighing in at just over a thousand pounds with an all-aluminum Chevy V-8 engine behind the driver. Unfortunately, the car was difficult to drive. The skate was very unstable, especially in the corners. The car pictured was driven by Dave MacDonald in 1964. MacDonald lost control of his car coming out of turn four on lap two and spun, causing the fiery crash that took his life as well as the life of popular driver Eddie Sachs.
In the case of the radical chassis that is reportedly under strong consideration by the IRL, I see no reason to go this route. Supposedly, the league is still in favor of a single chassis provider, so this change would not be something to gain an edge over a competitor. All teams would have it. This is simply change for the sake of change. It is purely cosmetic. This is a move that could permanently alienate what fans the IRL has left, with no guarantee of snagging the new crowd that is so highly coveted with the Izod sponsorship. When the casual fan is flipping through the dial and lands on Versus – they will see something totally unrecognizable as an Indy car. Some may see that as good, but I don’t. I think the IRL is playing with fire with this concept. At this juncture in the business cycle of the IRL, I think they need to go with a design more associated with what people know as an Indy car.
If the IRL is so intent on introducing this radical new design to the Izod IndyCar Series, they should make it one of two or three approved chassis that will be made available to the teams. If a team chooses to stray from the tried and true Dallara and go for something more radical – great. Let the performance and the results of such a chassis dictate the market demand for it. If such a crazy and futuristic design is faster and safer than the others, then it will become the chassis of choice. I don’t care if it looks like a garbage truck – if it wins, it will ultimately be what teams go for.
But “choice” is the operative word here. If the IRL mandates that all teams will use something that looks like it was designed by Hot Wheels, I think they are taking a HUGE gamble. The IRL doesn’t have enough marketing clout for a mistake of this magnitude. It reeks of desperation by the league trying to go after a younger, hip audience. If this car offers no significant improvement over a more conventional design, why build it? Engineering and marketing don’t always mix. The damage caused by the last truly radical idea that was tried in 1996 has caused an uphill climb, at best. If this gamble by the league backfires, I’m not sure they have the staying power in the market place to fix this one.