The Evolution Of The IndyCar
By Andy Miller
Note from George – As promised, Oilpressure.com is visited by a guest blogger; and not just any guest blogger – but none other than “The Speedgeek”. If you’ve followed this site at all, you’ve seen Andy’s many thought-provoking posts in the comments section. Andy has his own site and is more recently involved with Grab Bag Sports.com. I finally had the opportunity to meet Andy at Indianapolis this past May. I appreciate Andy contributing to the site as I wind up a little down time. I’ll be back at it on Thursday with my thoughts on the chassis announcement and then on Friday with a preview of Toronto. Thanks, Andy. – GP
This Wednesday’s ICONIC board announcement concerning the new-for-2012 specification IndyCar brings us to the next step in a long, arduous process of bringing IndyCar racing into a new era. There has been much talk from fans and from people within the IndyCar paddock of what the next IndyCar should look like, how it should perform and how it should (or should not) address the changing landscape of racing and the car industry. In the midst of all this talk, I’ve been given to doing some thought about what IndyCars and Indy-style racing has looked like since it began about 100 years ago.
As the ICONIC board and the folks in the IZOD IndyCar PR department have acknowledged (with the help of this excellent poster), the appearance of IndyCars has changed quite a bit, in the long view. However, with a few notable exceptions at the beginning of brief periods of change, the appearance of the cars has remained quite static in the course of the actual eras themselves. I realize that that statement is about as clear as the technical explanation as to how Roger Penske’s team managed to get a non-standard sway bar piece earlier this season, but please just hear me out.
When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was opened in 1909, the race cars were largely based on road cars. These cars were mostly tall, narrow-tired, front engine ladder frame chassis with engines of varying sizes and a varying number of seats and passengers. From Ray Harroun’s 1911 race winning Marmon Wasp up through Wilbur Shaw’s 1937 race winning Shaw-Gilmore, the cars pretty well fit this description. Over those 26 years, there was considerable variation in the amount that cars were shaped to slip through the air, and there was the semi-infamous “junk formula” (covered much better than I ever could elsewhere in this site) that led to a return to riding mechanics, but the vast majority of cars looked not too far removed from Harroun’s 1911 ride.
In 1938, at the end of the “junk formula”, that general appearance began to change somewhat. At that time, the cars began to sit lower than before, as the cars were allowed to comply with European Grand Prix rules. The cars from Floyd Roberts’ 1938 Miller Burd Piston Ring Special through Wilbur Shaw’s Boyle Maserati and up Pat Flaherty’s 1956 John Zink Watson roadster, all looked to be cut from roughly the same cloth, though the post-WWII cars certainly took on a more massive, more powerful stance than the ones that just pre-dated WWII. A slight variation on the front engine cars came in the late-1950s with the arrival of the Belond lay-down roadster and its copycats, but with further wins in 1960 through 1964, the roadster continued its reign.
As well documented in many places, things did begin to change quite rapidly in 1961 with the arrival of Jack Brabham and his rear-engined, Formula 1-based Cooper Climax. This car, of course, would quickly usher in the next era of the Speedway, that of the lightweight, rear engine car. These cars, in their basic form as Brabham’s car appeared in 1961, racked up wins from 1965 through 1968. As with any of the other eras which saw some one-off example cars, this era also saw strange one-offs, but for the most part, the cars were cigar-shaped, rear engine rockets.
By 1969, the cars began to sprout aerodynamic aids on the front of the noses and over the engines in order to assist in grip, the tires were much wider than they were even a couple of years earlier, and the tires now lacked tread of any consequence. This basic look held on for just a couple of years, but the era is most well remembered for Al Unser’s 1970 and 1971 race winning Johnny Lightning Special.
By 1972, the cars all carried full-on wings, as Grand Prix cars had been doing since 1968. With the addition of wings, the cars now lapped far faster than they had even three or four years previous, and some of the cars even moved the radiators to the sides of the cockpit in order to centralize their weight and to maximize the effect of the aerodynamic downforce on the nose of the cars. This basic layout ruled the Speedway from 1972 with Mark Donohue’s Sunoco Special McLaren to 1978 with Al Unser’s 1st National City Chaparral-Lola.
In 1979, the cars began yet another evolution, the third in just over ten years. This time, Roger Penske and Jim Hall borrowed the concept of ground effects from Formula 1 with their cars, and ushered in an era which still carries right through until today. These cars developed aerodynamic downforce via controlling the air flow under the car as well as over the wings and exterior, a practice that is not only still done in IndyCars but to varying effects in open wheel formula all over the world. Since 1979, the cars underwent extensive revisions to the appearance of the wings, the sidepods, the noses and even the engine covers with the introduction of F1-style airboxes in 1997, but the basic layout of the cars has remained more or less the same for over 30 years now.
This brings us right up to this week’s selection of a new car or new car formula for 2012. We’ve all seen designs from five different potential manufacturers, and those designs have covered a wide spectrum of philosophies. Some have been minor variants of what is currently on track. Some have been minor variants of what we’ve seen in IndyCar or other series in the recent past. Some have majorly revised what we have now to look like an “IndyCar” that may or may not look current for at least a few years. And yet others have been like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
What will our next IndyCar look like? At the time of this posting, only the ICONIC panel members know for sure. Whatever they select, though, hopefully we’ll all be able to look back on the decisions and announcement of July 14, 2010 as either the start of a fresh, new era in IndyCar racing or a return to a familiar but glorious past. Either way, it’s a very exciting time to be an IndyCar fan.
Rick Popely, Indianapolis 500 Chronicle (Publications International, Ltd., Lincolnwood, Illinois, 1998)