Bobby Unser Is Making Some Sense

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This may come off as one of those rants that insists that we go back to the days of front-engine roadsters, open-faced helmets and drivers in T-shirts. I’ll assure you, that is not my intent. If it sounds like that – my apologies. I also want to make sure that you understand that what I am about to say probably won’t happen. But it’s good fodder for conversation in a long, cold winter.

The other day, I read another installment of IndyCar 2018. This time it was Robin Miller interviewing the legendary Bobby Unser, who is never short on words or opinions. He was asked how to make fans care. As always, he came up with a different twist on a familiar topic. You can read it here.

For years, we’ve heard fans bemoan how IndyCar needs to open up the rulebook. Well, Bobby Unser agrees to some extent, but offered a new take on this subject.

His thinking is that IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway should be separated. He says that Mark Miles should sell off the series or simply give it away and focus on IMS. Is he saying that IndyCar should no longer exist? No, but Unser believes that IndyCar should have their own rules and that the Indianapolis 500 should have its own set of rules.

It’s easy to take Bobby Unser’s words out of context. To do so makes what he is saying to sound like heresy. But when you think about his meaning, his rationale isn’t really flawed.

To open the Indianapolis 500 to a “come one, come all” philosophy is flawed, but to be more liberal with the rules and specs with the Indianapolis 500 than the Verizon IndyCar Series is not a bad idea. Yes, cars should be open-wheeled and open-cockpit (for now, don’t get me going down that road); but to have more freedom with a choice of chassis, aerodynamics or engine formula would create more interest – and isn’t that the main goal?

When you think about it, there already is more freedom with the rules – but to a very small extent. What other race on the schedule allows the boost to be turned up for qualifying? For any other race, qualifying barely lasts an hour. At Indianapolis, it’s a two-day affair that follows a week of practice. The qualifying procedure is totally different for the Indianapolis 500 and it pays a ton more points – almost as much as another race. So the series is kidding themselves when they say that the cars need to run the same specs as they do at Pocono or Fontana – the other 500 milers on the schedule.

I hate to sound like one of the curmudgeons that must harken back to the “glory” days of CART in the early nineties, but despite the fact that CART and IMS literally despised each other – they were able to put on great shows together that drew a lot of interest. One reason was that there were still some magical names involved that hailed from another era. Names like Foyt, Mears, Andretti, Unser, Bettenhausen and Johncock were still competitive while mixing it up with drivers named Rahal, Sullivan, Fittipaldi that were still in their prime along with second generation Andretti’s and Unser’s. But there were other things in play then, that are not now.

First of all, there was flexibility in the rulebook for engines. Remember the Buick V-6 that ran Indy only? OK…some will try and trip me up here. The Buick did make a few appearances elsewhere. For example, Buddy Lazier ran the Buick for Leader Card Racing at Nazareth in 1992. At that time, turbochargers were allowed 45-inches of boost. At Indianapolis, the Buick was granted 55-inches but had been required to run 45-inches everywhere else. At some point in 1992, CART allowed the Buick to run 50-inches but it was still not enough. So for our argument here, let’s call the Buick V-6 an Indy-only engine.

Don’t forget that the rule that allowed the stock-block Buick also allowed Roger Penske to build “The Beast” – the pushrod Mercedes that was developed in total secrecy. He caught the entire racing community off guard when he announced he would be running the special purpose-built engine for the 1994 Indianapolis 500. The engine dominated the race so much that it was legislated out of existence, much like the turbines were twenty-five years earlier. I remember when the car was unveiled at IMS that April, Roger Penske was defending his intimidating engine to critics by saying that he had no interest in running in a spec series. It’s funny how things work out.

The Buick V-6 was extremely fast and notoriously unreliable. I believe the highest it ever finished at Indianapolis was when Al Unser drove one to third place for John Menard in 1992. Menard was heavily involved with the development of the engine and called his engines simply Menards after Buick withdrew their support of the project. It was a Buick V-6 that sat on the pole in 1992 at a speed of 232.482 mph – that is, before Roberto Guerrero spun on the Parade Lap and put the car out of the race before the start. Buick/Menard engines powered the top two qualifiers in the 1995 and 1996 races, before the IRL spec formula came into play in 1997.

But engine development in those days wasn’t limited to billionaires like Roger Penske and John Menard. Driver Michael Greenfield and his father developed and built their own pushrod engine in 1994. They tried to squeeze the bigger engine into the back of a 1993 Lola and upset the balance of the car in the process. The car never got up to speed and failed to make the race, even with veteran Johnny Parsons in the cockpit. Even though it never got up to speed, it demonstrated that there was still room for innovation and ingenuity in the Indianapolis 500, something that doesn’t exist in this age where the track has to prop up the series.

Chassis still had to meet certain requirements in those days, but teams were allowed to build or import their own. Roger Penske had his own chassis operation in Poole, England, where the winning cars of Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser, Jr. were designed by Nigel Bennett and produced onsite.

Carl Haas imported Lolas and sold them to competitors. Chip Ganassi brought the Reynard chassis to CART in 1994. Car owner Rick Galles teamed with Alan Mertens to produce the short-lived Galmer chassis, that won the 1992 Indianapolis 500 and Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, but was a sled everywhere else. Steve Horne was hired by the Jim Trueman family to lead the development of the Truesports chassis that was driven by Scott Pruett before Bobby Rahal and Carl Hogan took over the project and re-named it the RH-01. It’s failures in 1993 were legendary, as Rahal missed the Indianapolis 500 that year as the defending CART champion.

Whether success or failure was attained, the whole idea was to try something different to set you apart and hopefully gain a competitive edge. That’s what spawns innovation and competition. As Bobby Unser so eloquently pointed out, the only thing someone can do now to set themselves apart is to change the paint scheme, as all cars are pretty much identical.

In the nineties, older cars were allowed. The 1992 Indianapolis 500 featured two Galmers, two ’92 Penskes, one ’91 Penske, one ’92 Truesports, fourteen ’92 Lolas, eleven ’91 Lolas and two ’90 Lolas. There was the Chevy-A, the Chevy-B, the Ford Cosworth XB and the Buick V-6. The 1992 Lolas had three styles of cowlings to accommodate the bulky Chevy-A, the shorter Buick or the sleek Ford-Cosworth. To a very casual fan, it looked like thirty-three open wheel cars. To many of us however, the field looked (and sounded) to be full of variety because it was.

Bobby Unser advocates that they continue to build the tub out of carbon-fiber, but to construct the wings and sidepods out of fiberglass or aluminum. Unser says there is no reason why a sidepod should cost $30,000. If that is, in fact, the true cost of a sidepod – I agree with him. Unser goes on to say that the cost of racing is insane and opined on how to cut costs. He also made it clear that he is not very excited about the upcoming aero-kits.

But getting back to the idea that the Indianapolis 500 is a stand-alone event – that has really gotten me to thinking; and to be honest, I kind of like it.

For argument sake, let’s assume Mark Miles and the board of Hulman & Company agreed to sell the Verizon IndyCar Series to, let’s say, Dan Andersen – who has already bought Indy Lights. In the purchase agreement, there must be some clause that the separated series would always run the Indianapolis 500 over Memorial Day weekend. The rules for the stand alone event can be made to include cars from the new series, but would be open enough to include and encourage others to come and try to claim the biggest prize in racing. Perhaps the old generation of car could be us, or even come up with some equivalency formula to include the Panoz DP-01. Maybe expand the engine formula to include the normally aspirated V-s. Am I crazy? Perhaps, but maybe some of it is doable.

Details like officiating would have to be worked out, in order to avoid the type of officiating bungles that USAC made when they were officiating during the CART years.

Let’s face it, from what I’ve seen since Dan Andersen took over Indy Lights, he is much more adept at running a racing series than Mark Miles is. Have you seen the new Indy Lights car? It’s flat out gorgeous. He has brought out a new car that is much better looking than the DW12 and has somehow managed to increase car count with a brand new car. He has also created some jealousy among IndyCar drivers because after IndyCar packs up and goes home before Labor Day, his feeder series will be racing at Laguna Seca in September.

It would take a lot for it to happen, and with Mark Miles only focusing on the bottom line instead of trying to entice fans, he would probably just prefer to shut the series down rather than revamp the Indianapolis 500.

I’m not savvy enough in business to explain how it should be done, but if Mark Miles were to ever call me up and ask my opinion on how to really shake things up instead of a few tweaks here and there – I would tell him to follow Bobby Unser’s advice and sell the series to another entity – possibly Dan Andersen, that has a much different approach on how to grow the series. Then let Doug Boles go to work and develop the new re-vamped Indianapolis 500.

Will any of this happen? In a word – no. But it’s fun to speculate about – especially in mid-January. But you would be foolish to write off the wit and wisdom of Bobby Unser, simply because he will turn eighty-one next month. He is very much in-touch and is about as wily as they come. He usually knows what he’s talking about, even if he expresses it in sort of quirky way. Mark Miles might be wise to listen to at least some of what he’s saying and come up with some way to loosen up the rule book at Indianapolis instead of doubling the points or making further tweaks to qualifying.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “Bobby Unser Is Making Some Sense”

  1. Doug Gardner Says:

    The only thing that could detour this is cost control. Someone would spend much more than someone else and would run the back half of the field off in a short time. The part about the sfety cell and let the rest go and dictate it be lower cost is viable. The 500 needs to be open and available to all comers like it was back in our hey day. It also need to have the purse increased so “outsiders” would take the chance of a big pay day. That money is in the coffers and the “Family” has enough to let a bit go. Just increase the payout to the top 3 finishers by 3 times that should be enough.

  2. I don’t know that the league needs to be sold, but there is something to widening the entry rules for the Indy 500. That has been done in the past. There should be a goal to attract drivers from other racing disciplines to drive in the race, making it again the greatest spectacle in racing.

    Management of the speedway should be separate from the management of the league. There should be separation at least to that extent.

    Anything to decrease to costs to the teams makes sense. One of Tony George’s goals that did not come off. And the rules should be widened in both the 500 and other races to promote innovation.

    Some of this is going to have to happen if the league is to be viable. A key to racing and on the business side for Indy car is in its past, not in NY business analysts who have never seen an auto race.

  3. Interesting idea, but I’m not sure how much impact it would have. Today’s fans seem to be more about the drivers than the machines. If Uncle Bobby’s plan attracted more numbers of potential participants and some exotic looking/sounding cars, it could move the needle. It would probably generate more press as well, which is a big positive. I’m not sure if the level needle movement would be worth the downsides of the plan, however. If IMS was separated from IndyCar and IndyCar had to meet some revenue goals without relying on the largess from IMS, that would encourage IndyCar to invest more effort and resources in attracting fans to tracks outside Indiana, which would be great for those of us who live 8 hrs away from Indianapolis. But, as George says … not going to happen.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      ‘Dog, you’re killing me with those last 4 words. You may be right, but you’re killin’ me, Smalls. Please give us nitwits that single shred of hope that it *could* happen..

      • Nope. The only firms with resources to support truly innovative AND competitive cars for one-off races that are going to prove anything, technoloogy-wise, are already doing so…at LeMans. And even there, some have pulled out because it’s too expensive.

  4. The Lapper Says:

    F1 fans are very excited about the new nose and designs of the cars. What are we excited about? The aero kits. Open up the rule book at least a little bit more for Indianapolis.

    • I have to admit I’m a little scared to see the new aero kits. There is a good chance these cars could get even uglier.

  5. I read the same article from Bobby Unser and I commented basically what you said George. If Mark Miles would at least just listen to Bobby Unser. Going through the comments in the Mailbag, most people support Unsers reasoning. One commenter did not -calling Bobby an “idiot “and that he has “lost his mind” and that he had lost all respect for him. Comments like that perplex me beyond all recognition. There are places for people like that but I digress.

    What Bobby said makes a ton of sense to me. Divorcing the Hulman clan from the series could be the best thing to ever happen to IndyCar.

  6. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I must agree with most everything Mr. Phillips and Mr. Unser (and Robert Clarke, in a earlier Racer article) have said.

    Reading this, I am also left feeling vindicated in similar opinions expressed in my currently-defunct blog. My only wish is that the racing future-think series of articles by Racer had happened in 2009 instead of 2015.

    Truth be told, I only mention my past writing because the Racer 2018 series has become a nice, thought-provoking series and reminds me of why I started blogging about Indycar to begin with – to both celebrate and envision a better future for Indycar racing.

    Perhaps I wasn’t so crazy after all, for suggesting that;
    variety is paramount http://groundedeffects.blogspot.com/2010/07/decision-day-july-14-2010.html ,
    the cars are also the stars http://groundedeffects.blogspot.com/2011/10/missing-character.html ,
    and the Hulmans need to divest of Indycar http://groundedeffects.blogspot.com/2013/08/it-is-finished.html

    George, if you don’t mind, I’m thinking about firing up the keyboard again. Someone has to be Dick Simon to your Penske-esque blog, after all. Perhaps a Tuesday/Thursday posting schedule for me would be amenable to you? Tsong can’t comment though.

  7. Where would Indycar get money if the 500 wasn’t associated with it or a part of their package? And speaking of money, how would owners pay for all this innovation? I also agree with Dog that these days race fans root for personalities more than technical innovation.

  8. Phil Kaiser Says:

    George, I don’t believe there is a rule stating you cannot use older cars, although these days the older cars aren’t as fast. I know this was never a rule in the past, just look thru old starting lineups from Indianapolis; every year there were several cars that were not new, in fact some of them won back-to-back Indianapolis 500s (the same George Salih “Laydown” Roadster winning with Sam Hanks and Jimmy Bryan in ’57 & ’58 comes to mind)!

    Phil Kaiser
    Indianapolis

    • My understanding is that the previous Dallara is not allowed. Currently, a driver/team entering the Indianapolis 500 must use the DW12 chassis. Without seeing the rulebook, I’m very confident that that is the case.

      • Phil Kaiser Says:

        I believe you are correct, see my response to myself below….

      • The Dallara IR03 would be no match for the DW12. And besides, nobody builds an engine anymore that will go into and run a Dallara IR03. Honda builds engines for the DW12 that are along the lines of the corporate image that they’re currently working on building (small, turbocharged, lightweight, high efficiency…which actually describes almost every manufacturer in the industry right now), and they would no longer support the old V8s or release them to somebody else to build and run (what would their motivation be to do that?). Using the IR03 is as dead an idea as using a Penske PC20 or a Reynard 94I.

    • Phil Kaiser Says:

      I’m referencing here paragraph 16 above where you state “(i)n the nineties, older cars were allowed.” My point is older cars have always been allowed from the very first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.

      Phil Kaiser
      Indianapolis

      • Phil Kaiser Says:

        At least until this current nonsense, hahaha! Thank you Bill for setting me straight about the current rules, but I knew that, I was speaking again about “the old days.”

  9. billytheskink Says:

    I agree that the Series and Speedway ought to be separated, but not for any of the reasons Bobby does and not necessarily in the way Bobby proposes. Despite their symbiotic relationship, racing series and race tracks/promoters do often have different goals that require their undivided attention. The two entities don’t necessarily need to be owned separately, but they do need to be run separately to ensure that attention is being fully paid to each group’s goals. The legally separate entities in the France family/NASCAR/ISC group are a prominent example of this working well.

    As far as opening up the rulebook, I think pretty much every Indycar fan wants to see variety in the cars competing and innovations that make the cars faster or more efficient, even fans who are decidedly driver-focused. The additional layer of variety and innovation would make the series more interesting to car-focused fans, likely without sacrificing any of the appeal the drivers may have. This does, of course, beg two questions from me:

    – Is this variety, innovation, and the additional attention it may bring worth the potential cost?
    I don’t know the answer, but what I do know is that less restricted racing typically results in higher costs for the participants. This is great when many people are willing and able to spend the money needed to compete (the Indy 500 in the 1960s), not so much when only one or two are (the P1 class in the final few years of ALMS). Indycar needs the former to be the likely scenario in order to go forward with a more open rulebook.

    – Would an open rulebook actually result in as much variety as expected?
    Even with the more open rulebook of the pre-1997 era, Indycar and the 500 were seeing far less variety than they once did as the 80s and 90s moved along due to the acceleration of technology and costs. Much as the homebuilt midgets that ruled the 30’s and 40’s gave way to fields filled largely with Offy-powered KurtisKraft kits, so too had McLaren/Eagle/Wildcat/Penske/Coyote/Parnelli/Vollstedt/Lightning/King(fish)/Watson/Antares/etc. given way to March/Lola/and the occasional interloper. Granted, additional variety and innovation is a positive at any level, but I don’t want to oversell how much we would see because history shows that the relatively natural evolution of Indycars prior to 1997 was already making them more similar than ever before. You pondered on Monday, George, whether or not there would have been an all-turbine grid by 1975 had USAC not outlawed the engine type. History says that would be a likely possibility.

    As for the 500 needing a separate rulebook from the series, I do not see that being remotely necessary. Barring the occasional late event-specific rule change, I am reasonably sure that cars eligible for the 500 were rarely illegal at other pavement races when the entire sport was under AAA and USAC sanction. Had there been no CART, I don’t see any reason to believe that USAC would have made separate rules for the 500 and the rest of the series. The 500 did not historically invite innovation and variety seperate from the rest of the Indycar series because its rulebook was different, it invited those things because it was the biggest, best-paying, and most competitive stage in motorsports.

    Wow, I wrote way too much about this… Sorry about that George, sorry fellow commenters.

  10. I bet the France family would bite, but that would likely doom the Indy 500.

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