Tuesday, February 16, 2010

DeltaWing Budgets, or Why John Barnes is Excited

One of the biggest advantages of the DeltaWing program (we've been told) is that it's dramatically cheaper than the current Dallara, and cheaper even than the proposed Dallara, Swift, and Lola cars.

The current Dallara/Honda package costs at least $1.5 million per car with a Honda engine lease.  The best estimate of what it costs to race is $5 million to run the full season with a decent degree of professionalism.  It won't let you develop a bunch of trick mirrors and other Penske-like bits, but you'll show up and give a solid, professional account of yourself.  The IndyCar TEAM program currently pays $1.4 million for a full-season effort, per car.  The gap of $3.6 million is what a team needs to find in sponsorship.  Let's leave aside for a second ho the car looks, and just look at the money involved.

Let's say you're in the racing world.  You have a team that leases a shop and owns some tools.  In short, you have at least a vague idea what you're doing, and you want to go IndyCar racing.  In the DeltaWing universe, how does life get easier than it would be right now?

The DeltaWing folks claim that their car will cost approximately $600,000 with engine.  Those engines, since they won't need to produce the same power in a low-drag DeltaWing, will be built for 5000 mile rebuild intervals.

So you want to have a finished car, and a backup chassis that is pretty close to race-ready.  Let's call that $1 million.  Let's call the year's overhead another $1.5 million.  This covers your shop's lease, payroll, health care for your employees, travel expenses, transporters, and all your permits and certifications.  This doesn't include a driver's salary, but it gets the rest of the team.  That has your budget up to $2.5 million.

You need a driver, but you don't want to hire some kid who comes with a check.  You want to hire a hot shoe from Indy Lights who has won races and looks like he has what it takes.  He does not, however, race for free (smart kid).  Luckily, there aren't any seats open at Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti, so he's looking for a one-year deal where he can prove himself, so money is negotiable.  You sign him for $500K.  He can pick up some extra dough by wearing cool shades and a sweet watch on camera.  That takes you to $3 million.

You'll need to buy tires, and fix the crash damage that happens when your hot shoe doesn't lift his early enough.  And you'll need to rebuild your engine(s), though with the engines they're talking about using, that should be a bit cheaper than in years past.  Let's add another $500K to account for all of this stuff.  That brings your budget to $3.5 million.

I know the IRL is trying to trim costs, but they increased the TEAM program payouts for 2010, so let's project ahead a bit, and assume it'll go up a little bit more by 2012, to $1.5 million per car.  The gap left is $2 million, or $1.6 million less than the current reality, and that's assuming you want to hire a driver at $500K.  The prospects for finding a primary to kick in $1.5 million, and a couple of secondaries to kick in $500K between them are a lot more approachable than those for finding $3.6 million in a struggling economy.

I readily admit this is all assuming the best.  It sets aside whether the public (be it current fans or new fans) will accept the Indy Rocket as a cool race car.  It assumes the DeltaWing folks aren't full of it when it comes to the cost of the car.  It assume they can indeed convince multiple engine builders to allow their engines to race in the DeltaWing-driven IndyCar Series.  These are all (every one of them) large assumptions.

But ... it does help underline why guys like John Barnes, Tony George, and Dennis Reinbold are behind this idea.  In this new economic model Panther, Vision and D&R are suddenly looking like legitimate two-car outfits who are at least able to run with Penske and Ganassi, if not beat them occasionally.  Dale Coyne might not be a front runner, but he can run two cars and have his drivers in place by January 1 every year.  Conquest can reliably get at least one car to the grid every race.  Sarah Fisher and AJ Foyt are both bringing two cars to every race with Dollar General and ABC Supply.  Guys like Ron Hemelgarn and Paul Diatlovich can not only show for May, they can show up at Texas and Kansas, too.  A successful WoO or USAC team can realistically put together an Indy effort without jeopardizing their primary operation to make it work.  An ALMS or Grand-Am team can do the same.

And all of this without even considering hiring a driver because they can bring a check to keep you afloat.  And if you can raise anything over that $2 million number, you are either making your way forward in the field, or hiring a more expensive driver, or (*gasp*) turning a modest profit as a race team!

The pay level for those young drivers might still lag behind what NASCAR can offer (for now), but it at least makes it an option, and some of those drivers will go the Indy route.

Yup, this is all an exercise in fantasy right now.  You're completely right.  But if you start poking around, you have to admit it's a VERY compelling fantasy.  In fact, I dare say it's everything IndyCar fans could ever hope for right now - if only the car didn't look so weird.

Like I said, I'm sure some of this math is fuzzy at best.  What am I forgetting?  Remember that this  wasn't designed to fund a winning IndyCar operation - just to make all the races without looking foolish.  I'm curious what flows people see with this scenario.

Why DeltaWing is the Grand-Am Concept

Open-source.  Concept.  Design exercise.

These terms have been thrown around a lot in the last few weeks, as fans and the media have debated the DeltaWing's merits.  Sure, it looks funny, but what does it mean?  As I said last week, the most important question still unanswered about the DeltaWing is what the designers mean by "open."  Do they mean that chassis builders can build versions of their design that vary in small ways from the core vehicle?  Or do they mean that chassis builders can build cars to meet a loose set of criteria, with the resulting vehicles perhaps looking very different from Ben Bowlby's solution?  This question has not yet been directly put to the principles involved, but it has been hinted at.  While they stop short of answering the question, it is fairly clear to me that the answer is closer to the former than the latter.  I think they intend for the core design to be as shown, and builders can then modify that design within certain constraints, so the cars will definitely differ in appearance, while all retaining the core "rocket-ship" aesthetic.  If you think about it, this isn't that different from what IndyCar (and F1 for that matter) have had for the last twenty years.  Put a 1995 Reynard and Lola next to each other, and show them to a casual fan from 100 yards away.  See if he can tell you which is which.  He probably can't.  They're both sleek little missiles with sidepods and wings front and rear.  Sure, savvy fans can point out the differences, but the essence of both cars is the same - and that was the era of wide open chassis competition that so many fans claim they long for.  So let's take it as a given that the DeltaWing concept could offer at least that much variety on the grid.  Where, then, have we seen such a concept before, of cost-controlled racing with multiple chassis builders modifying a common design, with power controlled across multiple engine manufacturers?  Here.

For folks who don't follow Grand-Am road racing, here's an admittedly over-simplified explanation of how the Daytona Prototype class works.  Grand-Am has a core chassis concept that manufacturers can bid to build.  Every five years, Grand-Am revisits their licensing, and new builders can come in while existing builders can leave gracefully, sometimes by selling their license to build the chassis.  The cars all look fundamentally similar, with fairly subtle variations in the body skin that give different manufacturers (including Dallara and Lola, notably) slightly different running characteristics.  Grand-Am can maintain certain safety requirements and racing characteristics while allowing development and innovation in other areas and keep costs under control.  They maintain level competition across engine manufacturers by tweaking things like gearing and the common ECU.  This is different from Bowlby's plan to limit fuel flow, but the principle is the same - that multiple very different engines can compete on a level playing field.

Grand-Am has problems of its own, to be sure (Among them, some fans think the cars are ugly!), but they are in far better shape than ALMS, who are looking at average prototype grids of 1.25 cars (OK, I'm exaggerating there a bit).  So while nobody with DeltaWing has answered the question fully, I think this is one model we can look at when considering what a DeltaWing-era IndyCar Series might look like.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

If I Had to Choose a Chassis Right Now

I've been talking a lot about the three chassis manufacturers who have shown their stuff so far, and from the various posts, it's clear there something I like in each of them.

If it were up to me, and I had to pick right now, I'd go with Swift, probably the #32.  Just so we're clear.

The Fundamental DeltaWing Question

Someone (I think it was either Bowlby or Chip) said when pitching the DeltaWing concept that their idea is not to be the manufacturer, but rather let others build the chassis to the set of principles outlined by the DeltaWing program.  As an example, they said that if Audi wanted to get involved in IndyCar racing, they could use whatever engine design they want (presumably because it won't be a stressed chassis member, and fuel flow is regulated anyway) and have whoever they want build the car (I believe Swift was used in the example, but I'm not positive).  As long as that car fits the DeltaWing criteria, they'd be good to go.

The single biggest question that I think will determine whether fans accept the DeltaWing program is how strict those criteria are.  Are they suggesting that they will design a car, and then any number of builders can manufacture the various parts to the original specs?  That means no matter who is building the cars, they will all look basically like the car we saw yesterday, except for some subtle team tweaking.

Or is the DeltaWing concept instead a much looser set of criteria that anyone can build a car around?  For example, as long as it is light, low-drag, doesn't use the engine as a stressed chassis member, is based around a fuel-flow-limited engine, and somehow shrouds the wheels to prevent interlocking, is it good to go?  Can Swift design and build an entirely new and different car, and if it conforms to these guidelines, it'll be allowed to run?

This is the biggest question mark with this program, because in one case, all the talk of openness and innovation is just marketing horse-hockey, and in the other, the DeltaWing project is indeed an amazing hot-bed of innovation, and the idea that could propel IndyCar racing into a new golden age.  And (perhaps unfortunately), I think it really is that binary a question.

So: Is it open, or is it closed?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why You Shouldn't Hate the Delta Wing YET

So that's the DeltaWing chassis, huh?  Well, they did say it was a revolutionary design.  Of course, they probably didn't mean that it would cause IndyCar fans to take up arms against the series, which if you peruse the forums of fans on Twitter is pretty much about to happen.  If the DeltaWing group intended this car to unite the fan base, well, mission accomplished fellas.  Seriously, job well done there.  I don't think I've ever seen that dude from Toronto in the orange and black Champ Car hat and the FTG shirt agree with the guy from Brownsville in the red and blue Northern Light hat and the Puck Fenske shirt.  Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya!  I'm pretty sure they could outlaw NASCAR and it wouldn't have united everyone as strongly in single purpose as they were when the red tarp got pulled back.  Yikes!  You'd think Ben Bowlby ran over their dogs or something!

I admit, I wasn't immediately a fan myself.  I'm still not sure I am.  It looks weird.  Really weird.  It looks a little like a Colonial Raptor from Battlestar Galactica, and a little bit like top-fuel dragster.  It was originally a three-wheeler, and let's be honest, it still looks like it is.  Head-on, it looks like something the military would deploy against the enemy only after all other hope is lost.

Why, then, am I conflicted?  If you've been following my comments on the chassis development program, you know that I like the Swift and Dallara offerings so far, and can't wait to see what Lola brings to the table.  So far, some of the designs have been more radical than others, but they have all fit the basic definition of a modern open-wheel racing car.

In short, my favorite parts about this car have nothing to do with its exact appears, and everything to do with the assumptions on which it's based.  One of the common refrains from the folks who don't like the chassis is, "Can you imagine 33 of those things at the Indy 500!?"  But that's just the thing - I don't think anyone involved ever intended 33 of these to start the Indy 500, at least not unless it first beats other chassis.  Ben Bowlby (the designer, formerly of Lola and now with Target Chip Ganassi) has said in a few different interviews that the DeltaWing group do not want to be a chassis builder.  They want to be a designer who them offer a core concept that other builders could develop from there.  Theoretically, this would lead to cars that follow the same basic idea, but look all different (some subtly, other less subtly) as engineers tweak, and trim, and change.  Remember that even when the IRL had three chassis suppliers (Dallara, Panoz, and Riley & Scott), the chassis were that different in appearance to the untrained eye.  Maybe the cars will all share a similar silhouette, but will have definite visual differences.  What this means, boiled down, is that the DeltaWing idea is based upon the assumption that starting in 2012, the IZOD IndyCar Series will not be a single-supplier series!  Swift and Dallara both very definitely made their proposals to be that sole supplier.  Lola will likely do the same.  DeltaWing does not.  In fact, I think this car is more of a reference design than the car that will actually run in 2012.  Think of it as IndyCar's Nexus One (the phone Google uses to show what the Android OS can do, even though they know most people will buy the Droid in the end).  This is a platform to show lots of the great ideas they have, that can then be applied to other chassis.

The engine is not a stressed member of the chassis.  While a somewhat boring technical detail, this opens the door for a much wider variety of engines that could be run.  Bowlby envisions a small turbocharged four-cylinder as part of his push to make IndyCar technology relevant, but you could easily run a V6, or even a small V8.  You could potentially even run a naturally-aspirated engine.  Any number of interesting engine technologies suddenly become realistic.

But Fred, you ask, how will the IRL equalize a variety of engines!?  Won't the fast one run away and stink up the show?

Well first of all, yes.  Just like Penske and Ganassi do now.  But actually, maybe not as much as you'd think.  Bowlby also envisions a unique engine performance management method.  Sanctioning bodies have spent the past 25 years trying to find ways to equalize different engines and slow them all down.  ALMS regulates the intake opening, limiting the air to the motor.  NASCAR used to trim aerodynamic areas on the bodies when one manufacturer was running away with it.  Remember going to Charlotte hearing that the Ford would be losing a quarter-inch of front valence?  Exactly.  Bowlby's idea is to limit all engines at a single point: fuel flow.  You can carry a certain amount of fuel, but it is strictly limited in flow rate.  Since you can only burn at that rate, it behooves you as a designer to find a way to transfer as much of that burn into power hitting the pavement as possible.  This leads to a focus on extreme efficiency, both in engines and in gearboxes and bearings - all of the areas that auto manufacturers are working on right now for their road cars!  The Indy 500 could once again be a proving ground for automotive technology.  Combined with their extremely light chassis (1030 lbs. without engine), a 300 hp engine could (they claim) turn a 235 mph lap, returning 12 mpg!  Even if those are optimistic, they're still amazing.

The lack of wings and the shrouded wheels produce downforce that is far less sensitive to turbulence, while preventing the interlocking wheels that have sent drivers into the fence at high speed.

OK.  It looks silly.  I get that.  But for everyone who complains about the lack of innovation, this is innovation.  I have no idea if this thing can do everything Bowlby claims it can, but I'd love to find out.  And if it can do those things, that car deserves a shot.  Sure, I don't want every car in the field to look like that, but maybe they don't have to.  If you consider it in the context of multiple chassis options, suddenly this things looks much less silly.

This isn't racing camp.  It isn't important that everyone is on equal footing.  If you have the know-how and creativity to work on your car, and you manage to beat everyone else to the checkered flag, you should get the big shiny trophy, and everyone else should get a clap on the back and a beer.  Because anything else isn't racing.  Winning is beautiful, and I want to see if this thing has what it takes to win.

Oh, one more thing.  The DeltaWing technical notes talk about a theoretical lap of 235 mph with 300 hp.  That's getting perilously close to a number IndyCar fans thought they'd never see again: 237.498 mph.  That lap was laid down in 1996, by Arie Luyendyk.  In 2012, it will have been 16 years.  If this car can make a run at Arie's lap, then I say bring it on.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

ARCA is Laughing, and IndyCar Knows Why

Well, the ratings for Danica's stock car debut are out.  Keep in mind that the race was on SPEED TV, and that ARCA is a third tier stock car series (fourth tier if you include the NASCAR trucks).  Keep all of that in mind when you hear that, "SPEED coverage of the ARCA Racing Series season opener from Daytona scored a Nielsen Household Rating of 2.30 (1,723,000 households), a 59-percent increase over last year's 1.45 (1,062,000 households)."  The quote is from the ARCA press release available here.

We all knew Danica would provide a bump to stock car ratings, even for ARCA races, but every IndyCar fan reading this just spit out their drink and said, "A 2.30?  On SPEED!?"  Yes, a 2.30.  Yes, on SPEED.  I know.

But that isn't what should really tick off an IndyCar fan.  You should really be ticked off that last year's ARCA race from Daytona drew a 1.45 rating.  Right now, if I offered the IRL a guaranteed 1.45 rating for all of the non-Indy ovals, would they take it?  You'd better believe it.  Nice.

As Pressdog says here, this is made even more frustrating by the lack of IndyCar racing for another month plus, and then it'll be four straight road and street courses before they finally get to Kansas.  Fantastic.

Just to throw out another depressing idea, let's say the IRL took NASCAR up on the rumored offer to run at Phoenix during the Cup weekend in a few weeks.  Let's say they came to an agreement to make it a twin-lead billing, with IndyCar running on Saturday night.  It actually would be a perfectly-timed season opener.  And let's say that Danica did the double, running both the Nationwide and IndyCar races.

True of False: That IndyCar race would be the highest-rated IRL race ever, excluding the Indy 500.

I say true.  It might also be the best-attended oval race ever for the IRL that wasn't held at Indy or Texas.

So the next big question is whether the IRL (and new CEO Randy Bernard) can make this happen for 2011.  Because it really need to happen.  It really really needs to happen.  I'm feeling bullish on IndyCar racing right now.  This could be the type of event that gains a ton of mind-share for the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The genie is out of the bottle, IRL!

I understand all of the reasons why the IRL is probably going to pick one chassis design and run with it for 2012.  I really do.  Economies of scale make it possible to keep costs down while still allowing the anointed manufacturer to make money.  And certainly, I'm not against making money.  I'm actually a big fan or it.  You might say I own Making Money's jersey and have a Fathead of it on my wall.

But DeltaWing is releasing their design on Wednesday.  And Lola will be out by the end of the week.  We've seen what Dallara and Swift have to offer.  So far, we have six distinct looking chassis (granted, three of them from Swift seem to be variations on a single main chassis, but they look very different), and at least two more to come by the end of this week.  Then it'll be three months until the IRL decides.  That puts us into May, and we all know where IndyCar fans will be focused in May.  For us, it's like the Fourth of July - we all get swept up into the moment and are hyper focused on the sport.  We will have had three months to ponder and discuss argue about at least eight different chassis, all of which will have the pluses and minuses.  Any one of them would be an interesting option for the IZOD IndyCar Series going forward.  Some of them I wish we could see race RIGHT NOW.

If only there were some way to physically see different chassis against each other on a closed course racetrack.  Some way to, I don't know, compare their respective advantages and disadvantages in an entertaining, direct, and real-time manner while paying customers could watch and form their opinions based on what they see.  If only something like there were possible under the laws of physics.  Wouldn't it be amazing?  Imagine if we could have found out whether Michael Andretti could get around Rick Mears outside, or if Mears could come back and duplicate the move.  Unfortunately, that would have caused the galaxy to implode into a super-massive black hole, so I guess it's a good thing that we never found out.

Admit it, you're already wondering whether the yellow Dallara could go to the top through turn four at Texas, and out-leg the #32 Swift to the line.  You're wondering if the #33 Swift could stay with the red Dallara up the hill at Laguna Seca and then crest the hill and get in front as it drops into the corkscrew.  Right now, you wondering if the maroon Dallara could go around the outside of the #23 Swift though turn one at Indy.  You're envisioning Jim singing "Back Home Again ..." while a field of Dallaras, Swifts, and Lolas get their final prep, and the driver mentally prepare for the task ahead.  It's OK to admit it - don't be frightened.  You're not doing anything wrong.  It's perfectly natural.

This gradual release of chassis design pictures has done more to energize and unite the fan base of IndyCar racing than just about anything the IRL has done in ten years, unification included.  There's a genuine buzz among fans.  The risk the IRL races is getting those fans excited, only to see them let down when three months from now, we find out that the next chassis will indeed be a spec chassis.  Sure, it'll be a cooler spec chassis than the current Dallara, but that will only hold the fans for so long.  That let-down will be bigger than they realize.

The title of my post refers to the genie that is fan excitement, because it can do truly magical things for a sport when the fans get excited and unified and want to evangelize the product.  The problem is that the genie is now out of the bottle for the IRL, and it will be exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) for them to cram it back inside.

Swift Arrives at the Chassis Party

I discussed the proposed 2012 Dallara Indy chassis here.  Those photos were released just as we found out that the DeltaWing chassis would be debuting the following week.  Then we heard that Lola and Swift would be debuting their concepts in the next week or two.  Suddenly we had gone from one Dallara option and one sort-of DeltaWing option to three Dallaras, a Swift, a Lola, and the Delta Wing.  Now Swift has shown up at the party, and guess what?  They brought their hot friends!

So right off the bat, some of these design choices will not appeal to everyone.  Some of them you might downright hate.  But I contend this is a good thing.  Good design always appeals to a ton of people, but great design should appeal to a ton of people and really turn off a few.  Otherwise, you're not taking enough risks to reach true greatness.

Also, there are three distinct cars here (like with Dallara).  They are not quite as distinct as the three Dallaras, but they certainly are not subtle tweaks on a theme.  Swift has thoughtfully numbered them (Just like real race cars!) as the #23, #32, and #33, and they escalate in that order from most conservative looking to most radical looking.  The #23 looks pretty much like a next-generation IndyCar could be expected to look - it's clearly a new and more "organic" looking car, but you can also see how they progressed from current to future.  The #33 looks like an ALMS car with the driver centered and sections of the fenders taken away.  The #32 looks somewhere between the two.  The kicker is that I'm actually fairly certain that these are all the same chassis, with different body cladding applied to create uniquely styled aero packages for the different types of tracks.

The #23 is the most basic design, with the least cladding.  Think of it as the speedway wing package.  The wings look like you'd expect wings to look, and the sidepods are similarly traditional.  It looks like it is designed to minimize drag for maximum speed.  This, I suspect, is the Swift you would see at Indianapolis.  I like it.  It's a good blend of the current basic formula with a more current organic shape, with some interesting curves and swoops without being garish.  It incorporates the current trend of high bracing around the driver's head, to protect them from debris in an accident.  One thing I didn't like about the Champ Car Panoz DP-01 (a design I otherwise liked) was that it did not incorporate some of these features.  Granted, with no oval racing, it wasn't as pressing, but it has become the standard for a reason.  All in all, if this was all Swift had, it would be a solid design.

And to give you an idea of what the #23 could look like at Indy, the nice folks at Swift have thoughtfully provided a conceptual image.  You know, just in case you were wondering.  You can see what I mean here by a more organic shape.  The rippling of the rear wing mimics some of the other major formula cars from around the world (like Swift's own Formula Nippon design).

The #32 car is the car that seems to me to be the short oval and perhaps road course package.  It features much more wheel protection to avoid interlocking wheels sending cars into the fence.  Fans of Ryan Briscoe know that this is a major focal point for the IRL when considering their options.  This car is more radical looking in a number of ways.  Those mini nose-cones ahead of the front wheels are definitely a new look, and the extended sidepods are also a fairly major change.  The center of the chassis looks fundamentally the same, but the rear wing is also a big departure.  It looks to me like the extended sidepods are cladding that fit over the existing sidepods from the #23, and are in unit with the alternate rear wing.  While wheel to wheel contact would still be a bad idea, it might result in a spin, rather than a ride into the fence.  I do like the idea of a car that is re-configurable to look very different depending on venue.  It solves the problem of wanting an entirely new car for each set of tracks without having to actually run three different chassis designs.

The #33 is where things get a little weirder.  It takes the radical look of the #32, and removes the rest of what we currently identify as an IndyCar.  This is the one that made me think of an ALMS car with fender pieces removed and the driver centered.  I don't know where this fits in.  Is this the road course car?  Is this an entirely different option to be considered separately from the other two?  It still appears to be the same basic tub suspension package.  It certainly dials the "radical" factor up a bit.

Three other features that are common to all three designs bear mentioning.  Take a look at the engine covers on all three.  See how they're notably not there?  Yup.  According to Casper Van der Schoot, Swift’s director of motorsports, “IndyCar fans love to see the engines and mechanical bits normally shielded behind bodywork.  These concepts incorporate retro styling cues that harken to the 50s, 60s and 70s IndyCar eras.  Our wind tunnel tests have shown the engine cover has very little effect on aerodynamics compared to most other components on the car.  We saw an opportunity to showcase the engine and other ‘jewelry’ while preserving efficiency with a much smaller fairing.”  The top of the engine is covered, and there's enough fairing to offer protection should the motor let go, but fans will be able to see an actual engine in there, something that is increasingly difficult to see on both other modern race cars and today's road cars.  Open your hood.  Go ahead, I'll wait.  There, see that big piece of black plastic cladding with a logo on it?  Hint: That isn't what makes your car go.

They also plan to include what they call a "Mushroom Buster" which they already use on the Formula Nippon car.  Says Swift chief designer, Chris Norris, “The ‘busters’ sweep up the wake behind the leading car, thus improving the handling of the following car."  They include the graphic at the right that helps show the effect.  The goal, obviously, is the let the trailing car get right up on the gearbox of the leading car without losing all downforce in the turbulence of the aero wake.  This would theoretically allow for closer racing on ovals, while avoiding what we saw at Texas and Richmond last year, which was a parade run at very high speed.  It was everything some fans hate about street circuit races, without the benefit of at least seeing the cars bounce over rumble curbs or dart through a chicane.  Anything that fixes that is a winner that IRL desperately wants needs.

Third, and most difficult to get my head around, is the SwiftLights system.  “As we listened to the IZOD IndyCar Series they also challenged us to help evolve the fans’ racing experience,” Mark Page, Swift’s chief scientist said. “The Mushroom Buster will promote closer racing and passing, but we also wanted to help communicate the car’s critical information in real time to the fans.  To that end, we are pioneering a new lighting technology which we’ve dubbed ‘SwiftLights’.  SwiftLights will display car information like throttle, brake and fuel levels as well as race position.  Our light sheets are made from a 1 mm thick clear plastic which can be molded over complex shapes like an IndyCar’s bodywork. SwiftLights are light‐weight, efficient, inexpensive, safe and extremely bright.  TV‐like sheets have also been demonstrated with this technology, offering amazing possibilities for team and series sponsors.”  What this means is that common telemetry items that a broadcast might show you from time to time when focusing on one car could be displayed right on the car.  How this works competitively is up for debate, since the amount of fuel you have left is something you might not want broadcast to the driver next to you, but it's at least a fresh idea.  The more intriguing possibility is using the material to offer sponsors a more dynamic way to convey their message.

All in all, I like these designs.  While I still like some of what Dallara showed us, these designs look somehow cooler.  One of the things any racing series needs to do is generate a genuine sense of wonder in younger fans.  That's what keeps them around until they become older fans.  A 12 year old should always go a little wide-eyed when meet a real live race car driver.  When you're that age, it's right up there with astronaut on the list of cool things you want to be someday.  At least it was for me.  Part of that wonder comes from seeing the sleek and cool machines those brave drivers pilot over 200 mph.  Why do I like the Swift offerings?  Because when I look at the car below, I can't help but think, "Man, that is just so COOL!"

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Love your favorite driver? Let their sponsor know!

Since this is pretty much a racing fan site, and is not intended to be a journalistic news source (see my disclaimer), I have no problem discussing racing as a fan, impartiality be damned.  One of the reasons there are lots of good IndyCar blogs with real followings is that they let their passion for the sport shine through.  I would never say there's no place for "real" journalism, but at the same time, I'd rather read somebody's passionate opinion than an article written by a guy who doesn't care, and is just covering motor sports until they get moved up to cover football.

So speaking of IndyCar blogs with a real following, Pressdog had a great idea he posted here, which boils down to a simple idea: If you have a favorite driver, support their sponsor(s).  In his case, that means getting his household goods from Dollar General, who sponsor Sarah Fisher.  That seems simple and obvious enough, but he takes it a step further.  When you support a sponsor, mail them the receipt, with a note explaining that you support them because they support your driver!  You may think it won't matter, but with so much communication being electronic, receiving a few notes letting them know that their sponsorship dollars have yielded actual sales can't hurt.  Sure, your purchase and note won't offset the money it takes to sponsor a race team, but it's a sign that someone is paying attention, and sometimes, that will resonate with the right person at the right time.

So ... do you like Vision Racing?  Have you written them a letter of recommendation (see prior posts)?  Do you shop at Menard's because they sponsor your guy?  Let them know (politely).

If you've shopped at Menard's recently, make a copy of your receipt and send it, along with a polite note letting them know that you support the folks who help support racing, and that you appreciate what they've done to do that.  Be polite, be respectful, and be appreciative.  Sometimes, silly things get noticed and can make a difference.

ATTN: Marketing Dept
Menards Guest Services
5101 Menard Drive
Eau Claire, WI 54703

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Whatever happened to the Indy Falcon? This happened!

Is it just me?  It may just be me ...

Update on Vision's Sponsor Search

I've written about Vision Racing's search for sponsorship here.  They are leveraging their social media reach into "letters of recommendation" from fans telling sponsors why they should sponsor Vision.  Via their Twitter account, Vision sent an update, including the tongue-in-cheek resume that will accompany the letters of recommendation when they reach out to sponsors.  In the interest of not blatantly blowing away copyright, follow the links to flickr here and here.  That's a nice stack of letters, race fans!

And if you haven't written a letter, and want to support the team, here's the link to their Facebook posting about it.

Alternative Plan to a Single Chassis Provider

As you've read and seen by now, there are now a bunch of different angle images of the three Dallara 2012 chassis concepts.  The Delta Wing group will show their design on February 10.  Swift and Lola will be showing their designs in the next few weeks.  The more I see of the cars from Dallara, the more I like all three.  They all have angles that make them look fantastic, and I really would like to see all three on a race track.  Even the most radical one (the bright red one) looks fast and exciting.  Having seen cars from Swift and Lola for other series (in particular, Swift's Formula Nippon car), I have no doubt they will bring some interesting designs to the party.  The Delta Wing could go either way, and anticipation is certainly high.  But we keep hearing that the IRL and the various builders all want to go the single-supplier route, in order to keep costs down.

The quick version of why is that by supplying the whole field, a manufacturer can charge a given price for the chassis and still make money.  For every entry that doesn't buy their chassis from that supplier, they need to charge more in order to make the same money.  If they supply half the field, they need to charge twice as much.  The math isn't exact, but you get the idea.  I understand this, and as long as there is engine competition, I can certainly live with a single chassis, if it's a good one and fosters exciting racing.  I do wish there was a way to have multiple designs, though, particularly now that we're seeing a bunch of really cool concepts being presented.  Along those lines, I have an idea for how manufacturers can make money while still containing costs in a multi-chassis environment.  One common point for all of the chassis proposals (Dallara, Swift, Lola, and the Delta Wing group) is that the cars will be built in central Indiana, either right in Speedway, or at least in the region.  That's certainly a real outlay of cash up front.

So why not follow the engine-builder model?  Cosworth builds race engines based on or badged by a variety of manufacturers, including at various points Chevrolet, Ford, Mercedes, and Mazda.  AER has had similar arrangements.  If chassis manufacturers want to build chassis for the IRL, let them help fund a manufacturing facility in Indiana (something they've already expressed a willingness to do), and have that factory serve as the factory for all IRL-approved chassis.  That way the IRL has a single point of production through which all chassis must pass, making it easier to ensure that no safety corners are cut, and it bring jobs to Indiana and alleviates the currency exchange rate problems with the current chassis.  That factory could then produce chassis for multiple manufacturers.  It would absolutely increase costs for the factory to have tooling for multiple designs, but they would save costs by effectively outsourcing R&D to the designers (Dallara, Swift, etc).  Those designers have a mitigated up-front cost (only pay part of the cost of setting up the factory), and then remove themselves from managing the factory, which will by definition be far removed from their primary facilities.  They then get a cut from the sale of each chassis.  They also then have some access to an assembly plant in Indiana, which makes it cheaper if they want to get involved in other US motor sports formats (F2000, ALMS, Grand-Am, etc).  The factory gets its cut, but isn't in the business of designing race cars, so they become a contract manufacturer who can (over time) develop relationships with other motor sports companies that have the design know-how, but lack the facilities of funding to manufacture their product on the necessary scale.  Under this system, the designers would still benefit from some of the economies of scale that they would have as the sole supplier, and mitigate some of the up-front costs.  The IRL still gets to deal with a single point of manufacturing that is local to them.  The Indianapolis community gets a new factory that increases the city's role as one of the capitals of American motor sports.  Best of all, IndyCar fans get to see multiple chassis without driving costs through the roof.

I'm almost certain I'm missing a big, glaring reason why this just wouldn't work, or at least wouldn't produce the effect I want.  I also haven't addressed would would own the factory in Indiana.  This isn't intended to be a complete proposal.  I'm hoping some folks can comment and point out the flaws, because otherwise this idea is going to stick in my head and really bother me.  Comment away!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Staggering Work of Pure Fantasy

2015 IZOD IndyCar Championship
Phoenix 300
St. Petersburg GP
Sao Paolo Indy GP
Long Beach GP
Kansas 300
Indianapolis 500
Texas 400
Milwaukee 300
Iowa 250
Cleveland GP
Watkins Glen GP
Toronto Indy GP
Edmonton Indy GP
New England 300
Richmond 250
Kentucky 300
Michigan 500
Chicagoland 300
Road America GP
Mid-Ohio GP
Homestead 300
Las Vegas 300
Portland GP
Sonoma GP
California 500

The 2015 IZOD IndyCar Championship will feature 25 races from early spring through mid fall.  It will open and close on classic American ovals, and will be grouped by type throughout, so teams can focus on one format for several races, rather than changing the entire car week to week.  This grouped structure will also encourage part-time drivers to run more than just the Indy 500.

It will feature 14 races on oval tracks, with a mix of short tracks, speedways, and super speedways, each with both low-banked and high-banked tracks.

The 5 natural terrain road courses offer a mix of both flowing high-speed tracks and tight, technical sources. 

The 6 street circuits mix classic tight street racing venues with wide-open airport races contested on the wide runways of public airfields.
The three 500-mile races will comprise an IndyCar Triple Crown, offering a bonus to any driver who can sweep the three races.

The Indianapolis 500 will retain its traditional Memorial Day date, while the Michigan 500 will fill the Labor Day spot, and the California 500 will fill the role of season finale.

Contesting this championship season will be 30 full-time efforts, running chassis that share a common safety tub, but are otherwise the products of Dallara, Swift, Lola, Panoz, and a lone entry in a Cheever-Coyote (go ahead, guess which team).  They will run engines designed or badged by Honda, Toyota, Chevrolet, Ford, BMW, and Volkswagen, in partnership with engine tuning houses Cosworth, Ilmor, AER, Roush, Childress, and Menard.  The cars will be shod with either Firestone or Goodyear tires.

With the recovering economy and the increasing ratings on the Versus network (which is now available in as many homes as ESPN) sponsors have seen potential in the series, which has allowed teams to (mostly) hire drivers without considering what sponsorship they might bring. This has led to a resurgence in the level of American talent in the IndyCar ranks to compete with the many international stars in the series.

Of particular note this year is the stunning move of three-time World Champion Fernando Alonso to the IndyCar Championship, taking the Target Chip Ganassi seat manned until last year by two-time Indy 500 winner and 2-time IndyCar Champion Dario Franchitti, who this year will join the broadcast crew for the Indy 500.

Sometimes I see a lot of doom and gloom from fellow IndyCar fans, and I just need to focus on potential and fun.  That's what this has been.  Just a lark.  Fernando Alonso is not in fact coming to race at the Indy 500.  Sorry!

2012 Dallara?

The Delta Wing chassis concept is set to be unveiled next week at the Chicago Auto Show.  And now, with no fanfare, we have (leaked?) images of the 2012 Dallara concept(s).  I say concept(s) because apparently there are three of them.  To wit:

The first car (we'll call it Maroon) looks the most like the current Dallara IndyCar chassis.  It looks to me like someone took the current car, smoothed out a lot of edges, and pulled the airbox.  It also reminds me of the ill-fated Falcon IRL chassis.  I don't dislike it, but it also doesn't set my blood a-boil, if you catch my drift.  It's ... nice.

The second car (we'll call it Yellow) seems like the safest pick, stylistically.  It's different enough from the current car that there's a clear and obvious change.  It's also similar enough to not be jarring.  It does look a little bit like a Panoz DP-01 with an airbox, or like a World Series by Renault car - in other words, it's a single-seat open-wheel formula car from the last 25 years.  It you polled fans, assigning points for first, second, and third place votes, the Yellow car might win on the strength of lots of second place votes.

The third car (we'll call it Red) is definitely the most radical pick of the bunch.  To be frank, it looks like what I thought the Delta Wing chassis might look like.  It was initially the one I liked the least, but as I've looked at them all more closely (you might say I've been gazing longingly at them - yes, I'm deeply troubled, and yes, I'm OK with that), it's grown on me  I think the aero pods ahead of the front wheels threw me off at first.  One immediate concern is that there doesn't seem to be much in the way of crush space on either side of the driver, but I would imagine that Dallara thought of that.

There are a few key common elements across the three chassis.  The shrouding around the rear wheels make it far tougher to lock wheels on an oval, which is one of the things that car trigger a truly spectacular wreck on an oval.  The wheels interlocking is what can send a car airborne, and once up they can really fly.  So clearly that was a priority.  The Red car in particular really blocks the wheels off.  While none of the three copies the "rolling billboard" model of NASCAR, they also present a better sponsor logo surface.  Maroon adds the dorsal fin while retaining the flat sidepods, Yellow carries a sloping sidepod all the way up to the cockpit opening, and Red has flat sidepods and a seemingly very broad top surface that could sport some really grabbing graphics.

My take?  Of these three, Yellow and Red go back and forth as my favorite.  I could go for either.  I want to like the Red car, but I'm just not sure.  My dream scenario?  Those three cars, with major sponsors on the sides, as the front row of the 2012 Indy 500.  Unfortunately, that's just never going to happen.

Oh, and one caveat.  These are supposedly legitimate - TrackSide Online has them up, and they are usually very good and checking this stuff out.  That said, who knows?  Somebody might be punking IndyCar fans.  So there it is ...

Now bring on the Delta Wing!  And the Swift and Lola concepts!  And even better, let's see them all race!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

CEO and DRR, E-I-E-I-O

The two big IndyCar announcements so far this week are:

1.) Randy Bernard is the new CEO of the Indy Racing League.  If you haven't heard, Mr. Bernard's last gig was as the CEO of Professional Bull Riders (PBR).  He has helmed that organization since 1995, and has taken it from a small group of cowboys to a national touring series with title sponsorship from Ford, international events in Brazil (where many of their riders are from), and a TV contract with Versus.  So there might be some expertise there that the IRL can use.  Or maybe the Indy 500 will be paced by a bull.  One or the other.  I'm bullish on this choice (OK, I'll stop now) because what the IRL needs more than anything is someone who has a proven track record of promoting a niche sport and making it profitable for the participants.  He also has the added benefit of not having been in racing from 1996 through 2007, so he not only doesn't have a side in the never-ending and annoying "Split" arguments - he may not even be aware there's a argument going on.  So if anyone can rope these teams (sorry, did it again) into a herd (I'm sorry!) and get them moving up the trail (Doh!) toward a common goal, it might just be this guy.  He addresses IndyCar fans here:

2.) Justin Wilson and Mike Conway have been announced as Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's two drivers for 2010.  Wilson is a proven winner, and Conway is a proven customer of Dallara's spare parts service.  Seriously, by the time this season is over, Justin Wilson will be sixth in points with one win, and Conway will have left a Dad's Root Beer decal at the exit of turn four at every track he's seen.  In all seriousness, this is a great pairing.  After a couple of years of piecing together a team from a group of partial-schedule drivers and Milka Duno, it looks like DRR will go into 2010 as a funded two-car effort with a pair of talented drivers, one of whom is probably a championship-level talent.  Where this leaves Dale Coyne, we don't know.  A week ago, the prevailing assumption was that DCR was working on a two-car effort with Wilson coming back.  Now, it looks like a one-car effort with the Boy Scouts entry.  And we don't know how funded that ride actually is.  Stay tuned.