Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why I Like Randy Bernard

Why I'm excited for the Randy Bernard era of IndyCar racing:

Mr. Bernard's previous job was as CEO of a sport where competitors climb onto the backs of one-ton beasts bred for rage and aggression.  They then tie themselves onto that beast by one hand, and try to stay on for eight second while it does everything in its power to buck the rider off and then stomp them.  If they get into trouble, the safety team is wearing clown makeup.

I'm certainly not trying to belittle bull-riding, and I realize this is an overly simple description, but I think you get the idea.  This is not a guy who will be shy about wheel-to-wheel oval racing.  On the day Randy Bernard started work in Indianapolis, the odds of oval racing fading from the sport went down, and the odds of seeing a new track record at Indy in the next ten years went up.

He may not be a racer, but he knows how to promote action-paced and exciting sports entertainment to the American public, and right now, that is what IndyCar needs more than anything.

Teams on the Rise

Well, we're here!  As I write this, IndyCar qualifying in Sao Paulo starts in about 90 minutes.  The TSO crew on the ground down there is reporting that cars are all over the damn place as the try to put power down through the Sambadrome section.  The back straight is roughly 347 miles long, and ends in a hairpin.  Basically, this could be a really run and really expensive street race - and a really lucrative one for Dallara.  I admit, I can't wait!

Before we go green on the season, I wanted to just give a tip of the hat to a few teams that appear to be on the rise heading into 2010.  With Ganassi and Penske likely to dominate again, especially on the ovals, it's worth noting that a few teams have made real strides, and the road courses this year could be wide-open affairs.  So here are four teams that I think deserve some recognition, in no particular order.

de Ferran Luczo Dragon Racing: Can we please come up with a shortened version other than dFLDR?  How about Dragon?  Dragons are cool.  Yeah, I'm going with Dragon.  Adding Gil de Ferran to the ownership and management, bringing in Davey Hamilton as a second driver for select races, and signing HP as their primary sponsor are all great signs.  Matos has won at every level, and Davey is quick on ovals.  With HP came a couple of solid associate sponsors (Bell Micro is a big HP vendor).  I wouldn't be at all surprised if they run two cars full-time next year, with Davey in a third car at Indy.

Sarah Fisher Racing: Sarah just continues to build her effort in a solid conservative way.  Stepping out of the car for St. Pete and Barber in favor of Graham Rahal not only was a boon for the series; it showed that Sarah is looking long-term, trying to build a successful team rather than just a vehicle (no pun intended) for her driving career.  I think we may all look back in five years and realize we were watching the next Ganassi-style operation being built, and not in the least bit kidding.  Yeah, they won't be super-quick this season, but I think Rahal's time in the car will go a long way toward showing how far the team has come.  Maybe they aren't quite on par with the other three teams here, but given where they started, what they've done is nothing short of an American small business success story.

KV Racing Technology: In a few months, this team has gone from two cars, to one car, to maybe one car, to two cars, to three cars, to maybe four cars.  Yikes!  Heck, they may run five at Indy with Sato, Viso, Moraes, Tracy, and Rossiter!  Not a bad resurrection on the fly for a team that was in real trouble this off-season.  The only caveat is that of the teams on this list, this is the one I would be least surprised to see right back in a state of flux going into 2011.  I can't pin down why, other than a sense that when so many balls all land together at the last moment, things are never as stable as they look.  But, if they win a couple of races, who knows?  Winning makes everybody happy!

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing: Over the last few years, this team has patched together two cars from a collection of six or seven drivers.  No stability, no consistency, no real plan, and no results.  Now they have two full-time drivers (one a race winner, the other returning for a second year), two primary sponsors (both coming back for a second season in IndyCar), and a real chance for results.  And let's be honest, we're all rooting for a win here not just because Justin Wilson is a hell of a nice guy, or because Conway had such terrible luck last year.  It's because we all want to hear Robbie Buhl have a "private moment" on the air.  In fact, if D&R wins one of the ABC races, I'll feel monumentally cheated.

There you go.  I know, none of these teams will be title contenders in 2010.  Probably not in 2011 either.  But I think they all have a chance for a surprising result this season, and I think three of them could win a race, given the right circumstances.  If Andretti Autosport wants to reassert itself as one of the Big 3, they'll need to deal with these teams, particularly KV and D&R.

Friday, March 5, 2010

It's the engine, stupid!

Excuse the Bill Clinton reference in the title, but I had a quick thought on the DeltaWing proposal.  No, stay with me.  Hey, no, put down the gun.  Really, no!  This won't be that bad!  Whew, close one!

Perhaps the most often heard comment on the DeltaWing is, "I wonder if they can apply some of the principles from the DeltaWing to some of the other chassis designs."  Basically, can you rework the Swift to be based on the open-source model, or could the Dallara be changed to embrace the fuel-flow regulation model of controlling speeds?

Some of these could maybe work - the fuel regulation seems fairly straightforward - but others are so fundamentally different that I just can't see a chassis design company like Swift suddenly deciding to open-source their work.

The single biggest advantage I see to the DeltaWing, though, is that it solves the problem of how to let multiple engine manufacturers run very different engine configurations.  I said the fuel-flow regulation model might be applicable to other chassis, but it goes well beyond that.  By no longer requiring the engine to be a stressed member of the chassis (unlike pretty much every top-rung formula car of the last three plus decades), it is far cheaper to supply engines for the car.  In fact, the engine cost is one of the biggest areas of cost savings under the DeltaWing plan!  Without that fundamental difference, the DeltaWing would not be such a radically cheaper chassis.  It also (in concert with the proposed fuel-regulation system) allows teams to install basically any internal combustion engine that will fit in the engine bay.  Inline-4, V6, V8, straight-6, flat-4.  If it fits, it flies.

So why don't the other designers go this route?  I'm not an engineer, but looking at the other designs, they all look like the engine is a pretty major part of the rear end.  I would be shocked if the Dallara, Swift, Lola, and BAT designs don't use the engine as a stressed member.  That not only means that the engines are much more expensive to produce, but that they must conform to a much tighter set of dimensions, which basically puts you back in a position of mandating a particular layout, and soliciting bids.  Sure, maybe you end up with Honda, Lotus, and Volkswagen all supplying a turbo 4 engine, and that's certainly a ton more competition than the IRL has now, but it's way less than you could have in the DeltaWing, and it's way more expensive.

As I've said numerous times when discussing the DeltaWing, I am not convinced that it's the right direction, but to consider it without giving plenty of attention to the engine portion of the puzzle is to miss a major advantage of the plan.

It's all about the product, right?

Dallara (in maroon, yellow, and red), Swift (in #23, 32, and 33 configurations), Lola (with two body kits), and DeltaWing.  And now the BAT.  I'll bet you thought I'd join the other IndyCar bloggers in discussing the BAT.  I was going to, but while I was trying to come up with something original to say, perhaps about how the BAT chassis could encourage close racing, it hit me.  There's another chassis out there that produces amazing racing, is an open-wheel design, can be configured to run a variety of engines, and is well known to IndyCar teams.  It's the current Dallara!  Stay with me, there really is a point here, I promise.

What has the IndyCar brand been all about since about 1999?  Insanely close wheel-to-wheel and nose-to-tail racing on oval tracks.  Sure, they've added a lot of road racing, and certainly improving the road racing product should be a goal for the 2012 chassis, but I'm getting just a little sick of hearing folks complain about the current chassis and engine package.  So much of the problems seen last year had to do with aerodynamic add-ons that were implemented to control speeds.  What happened when the IRL finally admitted they had a problem and pulled the wickers off for Kentucky, giving some bodywork control back to the teams?  This.

Pretty fun, huh?  Kind of got you blood pumping for the 2010 season?  Guess what happened when they got to Chicagoland with the same loosened aero rules?  This.

I know they can't run the current chassis forever, and like any race fan I'm always interested in new and different race cars.  But lest you read a bunch of press releases from chassis designers, and think that the current Dallara is a pile of crud, just remember that those releases are all sales pitches.

Had the IRL loosened the aero rules after Kansas last year, the last ten laps at Indy would have been an amazing three-way duel between Helio, Wheldon, and Danica.  Yes, a Penske driver going for his third win, a Panther driver going for his second, and Danica in an Andretti machine going for the win that would have the 500 in the headlines for months.  Think that might have fun?  Just a little bit?  Texas would have been its usual insane self, and Iowa and Richmond would have been great bullring races.  Taken in that context, the exciting race at Toronto and Justin Wilson's popular win for Dale Coyne at the Glen would have added up to an amazing season.  If only the IRL had taken their damn hands off the cars just a little earlier.  When officials keep their hands off the chassis, and don't micro-manage, the racing can absolutely stop your breath.

There are many many reasons why a new (and cheaper) chassis would be a good thing.  I'm as excited as anyone, and love the discussions of the different options.  But I think it's worth pausing to consider what a great race car the Dallara is.  It's a strong, safe chassis that has produced close, exciting racing well beyond its intended lifespan.  It deserve a special place in Indy racing history, and Dallara should be applauded for their engineering.

So I have only one question: Who else can't wait until they get to Kansas in a little over a month?