Motorsports Commentary - Holy Moly Batman, We're Not In Open-Wheel Racing Anymore!
Austin, Apr. 6, 2012: After my initial op-ed, related to IndyCar's semi open-wheel car, I decided to give the series a break. Hey, I'm not a complete a-hole, and figured that perhaps the car's looks would grow on me, even though the roller's transgender, 'Godzilla Eats New York' styling continued to irritate me, and particularly when it was schlepping around the beautiful natural terrain circuit at Barber Park.
Regardless, I decided to watch critically as the series launched at Birmingham, and aside from the car's obvious, and intrinsic, inability to create substantive front bite, thereby creating all kinds of balance havoc for drivers and engineers last weekend, in general, the racing was okay. I would say, that the experience was sort of like dancing with your sister; all form, no substance, and not too terrible once it's over.
However, on Monday, I got a press release from IndyCar, trumpeting their new oval aero kit, and to be blunt, when I saw the new rear wing application my head nearly exploded, followed by an immediate verbal response on the order of 'What the Hell IS that?'
Once I settled down, it occurred to me sadly that, as if the series hadn't already perverted the spirit of the open-wheel discipline enough, the boneheads in Indy intended to double-down on the 'Gee, open wheels are even more scary on ovals' premise, by further enclosing the car's already ridiculous rear wheel structure, plus adding cute little vertical stabilizers, on the top of the cap either side of an articulated hi/low wing box.
Now, there can only be one of four reasons for this kind of configuration; the car's intrinsic stability is suspect across the chassis' long moment, so the car tends to 'hunt' and lose balance at high-speed, further drag reduction was required to help the turbo V6 pedal hard enough to produce 'reasonable' top speeds, the 'safety politzi' had decided that the probability of rear wheel contact was STILL going to be too much for them to bear, or all the above.
In the event, the folks at IndyCar confirmed it all by saying, "The cars will be run in Speedway configuration with the new rear-wheel guards that are taller (my Italics), lighter and have a slightly different shape than the sets being used on the road/street circuits and the oval races at Texas Motor Speedway, Iowa Speedway and the Milwaukee Mile."
This statement was followed by, "The rear-wheel guard/wings work in combination with the other bodywork to create less drag and more downforce. Minimum car weight will be 1,535 pounds (excluding driver and driver equivalency weight). The Dallara-designed and produced components were tested in winter in both scale model and full size in the wind tunnel at the Auto Research Center in North Carolina in conjunction with INDYCAR in response to lap speeds and handling deemed inadequate in testing at the Speedway...."
Now that the early week practical test regarding the aforementioned specifications has been completed, here are some follow-up driver comments, and the phrase 'damning by faint praise," comes to mind:
Tony Kannan: "It felt faster than the (previous) test that we did. I went out of the pits and went flat out right away, so I have to say that the aero kit is definitely a little bit better.
JR Hilderbrand: "We feel all right about the stability and all of that kind of stuff with the car, and it's just a matter of seeing where the speed kind of ends up once we get going", and; "I don't think any of us really know what the hot setup around this place is going to be with this car because things have been changing so quickly from an aerodynamic standpoint and all that kind of stuff."
Scott Dixon: "I'm still getting used to it a bit, I think. It definitely looks really low and kind of streamlined in some ways, but I think when you actually physically see the car compared to the cars last year, they physically look quite a bit bigger."
Now, lets be fair, what else could they say? These guys are going to have to race IndyCar's 'le grand porc" (oink, oink, wink, wink) all season, and given the already weak business value of the series at a revenue production level, their rice bowls would be further threatened by any obvious desire to rock the boat.
As for me, I have no such constraint, and I have had a number of readers, friends and colleagues ask me why I hate the new car so much. Therefore, I owe them a response, so here goes. Top-tier open-wheel racing should be executed on the basis of courage, guile, intellect, stamina, and athletic performance driven by technical innovation, in order to deliver a traditional speed-oriented sports value - not economic chicanery masked by a faux-sensitive concern for its participants.
Now, I am not blood-thirsty, nor do I like seeing drivers hurt or killed in racing. However, the emotional value of open-wheel, and motorsports in general, is based on athletes managing significant risks at speed, not watching them regularly fail tragically in the midst of balls of fire and flying carbon fiber. As a result, the empirical truth is that, given the 100 years worth of available statistics in context of the evolved technologies involved, open-wheel racing, as practiced for a century was ALREADY safe, or as safe as it could be, given the dynamics involved. So why purposely screw the pooch by altering the central value of the traditional 'open wheel' design, by enclosing half of the wheels inside some kind of Rube Goldberg body-structure?
As cynical as it may seem, in my view, once the IRL decided that they were more interested in keeping The Speedway and the Hulman-George family solvent, rather than actually intending to 'protect America's open-wheel heritage,' the series became less and less 'protective of history' and more about boiling beans on the bottom line.
When my Dad took me to the Speedway for the first time in 1964, there were all kinds of cars on the track and I loved them all. Some of them made clear engineering sense like venerable Offy's and Novi's, mixed in with the then new rear-engine cars like Chapman's Lotus', and on the other hand some didn't, like Mickey Thompson's mid-engine "Sears - Allstate Special,' which was so unstable that it ended up killing Dave McDonald and Eddie Sachs, more due to Thompson's bull-headedness about continuing to commit his driver to a bad design that looked 'cool', rather than simply accepting that a 1964 Indy opportunity was not going to be in the cards that year. But, good or bad, odd or brilliant, technical innovation was everywhere in US open-wheel until 1996, when Tony George purposely pulled the trigger on the CART/IRL war. Once that balloon went up, chassis developers like Lola, Penske, Reynard, Trusport-Rahal, and Gurney-Eagle, who had always had a home in US open-wheel racing, suddenly found themselves looking down the barrel of a commercial gun.
During the preceding decades, no designer, nor the sanctioning body itself, dared to challenge the premise of 'open wheels,' whether is was rationalized on the basis of 'safety,' or otherwise. Then, in 1997, George, and his minion Brian Barnhart, changed the IRL's rules to demand a spec-formula based on drastic cost-cutting. This decision left traditional chassis manufacturers adrift, since a central component of their businesses had always been driven by the art of engineering going forward, not staying static or reverting to the past. So, one by one they left, or were pushed, from the IRL community. The void, of course, allowed smaller chassis manufacturers to come to the fore like G-Force, Panoz and Dallara, however, the newly adopted 'spec-racing' aspect continued to errode the sporting value of IRL/IndyCar racing to the degree that, by 2005, only Dallara remained.
Now I freely admit that I cannot prove anything regarding how the Dallara came to be the nextgen 'kindler, gentler' IndyCar, since no one in the IRL community will ever talk seriously about the rationalizations that lead to the decision and application of the car's ultimately grotesque configuration when designs were being considered by the ICONIC Committee, but my guess is that what actually happened had more to do with money, rather than safety. After all, Lola and Swift produced true, and entirely credible, open-wheel variants. However, from the start, everyone was 'leaking' information about a Dallara candidate, even though the Italian manufacturer was vacillating about a bid, and hadn't even delivered a rendering until late in the proceedings. Instead, what we got was a quick 3D representation of what appeared to be 'something like' a design proposal. Regardless, in the end, Dallara got the contract, but in the first available clay iteration, the car strangely defined both the spirit and the letter of previous Barnhart comments about the potential of nearly enclosing the entire rear-wheel structure.
So, in looking at what was said, versus what actually happened, my guess is that the league needed to save some additional money, and the way they chose to do that, was to craft an extension to the current Dallara agreement that included doing exactly what Barnhart and his cronies told them to build, so they could publically announce the articulation of an enhanced IRL safety message in the form of a 'safer' racecar and, thereby, reduce the league's commercial liability costs. In return, the Italian's would recover their money on the backend by an exclusive multi-year relationship. Of course, this hypothetical accepts an assertion that the new car would be throwing away 100 years worth of traditional 'open-wheel' design, but no worry, business is, after all business - right?
Aside from the excitement of the sport itself, there is always significant business risk and rampant politics in professional motorsports, but just like businesses in other industries, often times these external elements combine to produce a loss of value without even knowing it. In the case of the 2012 Dallara, I believe that what we're losing is the 'soul' or 'zeitgeist' of open-wheel, when we should be protecting a treasured and traditional engineering form, not because of lines on a blueprint, fears of organizers, or numbers on an accounting ledger, but because once one compromises the 'truth' of a thing it stops being what it is, and becomes something else entirely. That's why the old saying opines, 'Be careful what you ask for.'