It wasn't what many participants and fans were hoping to see – the return of full-on competition among several chassis manufacturers – but, given the circumstances, it was perhaps the best compromise available to the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Instead of presenting a rules package that opened the way to head-to-head competition between chassis builders like Swift, Lola, BAT and Dallara, the Indy Racing League instead chose a base Dallara chassis while allowing other manufacturers to get involved through aero kits featuring the car's wings, sidepods and engine cover.
The plan didn't knock anyone over, but it was generally deemed the best possible conciliation for a series saddled with a bad case of spec. Dallara's long-term relationship with the series – and plans announced Wednesday that the Italian firm will build a plant not far from Indianapolis Motor Speedway – sealed the fate of the others who submitted plans to build the next generation of IndyCar chassis.
It wasn't so much a choice as an arrangement, but that doesn't mean it's a bad arrangement.
The IRL's seven-member ICONIC board had to narrow the final decision with nods to cost containment, safety, speed and design appeal. The heaviest weight – cost containment – led the board to choose a $349,000 base chassis with aero kits limited to $70,000 each. The total price is somewhere around 40 percent less than a current Dallara chassis, but still a hefty piece of coin. Cheap enough to entice more to join?
“People need to remember we're a spec series now by default,” said Brian Barnhart, the Indy Racing League's director of operations and racing competition and a member of the ICONIC panel. “We didn't choose a spec tire when we had Goodyear and Firestone competing; Goodyear left the series. And we had Panoz and Dallara competing on the chassis side (shown at left, in 2003), and Panoz left the series. And we had Toyota and Chevrolet and Honda, and two of those left the series. We ended up where we are now by default, not by choice.
"The benefit that comes from that is we were able to reduce the cost somewhat because there's no R&D. There's no need to recover some of those costs. So when you get the whole field, economies of scale, you're able to reduce costs somewhat and that's certainly helped us. But you also become a stale series at that point. There is no innovation. There is no competition.”
Precisely the point. While not terribly radical, the new aero kit received a moderately enthusiastic response Wednesday from an overflow crowd in the Toby Theater at the Indiana Museum of Art. The biggest cheers, though, were saved for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' announcement about Dallara's new plant just blocks from IMS in Speedway, Ind., creating about 80 jobs for Indianapolis' beleaguered manufacturing and racing industries.
“This industry is coming home to the state where it was born,” Daniels said.
But what, exactly, was beneath the glitz of Wednesday's art museum dog-and-pony show? Some sanity, perhaps, and a clever business deal coupled with a great deal of risk. The chassis plan is an attempt to draw other manufacturers into a form of racing criticized heavily for its limited appeal and spec underpinnings. Dallara essentially has been IndyCar's sole chassis manufacturer since Panoz pulled factory support after the 2006 season, and Dallara's current IC3 chassis has been in use since 2003, an eternity in the life of a racecar. The new chassis/aero kit proposal will be married to a previously announced 2.4-liter turbocharged engine format that's hoped to give Honda some competition when the new combination starts racing in 2012. The plan is a veiled attempt to return open-wheel racing to what once was – a racing series in which multiple manufacturers used innovation as a competitive weapon. In short, a series in which the vehicles are distinguishable.
“Clearly the fans want to see different looks on the racetrack,” Barnhart said. “They want to see competition out there. Historically, competition drives costs up. What we really feel great about from a committee standpoint is that we are opening this up to anyone who wants to build aero kits, yet at the same time we've accomplished reducing the cost of participation. We think it's the best of both worlds – bringing costs down, creating great value in the series, yet at the same time allowing for competition and what the fans want to see, different-looking cars on the racetrack.”
The upside is that drivers and engineers will likely get something close to what they requested – a racier, faster format – that could prove enticing to multiple manufacturers. The downside is that many of the top IndyCar teams, which have no motivation to contain costs, are likely to build their own aero kits, thus widening the fissure between the haves and have-nots.
Also, the difficulty of selling the aero kit idea to the four builders who just got overlooked might prove insurmountable. The ICONIC board tried to hedge that hesitation by allowing the kit builders to become the badge. Yes, a Dallara with a Lola kit will, indeed, be referred to as a Lola. But the plan is also aimed at automotive and aerospace companies that might not be interested in producing an entire racecar in this flat-tire economy.
“Come on Ford, GM, Lotus, Ferrari. Come on Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Electric,” said Tony Purnell, founder of Pi Research and one of the seven members of the ICONIC board. “Come on you engineers working in your garages or small shops. We've done our best to provide a framework for all of you to showcase your technical prowess without a need for a major raid on your piggy banks.”
Tentative responses to the plan mostly centered on the speed with which it will need to be accomplished – although Barnhart said the 2012 deadline isn't unmeetable – and the suspicion that races will be, initially anyway, heavy with Dallara kits. And, while some predicted the league's best teams – namely Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi – would only get stronger under such a format, primarily by building their own kits, others said the new format opens the door for the smaller operators both on and off the track.
“It's a great way for the series to grow in the direction it needs to grow,” IndyCar Series points leader will Power said. “The cars will evolve into what should be the best configuration. It makes it interesting. Every year, teams and manufacturers are going to come out with something new. I think that's pretty cool.”
As for the controversial, futuristic DeltaWing design that found grass-roots support among some team owners, fans and even journalists? Well, maybe next time.
“The DeltaWing was a radical car,” Purnell said. “When you step out, you're that brave, you take risks. A car like that's never been done before. From the series standpoint we had to think very carefully on many factors – safety was certainly one – and the fact that the whole series depended on us making a choice that would race, no question, in 2012.”
This choice, while not nearly as mind-blowing as the DeltaWing, appears to be much more feasible.