We offered RACER.com readers the chance to send in questions for IndyCar's president of operations and competition, Derrick Walker, and…well, you jumped on it. The result was overwhelming, and as Derrick himself remarked, “It's great to see how many people care, and they're asking the right questions, too – the same ones we're asking and aiming to answer in the coming years.”
The depth and variety of your inquiries means that we're running these by topic over the next few days, starting with the thorny issue of escaping the spec car era and what potential consequences there may be.
• How important will it be to police the amount of downforce a car/kit can make?
DW: It will be very important, because we all understand how much downforce could be generated by changing these body panels. If you're going to add a lot of downforce, then you need to make sure the rest of the car can handle it and that it doesn't create other issues and I'm referring to both power and reliability. If we're increasing the amount of load that components have to take, we'll find we're increasing the chances of failure if those components have only been built to a certain limit. Power, of course, is a big concern: these cars have to be demanding to drive, and too much downforce and not enough power could lead us back to pack racing.
But there's another matter unaccounted for, and that's the reduced lift that we're trying to achieve. If we go down the road of reducing the floor surface area and therefore reduce the downforce created by the floor, then we may be moving the downforce to a different place. If we've left the wings open (it's not fully defined yet as to whether they're part of the kit), then that is another area that will have to be very closely monitored, so calculating and policing the overall downforce level will be a very tricky equation, but one we will complete.
• What important lesson did you learn from the Texas debacle?
DW: I don't believe that race's outcome would have been any different if we'd thrown another 100 or 200 pounds of downforce on. To really fix the Texas situation and improve the racing that night, we needed to do something different that wasn't possible to do over the course of a race weekend. Personally, I think last year's race and this year's race at Texas were very similar and, depending on whose numbers you believe, we weren't that far off last year's downforce levels. What's important to remember is that last year there were yellows that bunched everybody back up, whereas this year, everybody got strung out and no one could catch back up. If there had been a late yellow, you might have seen a different finish, but I don't think the quality of the race was much different from last year.
The way to solve the issue is to have more time testing in those conditions at Texas with exactly the components we want. For example, the underbody change was done after testing at Texas but the test was carried out in different temperatures and there weren't several cars testing together. One car testing alone didn't feel that different compared with how it felt in 2012. Meanwhile, the tires were developed and tested at Fontana and they were a good tire there. So we took the tire and the new downforce package and put them together and said, basically, “1 + 2 = 3, it should work.” But we hadn't tested exactly that package in exactly those conditions to find out what might be the weaknesses, especially on long runs. So in hindsight, there were things we should have done but didn't.
• Our great sport is a financial mess and it takes $$$ to race but somehow speed and innovation at Indy need to be bought back. My only answer is that the innovation needs to be related to road cars. I believe in you because you are a racer from both sides and I wish IndyCar, yourself and Mark Miles all the luck in the world. I'm a fan for life.
DW: I think you're right in that it would be crazy to not relate the innovation we introduce to the way road cars of the future are going. So-called “green technology” is an issue we will need to address as we aim to keep our sport relevant while the world's resources are being reduced. Any racing series that isn't embracing that reality is missing the boat. Since 2012, we already have more road car-relevant engines, the small-capacity turbo units, but as I mentioned in Detroit, we need to be looking at the 2019 regulations to open up the rules and make the tech even more relevant. And, Javier, you're also right in that this would take us back to our future: how the Indianapolis tradition was formed was in proving new technology. In the old days, it wasn't about saving the world's resources, it was simply about out-thinking and overpowering the opposition. But even though the motives are different, now, like then, Indianapolis needs to embrace innovation.
• What speeds can we really expect at Indy in 2016 as Mark Miles has announced the Speedway's intention to break Arie Luyendyk's longstanding pole record?
DW: I think we could beat Arie's record today; this car's capable of doing that. We have a quest to reduce the lift tendencies of open-wheel cars, but I think the gains in the aero kits and the engines will mean that we easily beat Arie's record by 2016. It really depends on how we manage that, because what most people don't like to consider is the cost of going fast. We aren't in a position to say, “OK, it's a free-for-all,” not in this economy.
• The aero kit idea is pretty good. However, it needs to give teams more freedom and make cars look different. Limit the aero development with a maximum drag coefficient, one as low as possible for superspeedways and another one, higher, for road/short oval kit.
DW: Giving the teams more room to develop the cars is something we're addressing – again, see the Detroit announcement. However, when you look at the quality of the racing right now, the innovative ideas and different approaches will come at a cost. So we're trying to balance the competition with the cost. For the time being, we're keeping a tight lid on developments because we don't want to mess up one of our strengths: we have a lot of good racing at the moment and that's ultimately one of the things the fans want. We can open up the development of any area of this car and let the teams go at it, but will it bring in more fans? Ultimately, we need more people watching our racing and I think great racing brings in more people than knowing a team is running a different brand of shocks or is developing their differential in a different way. Not many fans in the grandstands are going to say, “Wow, look at that $100,000 differential go!”
However, what you're suggesting is about drag, and it's a desire of mine to open up certain areas, because competition needs to continue off the track as well. Racing is not just what happens on track but also the engineering rivalries in the paddock, or back in the shop or in the wind tunnels. Maintaining everything as stock is not racing. It's anti-competitive to stifle engineering ingenuity. And like you say, it's good for the cars to look different.
But remember also that regulation changes that open up development costs someone money and there's not a lot of that to spread around right now. Certain teams would struggle to develop if the rules were too free.
• How about going back to the original “Dallara Safety Cell” (a concept proposed by Tim Wardrop over 10 years ago), and allowing the teams to build/buy their own body kit, including aero pieces.
DW: Tim was spot on with that idea. That's ultimately what we're trying to do in 2019. And two years before that, we'll see how viable it is and we'll ask ourselves, “Are people knocking on the door wanting to do this? And again, “What is the cost, how do the teams pay for it?”
• Will Swift Engineering and others be allowed to build an IndyCar?
DW: This question leads on nicely from the last, because yes, absolutely Swift will be allowed, but it may be built around the Dallara Safety Cell if the tub still meets the safety demands we have by then. And yes, Swift may indeed want to come back into Indy car racing in 2019 because it would no longer be a Dallara Indy car per se. If the bodywork and underbody were open, then that would be a good way for Swift to re-enter the sport, a more cost-effective way than building the whole car from front to back and top to bottom.
If someone's going to make a complete car and create the infrastructure within their company to design, build, support it on a long-term basis – and then develop it, too, – there have to be enough customers out there to buy it. You can't build 20 and only have one team buy two racecars and two back-ups. The marketplace has changed since the 1990s when a team would buy a couple of cars a year and then ditch them for a new model the following year. These days, a body kit is a better way to get more manufacturers involved than having them build a whole car.
• When does the current contract that stipulates Dallara as the only chassis manufacturer expire?
DW: Sorry Rob, but that's confidential!