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!
• At Le Mans, they have Garage 56, which is set aside for experimental or alternative designed cars. Will IndyCar ever set up a similar program for the Indy 500 (or Triple Crown), allowing perhaps a 34th or 35th car to qualify at Indy if it is of an alternative design or powerplant?
DW: That's a good idea. I don't know the answer to that, but off the top of my head, I'm not opposed to it. I think racing has to be about technology and has to be at the front end of development of automobiles and power sources so I'm in favor of having the provisions to allow that sort of thing, yes. If someone fronted up with a serious effort, they'd get a serious answer, put it that way. There haven't been too many people doing that, but then, maybe we haven't been saying to enough people, “Hey, try us.”
• How do you see the efforts to break speed records playing out, long term? Sure, breaking Arie's record in 2016 would probably generate some interest, but then what? Two possible outcomes come to mind: a safety disaster (reducing lift is a start, but safety – including catch-fence technology – must always stay one step ahead of performance), or boring-but-fast races. Indy Lights has shown that incredible racing can take place at the Speedway without blindingly fast speeds. A 250mph parade is not my idea of an improvement over what we currently have.
DW: I agree with the statement that improvements have to be made to safety. If you look at racing's history, there has always been continual development in safety, and sometimes it's taken a little bit longer than it should have done to reach the top of the priority list. And speeds do need to be managed. As mentioned earlier, we could go a lot quicker than we are if that was our only purpose. What we need to do is find a manageable speed where we have the fastest closed-course cars in the world but do it as safely as possible. But you'll see speeds increasing, then rule changes to slow them a little, and then developments will bring the speeds back up again, so then you restrict them a little bit again.
Speed isn't just about a certain number, but about how we have safety developments in both the cars and the facilities progressing at the same pace as the speed increases. And no, a 250mph parade is not my idea of an improvement over what we currently have either, but the cars must be demanding to drive.
• After the Texas race, some fans were saying that IndyCar should not mandate rear wing angle, downforce, etc. and that it should be left to the teams to decide. What would happen if that would occur? Would everybody choose high downforce and we would be back to pack racing at Texas?
DW: That is the reason why we mandate. It goes against my instincts because to me, there is nothing worse than to see a series mandate the settings on a car. But pack racing is a reality that's not too far over the horizon if we don't pay attention to the spec. Also, there's a push to increasing the percentage that the driver plays in an oval race, which means making the cars more difficult to drive so that the good drivers are ahead of the not-so-experienced drivers. So although it sounds contradictory, mandating certain settings is in fact to create variance between cars, because they're more difficult to drive. If you leave teams to stick more downforce on the car, everyone gets equalized and you end up with pack racing, more than likely, and we must try to stay away from that.
• We need to find another way to run on high-banked ovals safely. Instead of decreasing downforce and having tires that degrade, maybe we can increase downforce a little, drag more and make the tires hard as rocks?
DW: I remember back in the Hanford Device days where we had these great drag-developing wings that made racing very boring and limited and easy enough where anyone in the lead knew they were going to get passed. I think we need to reduce the downforce and increase the power, so we go quick down the straights but around the corners the driver needs to know how to operate and regulate the throttle. That's the way forward.
• Has any serious thought been given to changing the formula so that cars can be produced significantly less expensively than they are now? In my opinion, the economics of IndyCar are not sustainable, long term. If the income of the sport as a whole cannot be grown to justify current expenses, then expenses must be cut to enable participation at a lower price point. With the announced plan to utilize the DW12 'til the end of the decade or beyond, it seems that a cost-cutting approach is not in the cards. This would seem to ensure a future of teams surviving hand-to-mouth, rides going to the well-funded over the talented, and Fill Day at Indy.
• Anything IndyCar can do to allow more cars at the races, like dropping the prices?
DW: We're not trying to cut the costs; we're trying to cap the costs. If you look at the cost of running an IndyCar now, it's not that different from what it was a few years ago. What has changed is that we've lost a lot of our fan base…and the sponsors, to some degree. To get us where we need to be, it's not about cutting the price. We've got up-to-date technology, we've got good racing, we've got a car that is available to everybody and what we need to do is get our message out there and have more people see us and more people want to see us. If fans want to watch our show, they come and then sponsors come, and they invest money in the teams, and then activate, thereby attracting more fans. We will hurt the show if we start cutting more out of it.
• I saw the Indy 500 and loved the passing and the excitement that race brought, I then watched the Texas race and it was a bit boring with almost no lead changes. Do you want to introduce the aero packages that might make the race more boring, or keep as a spec car series and more exciting races?
• We all want increased speeds (240mph at Indianapolis) and lightning-quick cars on road and street courses. We also want some variation in chassis design to distinguish the cars. It sounds like you intend to go in both directions, which is great. On the other hand, we also want competitive racing and parity among teams like we've seen this year. How do you intend to balance the desire for faster, customized cars without creating one or two dominant teams simply because they can outspend everyone on the technical side.
• Will the changes to the regulations through 2021 with the quest of improving speeds and manufacturer competition come at a major cost to the quality of racing we've seen the past few years?
DW: Jim, Charles, Michael all have similar questions which hit the nail on the head about the tricky balancing act we have of introducing variables but maintaining our current quality of racing. But I'm not conceding that having aero kits will make the series more boring. I remember people saying this about the change to the DW12… “Let's not change the car, we know it, we all work on it.” But the fact is that it was butt-ugly, it was old, it looked from another era, safety developments had moved on and needed to be embraced, and its engine was low-tech and sounded horrible. Now we've gone to a new car, everyone paid for it, knuckled down to business and the racing's great, so now again everyone's saying, “Hey, don't touch it…” and so on.
Well, I think if you want to leave everything the way it is, you shouldn't be in auto racing. Racing is about change, it's about innovation, it's not stagnant, it's not about the same old thing, race after race, season after season. If you don't allow creativity and competition to come to the forefront, then all you've got is a traveling circus that stops in various towns, and the acts don't change from year to year.
• The ALMS GT class currently has very different cars from different manufacturers and still has great racing. Do you plan on using the ALMS/ACO balance of performance system as a model? Do you think a fair balance of performance can be achieved without punishing the manufacturer or team who finds an advantage too harshly?
DW: Looking at 2019, when we plan to open up the rules to different body shapes, different engines, green technologies and things like that, I think you will have to have similar systems of equivalency to what the ALMS has, yes. We have a lot of work to go through to reach that point, but for sure, no one wants to see some device that can lap the field twice by half-distance, so finding the right formula to put very different cars at least on the same playing field has got to be the aim.
• Will Indy car ever challenge F1 as it did in the 1960s and early '90s? Will I at age 54 ever see (in my lifetime) a return to an open formula for chassis and engine innovation that challenges the world?
-J. Todd Anderson
• With fans fleeing this series in droves, when will management realize that spec racing is a fool's errand and return to a more open formula where individuals and teams can participate without, a) having to run a series-mandated engine and chassis package, and b) having to put up with a series that dictates what wing angles and boost levels will be?
• Although IndyCar has achieved remarkable parity with chassis and powerplants, do you envision any diversification from a single chassis and having additional powerplant options?
• Is there any chance that Indy Car will ever open up the series so chassis, engine, and tire manufacturers will compete head to head again? It appears that the series is just cookie-cutter cars and the only variable is the driver.
DW: The answer is yes, diversity is coming, hence the press conference in Detroit. It took a long time to get us to where we are right now, and so it takes us a little longer than is ideal to get us back on the right path, without blowing everyone's budget. We cannot suddenly say – “OK, 2014 is a free-for-all, run what ya brung!” otherwise a lot of these teams just won't be able to afford to compete. Give us time to take what is good from the current situation and steer it in a different direction.
In part 2, Derrick answers your questions on horsepower, engine diversity and potential new manufacturers.