RACER editor David Malsher argues that a complete rebirth of Indy car racing's technical philosophy is key to the survival of the IZOD IndyCar Series.
I'm not sure how or why the Associated Press got hold of an early draft of the Boston Consulting Group's evaluation of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but assuming you've read Jenna Fryer's summary of its content, I'm sure you, like me, were alternately pleased and appalled.
Some of BCG's observations merely stated the obvious – the series suffers from lack of awareness, and it would be better to have just one TV partner. (Gee, ya think?) The ideas that filled me with dread were: 15 races in a 19 week period, a three-race playoff, a three-race playoff that includes the IMS's charisma-free road course and an international series in the offseason. The encouraging parts were: 1) The suggested redistribution of what is currently the $1.1m-per-team Leader's Circle subsidy into a far bigger purse for each race. 2) The focus group that BCG employed was adamant that IndyCar should differentiate itself from NASCAR in terms of how to steer the on-track action and how to portray the drivers; and, 3) the diversity of track types was perceived as a good thing.
What we haven't seen are suggestions for a change in philosophy regarding the cars, yet I believe that's absolutely vital if IndyCar is to rebuild its brand. OK, I admit I'm a late arrival in this debate; some sages in the paddock have been arguing this point for a decade or more, whereas I was quite sure that gripping on-track action and improved marketing strategies would be enough to revive interest in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Three years of exciting competition but feeble TV viewing figures suggest my faith was misplaced.
Now, I'm not going to write a 115-page review, I'm not going to pretend my ideas are definitive or all-encompassing, but nor am I going to charge a seven-figure sum for my consultancy services. A $50 Starbucks card and a model of a Penske PC10 would be great…but I'd feel happier yet just knowing that the points outlined below had been taken on board.
To my mind, one of the primary problems across all forms of motorsport is that too many governing bodies are obsessed with the closeness of the competition to the exclusion of all else. Few seem prepared to accept that there are days, weekends and even seasons when a driver/team/car combination is going to excel and be rewarded for it. Now you can say tight racing attracts casual followers and turns casual followers into ardent fans, and that's true, but it cannot come at the expense of real racing. (The entertainment quality of racing can be improved with one very simple philosophy, which I'll come to later.) In the world of fast, spectacular cars, a show is what Ken Block produces on his magnificent Gymkhana videos. A sport is about competition; by definition, it must be a meritocracy.
So are the governing bodies merely pandering to public opinion because public opinion can so easily be expressed these days? Are the fans demanding close competition, however manufactured it is? If so, I'm convinced that this mentality has emerged only in the past couple of decades. For instance, in 1980, had I been old enough to gamble, I'd have bet a month's wage on Johnny Rutherford winning the Indy 500. It all made sense. The Chaparral 2K (ABOVE RIGHT) should have won Indy the previous year in the hands of Al Unser, and since then the car's reliability bugs had been largely ironed out. Unser won the final CART race of '79, his replacement at Chaparral, Rutherford, won the first race of 1980, and no other team in the mean time had come up with a car that could match John Barnard's magnificent “Yellow Submarine.” Watch that race again and see how JR could run anywhere on the track, how the canny veteran didn't need to make risky maneuvers in traffic because he always had pace and grip in reserve.
Most of those in the grandstands – the ones who'd seen Unser dominate the first half of the previous year's race, for example – and everyone in pit lane and press room knew that Rutherford was having a slightly easier ride than his rivals, but were there complaints that the race was too predictable? Hell no! The 300,000 spectators applauded the brilliance of driver, car and team. Was that because J.R. is just one of those low-key, modest, nice guys who's impossible to dislike? Was it because he had already proven himself at Indy, scoring two wins while not possessing a car advantage? Was it because in 1980 he was driving one of the most beautiful cars ever to grace the Speedway?
Well, maybe a combination of all three…. But at the risk of sounding as old as the venue itself, I wonder if we've simply lost the ability to appreciate this kind of performance. Of course, some of the late-race Indy 500 shootouts that we've seen since ('82, '91, '92 and '06 spring immediately to mind) and the final-lap dramas we saw in the past two years were more thrilling to more people. But does every race have to be that way so that fans don't smear web forums and social media with words like “boring,” “predictable” and “yawn”? Once upon a time, we weren't looking for a full-course caution 10 laps from the end of a race in order to falsely fashion a five-way fight to the checkered flag. We empathized with the victor whether he won by two tenths, two seconds or two laps. We appreciated that it was won on merit.
EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT
Some race fans are more interested in drivers than the cars. They don't care if technological boundaries are explored, reached or breached, nor whether the engines have any road car relevance. Others perceive racing as a technical tour de force, with cutting edge ideas and exotic-looking machinery that works as the clichéd “high-speed laboratory” that may one day produce something useful for the common man. To maximize its appeal, a race series must try to attract both categories of fan. IndyCar currently appeals to those who are drawn to drivers; those tantalized by technology, by contrast, are short-changed to a woeful degree.
The IZOD IndyCar Series, as the pinnacle of U.S. open-wheel racing, should not just be a driver-centric drama with the cars as 200mph props. It must be a meritocracy for all participants, which means there should be diversity of equipment, something that encourages technical ingenuity. Besides which, the ability to work with engineers and help develop the cars was one of the defining qualities in such heroes as Dan Gurney, Mark Donohue, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran. Imagine how frustrated they'd be if they were racing in the current era.
Attempts to equalize performance, I feel, must end. Too often in racing series all around the world, excellence is punished, be it through weight ballast, air restrictors, engine tweaks, rule changes (often disguised as “clarifications”), dubious calls from race control, whatever. In fact, I find it quite extraordinary that so many car companies apply their logos and dollars to racing when they aren't allowed to shine for more than a few races. Seriously, who cares if David slays Goliath when, for equalization purposes, the big guy has his feet nailed to the ground and the kid has unlimited swings of the sling?
It's a subject Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing, wrote about back in January on this site. “If IndyCar is to garner the respect of the fans as one of the top forms of motorsport in the world,” he said, “we need to get away from this mentality of having spec cars with limited testing. I am not advocating a free-for-all for our benefit. Rather, we have to allow testing so new drivers have a chance in the sport and we have to allow teams to differentiate themselves beyond just having their own dampers. Fans want to see the teams generate evolutions and if IndyCar continues toward making the rules suit the budgets of the lowest teams, it will soon take a back seat to not only NASCAR, but sports car racing as well.”
Amen to that. The philosophy behind racing's increasingly blatant attempts to manufacture close competition, compressing the distance from the front of the grid to the back, would be laughed at in any other sport. Imagine if, in order to reduce the difference between the best and worst teams in a 4 x 400 relay, the fourth runner on a squad wasn't allowed to set off until all teams had exchanged batons for the final leg. Suddenly the team element would be gone and it would all come down to the last man.
In motorsports terms, that would mean the driver had the only meaningful contribution to a race, because his team's engineering knowledge, technical smarts, or strategy expertise had been neutralized by the regulations. IndyCar must remove this ridiculous glass ceiling for engineering staff, or eventually the pit lane will be populated by Pep Boys rejects, while the best guys and gals head to series where their talents can flourish, where they have a greater influence over the race results. What appeal would IndyCar have for the ambitious young wannabe race engineers?
If you think I exaggerate regarding engineers, you're wrong. Just consider how designers have become extinct in IndyCar racing, swept away in a tidal wave of homogeneity. More depressingly, there is no swift resolution to that, at least on the chassis side, because the series' current Dallara deal runs to the end of 2016. Meanwhile, the aero kit debate grumbles on and… I'm at a loss to understand why. Chevrolet and Honda, who both want aero kits for highly visible brand identification, will doubtless wish for all of their teams to take their kits. But if there are teams who can't afford to upgrade, they should be allowed to continue with the current Dallara bodywork.
Having three different-looking cars on an IndyCar grid would be a step in the right direction, but the bigger picture, the long-term view, needs to be more radical. A large percentage of fans and potential fans make it abundantly clear on an almost daily basis that they want IndyCar to allow more diversity, that another spec car era will eventually drive them away for good. For many spectators, that's already happened. Many even go as far as to suggest that defining a box for length, width and height is as defined as chassis/bodywork technical regulations need be. (A mandated safety cell, would be necessary too.) For sure, this would bring about a return of the spirit of innovation that was once a hallmark of Indy car racing.
However, there is an equally valid point – who pays for this? Maybe the regulations that currently apply to the engine manufacturers – that they must be able to supply a certain percentage of the grid at a guaranteed price – could be modified and applied also to potential chassis suppliers. And for those who point out that team owners would, over ensuing years, naturally gravitate toward the supplier with the best solution, the only answer is, “So what?” That's the nature of competition: each participant wants the best of everything. It's up to the designer with the less effective chassis to do better next time; it is not up to the governing body to mask his/her shortcomings by tampering with the better chassis to reduce its advantage.
As mentioned, the Dallara deal renders this a moot point until 2016, but how about a short-term compromise… such as turning the Indy 500 into a run-what-ya-brung event? Points would only be awarded to full-season cars that ran in their “regular” Dallara-, Chevy- or Honda-designed aero kits, so those who couldn't afford a one-off special kit would still have a very real goal to strive for, as well as outright victory. Those who chose to run an Indy-specific aero kit and one-off entries of any kind would not be eligible for points but, this being the “500,” everyone would want to be there, regardless of the championship.
Some of the more affluent teams might mix and match: for example, Roger Penske could leave full-season drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves in their usual cars, so they could garner points for the long-term goal of the IndyCar championship, but he might also run a couple of cars with specially-commissioned “one-off” aero kits for say, Ryan Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger. Add in all the one-off teams that would emerge or re-emerge to compete in the most prestigious race in the world but with innovative and imaginative ideas, and I think you'd have at least 40 cars competing for Indy's 33 grid slots. And there'd be a hugely varied-looking field once more.
And why stop at chassis? If another manufacturer wanted to badge the old Ilmor-built 3.5-liter V8s and put them up against the current 2.2-liter turbo V6s, they should be allowed. And if Honda and Chevrolet responded by cranking more power out of the current 2.2-liter V6 turbos – with all its attendant risks, mileage- and reliability-wise – then they should be allowed to do that, too. Such a loose brief might also attract Ford, Chrysler-Fiat, Hyundai, Toyota, BMW, bringing financial investment and marketing expertise.
Am I letting my imagination run too free? Am I being overly optimistic? Not sure. For now, I'll settle for aero kits, to be introduced a.s.a.p.. Aside from anything else, the Dallara DW12, though looking more modern than its predecessor, isn't pretty from any angle and tolerable only from a few. And my opinions on this matter are relatively mild; some fans have implied their eyes are so tortured by the DW12 that they wish to report Dallara to Amnesty International. Certainly it's strange to think that the same company that designed such an aesthetically challenged machine also produced the World Series by Renault car, probably the best-looking open-wheeler on the planet at the moment.
However, and this is a major caveat, there's something that needs to be done at the same time as body kits are brought in, maybe even before…
Competition improves the breed: you can bet that aero kits from Chevrolet and Honda and maybe a revised one from Dallara will all produce more downforce than the current spec kit on the DW12 and I'm not alone in worrying that this could send IndyCar back into the Indy Racing League era of 100 percent throttle, 100 percent of the time on ovals. That prospect should terrify us all. I've quickly sifted through my interview transcriptions from the past 18 months, to find commentary on driving the previous generation IRL car on ovals. (Regarding the two unattributed, off-the-record quotes, the first was said by a driver after getting embroiled in an accident that was not his fault, the other was uttered by a senior team member who wished to remain nameless.)
“On new tires, your chief mechanic – if he's brave enough – could go and lap one of these ovals in qualifying and reach the exact same speed as the regular driver.” Mario Andretti, 2011
“What are we doing? What has this sport come to, where anyone can do this because it's so easy? IndyCar wants to give this image that it's all about the drivers. So why do they make a formula that allows everyone to look talented on ovals? Some of those guys out there…I wouldn't trust them to drive me to the ******* airport, and when we go to road courses, they're screwed. But they can still qualify in the top 10 on the ovals if they have a good aero setup. It's enormously screwed up.” Anonymous, 2011
“I don't mind going three-wide every now and then, but to just sit continuously in the third or fourth lane, lap after lap, waiting for someone to touch tires, is crazy and it's not real racing. I want to be going three-wide as part of a great passing maneuver, not as a way of life!” Tomas Scheckter, 2011
“For so long, IndyCar had an oval formula that was boring, required no talent, but was also incredibly dangerous…. If you're glued to the track when you're running solo, there's something wrong with the rules. If the shortest line is the quickest line, it's wrong. If you're not taking the racing line, it's not racing!” Will Power, 2012
“Why do you think we've seen drivers make so many dumb mistakes in the pits this year? It's because everyone's equal in these cars, so pit lane is the only place you can make up time on your rival. Silly, isn't it? We've reached a stage where the races are being won by whoever's neatest at parking their car…” Anonymous, 2011
“For me, banked ovals and IRL cars don't create good racing. It's dangerous and it doesn't allow good drivers to shine. All they show is that you're as stupid as anyone else, as brave as anyone else and, if you win, it shows you have a faster car than anyone else. So do I like them? No. Am I good at them? Sure. I'm as stupid as anyone else out there.” Sebastien Bourdais, 2011
IndyCar has a duty to not be so desperate for close competition that it has a technical package that favors drivers who are “all balls and eyesight,” to quote the late, great Frank Gardner. You think I'm scare-mongering? Uh-uh. We're not so far off it, even now with the DW12. Tim Cindric wrote: “Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 should be the hardest four laps a driver does all year, but last May, many of the drivers said it was one of their easiest tasks because there was too much grip and not enough power. It's becoming like Daytona in NASCAR – the marquee event is becoming the easiest to qualify for…”
Dario Franchitti, reigning Indy 500 champion, told me last November: “It was great seeing all those lead changes [at Indy] but, yeah, the fact that even when your car was really working well you still couldn't gap anyone…that was a bit frustrating. Cars that, when they ran up front, were 2mph slower than you, could still get towed along in your wake and draft past. And I think some of that was down to having slightly less horsepower this year. Indy has put on some great races and this year was great for the fans, but still I think when you've absolutely nailed a corner or nailed a lap, you should be able to gain an advantage, have something to show for it.”
At the next oval on the schedule, just two weeks after the “500”, a miracle occurred. IndyCar's vp of technology, Will Phillips, grasped the nettle, reduced the downforce and, at a stroke, restored sanity and true racing to the Texas Motor Speedway event. Race winner, Justin Wilson, reflected: “That was great. We were sliding around and so we were pitting because the tires were going off, not just because we needed fuel. What was done to the technical package there is how we need to keep it. Pack racing cannot be allowed to return.”
Scott Dixon, in his blog here on RACER.com, said: “We had been complaining for years and this time the drivers requested [a reduction in downforce] and IndyCar agreed to it. Some of the drivers were bitching about it, but of course they were: they were the ones struggling the most. The fact is, you're supposed to drive an IndyCar: it's not meant to be easy while also being faster and more dangerous! To me, the race at Texas was 10 times safer and 10 times more exciting. Even though I crashed and had a bad night, I still went away thinking, ‘Man, that was a good race that showed off the talents of the driver to not only drive his car but also tune it and adapt it at 200mph.'”
Of course, Phillips has made things harder for himself by proving how swiftly the downforce can be reduced when necessary. When I remarked on that to one of the drivers recently, he said, “Good, because he's going to have to do it all season. I bet you all the teams will have found more grip, just from having a year's data with this car. I'm pretty sure Honda and Chevy won't have made as big steps increasing the power as the teams have made with understanding their cars, and already a couple of the ovals last year were a bit too easy because there was more grip than power. Indy was obviously one, but also Iowa because it's got a high-grip surface. Actually, Fontana started off tricky but as it cooled down, we discovered the high line could be taken flat all the way around. So yeah, I hope Will is going to be busy all year. I'm going to keep on at him about this.”
Another Will, Mr. Power, is sure to do likewise, although he's already been frustrated by people – including some of his peers – not joining him in the quest to cut downforce. “It pisses me off that some people think me and Tim [Cindric] are trying to change stuff to suit us, saying that having the cars low-downforce and loose will give me an advantage. They should think about what they're saying, because they've got that completely back to front! If we were looking for an advantage, we'd be happy if the ovals are just IRL-style pack racing, flat-out all the way around. I'd be virtually guaranteed a top five every time out because Penske and Ganassi prepare their oval cars better than anyone else; me and Helio and Dario and Scottie Dog [Dixon] would pick up all the wins and we'd get to look like stars even though all we did all race was hold the steering wheel and keep our foot to the floor. But that's not why we're in IndyCar – to get easy wins. Or it shouldn't be, anyway…”
As well as being more challenging for the drivers (and safer on ovals), aggressively altering the power/downforce equation in favor of the former would create a must-see show for the fans. Some 3000 words ago, I stated that there's a simple philosophy that all race series should follow, and it's one I've been pushing for years because I know it to be true: Produce technical regulations that ensure that a solitary car at speed is an awe-inspiring sight. Everything else necessary for a series' appeal would be a natural corollary – the car would be a challenge to drive; the car would be a challenge to engineer; for the fans, it would matter less when the cars were strung out in practice, qualifying or on race day if each one was creating a moment of drama every time it passed; and a pack of 25 of them at starts and restarts would be one of the most unforgettable, adrenaline-pumping spectacles any racing enthusiast could wish to see.
There's a reason that old-timers go misty eyed when they talk about Can-Am series in the 1966-'73 era, and it isn't because the racing was close; frequently it wasn't. The series wasn't sustainable because the technical regulations were too unrestrictive and the business model too haphazard. Yet no one who saw the Lolas, Chaparrals, McLarens and Porsches being driven by F1, IndyCar and sports car stars will ever forget the cars' overwhelming potency.
I believe IndyCar must strive for something similar. There should be enough smart people in influential roles who can sidestep the errors of their counterparts in previous generations of USAC, CART, Champ Car and IRL and who, if they all pull in the same direction for the same common cause, can apply a sensible business model that fits with the current economic climate. But they must also allow the technical experts to craft rules and regulations that challenge drivers, designers, engineers and tire suppliers while, by proxy, rewarding fans and attracting sponsors.
But before those tech experts do anything, here's a cautionary note from the 1963 Indy 500 winner, lifted from his excellent new autobiography with Bones Bourcier, As a matter of fact, I am Parnelli Jones. Parnelli's views on IndyCar racing predictably tally precisely with those of Dixon, Power, Franchitti – indeed, any driver with talent, confidence and a conscience. But he then adds another very valid point: “Here's something I can't figure out: Why is it that whenever a sanctioning body wants to design a new rules package, they go straight to the engineers for suggestions? Every engineer I've ever met wants to build a car that corners better and gets more grip. In other words, a car that's easier to drive. So don't ask those guys.”
Instead, they should create rules that follow the principle suggested by a driver from a similar era as Jones, Formula 1 ace Tony Brooks, who once remarked to journalist Nigel Roebuck: “To make a car worth driving or watching, it must have more power than its chassis can comfortably handle.” Along the same lines, those in charge of the future of Indy car racing should remember the very simple tenet of Gil de Ferran, double CART IndyCar champion and 2003 Indy 500 winner. “An IndyCar should be an intimidating beast!”
Let's hope those in charge at 16th and Georgetown are listening, understanding and have the courage to act accordingly.