When new IZOD IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard announced he was going to form a seven-man panel to select the new Indy car (or cars) for 2012, it drew as much laughter as serious discussion.
“Hell yes, I was skeptical!” says Tony Cotman, who was one of seven members of the ICONIC (Innovative, Competitive, Open-Wheel, New, Industry-Relevant, Cost-Effective) Advisory Committee. “I told Randy that getting three people to agree on anything in racing was impossible. I didn't see it working.”
And when Bernard, who'd witnessed his first IndyCar race only two months before, revealed that an Air Force general with no motorsports knowledge would preside over the group, the naysayers lit up the chat rooms.
“We had a fighter pilot and a cowboy and neither one of us knew anything about racing,” admits General William Looney, whose surname almost seemed too appropriate for this scenario. “I guess I didn't blame anybody for shaking their heads in disbelief.”
But, with Bernard pushing buttons and Looney directing traffic, Tony Purnell, Neil Ressler, Rick Long, Eddie Gossage, Brian Barnhart, Gil de Ferran and Cotman managed to deliver a unanimous decision in 75 days.
“At first I was wishing they hadn't hired me until Aug. 1, so the engine and chassis decisions would have already been made and I'd just live with the decision,” says Bernard, who left a successful run at the Pro Bull Riders to inherit a migraine of a series that's been void of ideas and leadership the past decade. “But I'm so glad I went through this process because I learned so much about the cars and the people. It was a great experience.”
Finding seven people with no agendas who had knowledge and passion was no easy task. Former Indy car driver and current series employee Steve Krisiloff suggested Purnell, a longtime engineer in Formula 1 and CART-era Indy cars who teaches at Cambridge. Long grew up in Gasoline Alley, building engines for Herb Porter before starting Speedway Engines and building IRL Indy car motors. Ressler ran Ford's motorsports division, Cotman was chief steward at Champ Car and was the midwife of the Panoz DP01 of 2007, and Barnhart is IndyCar's President of Competition and Racing Operations. Gossage runs his mouth and Texas Motor Speedway while de Ferran currently co-owns the DeFerran Dragon Racing IndyCar team with Jay Penske and Steve Luczo.
A room with a carnival huckster (Gossage), a gearhead (Long), a mad scientist (Purnell), a retired big hitter (Ressler), an Indy winner (de Ferran), an opinionated official (Cotman) and the last remains of the Tony George regime (Barnhart) appeared ripe for strife.
“I won't deny they were 180 degrees apart on many subjects at first,” Bernard recalls, “and I was concerned that one or two people might try to run away with things.”
“We had some pretty heated discussions,” de Ferran confirms.
Following the presentations of Swift, Lola, BAT, DeltaWing and Dallara, there was an early front runner. “Lola's presentation was dynamic but I got upset with Dallara initially because it really didn't have the kind of plan we had asked for,” said Bernard. “And I can tell you that everyone on the ICONIC panel went into this thing with the idea of having more than one car.”
Cotman said the fact-finding mission conducted by the panel really helped shape the decision. “Anything we requested about the company, we got, and we had access to everything. The car owners didn't see all that we did and it really helped.”
Despite all the talk about open competition, that really wasn't the agenda for the majority of the candidates. Lola and Swift wanted exclusivity, BAT couldn't really explain where its funding was coming from and DeltaWing had been relying on money from the state of Indiana (which didn't come).
“It was a little disappointing to hear that prices would go from $385,000 to $680,000 if they were in competition,” admits Bernard.
Obviously, in a paddock hurting for money, lowering costs was a priority so now they had to try and get creative. As the committee headed downtown for dinner one evening, Purnell told Bernard he had an idea: choose one company to make the tub but open the rules to allow anybody to create an aero package of bodywork, sidepods and wings.
“We were caught between the devil and deep blue sea because a single supplier making as many standard parts as possible produces a dramatic savings in cost yet we also wanted to open things up,” says Purnell. “So we think we've found a way to get everybody possible that we could get involved with this series.”
The ICONIC board loved the idea, so then it was a matter of really choosing between three groups: Dallara, Lola and Swift. IndyCar wanted the new cars to be built in Indianapolis, Dallara was the only company willing to do that so it got the nod.
While the parameters of the new car are yet to be defined and the rules yet to be written, this new car will be lighter, more responsive, faster, cheaper and built in Indiana. But it's the overall cost that really jumps out in these challenging times. Today's Dallara goes for almost $700,000 with everything, while the new model will have a $385,000 price tag (or $349,000 without the Dallara's clothes). Then, if your team is based in Indiana, you receive a $150,000 discount on your first chassis so suddenly an Indy car is under $250,000 and cheaper than any sports car.
“Those are complete cars, as opposed to what we have now, where you have to buy the fuel system, wiring, electronics, headers, driveshafts and all that stuff,” says Barnhart. “This price is the complete car, less seat and engine, and that's what our teams need.”
While it's hard to imagine Lola or Swift building an aero package to bolt on a Dallara, Bernard has talked with General Motors, Ford, Audi and more recently, Ferrari. Lotus said it was interested in the aero package, which cannot be exclusive and has to be sold to anyone for the mandated price of $70,000.
“We have dramatically lowered the barrier for entry to a manufacturer or a technical company that would like to enter its own car,” Purnell states. “Instead of the headache of building a whole new car, we've given them a route to concentrate on the main performance differentiator, which is the aerodynamics.”
Cotman, favored by most of the IndyCar paddock to write the new rules, police them and set prices, says the cost of the car is only half the battle. “It's great that the cars will be so much cheaper but the critical thing is the running costs,” he observes. “We must control parts prices. This whole process is really good for the little guys, but only if we control prices.”
De Ferran believes the cars will be harder to drive. With a promised push-to-pass of 100hp, turbochargers and cars some 200lbs lighter, maybe the new era will restore the breathtaking element of Indy car racing in the CART era.
“I think it's important to stress that, at the end of the day, we ended up not just choosing a car but creating a new concept and a new approach to Indy car racing,” said the double Indy car champ and 2003 Indy 500 winner. “I think we all wish it was 2012 already.”