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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ A Merry Christmas to all

by Gordon Kirby
First of all I want to stress how impressed and inspired I was by this year's IMIS trade show in Indianapolis and the excellent Safety-Kleen Safety and Technical Conference organized by Kirk Russell and Michael Royce in company with IMIS. The IMIS show reminded me how diverse and healthy motorsports in America is at the grassroots level while the safety and technical conference confirmed that many hard-working engineers and technicians are contributing a tremendous amount to the sport's resolute path of progress. The conference emphasized the tremendous improvements made in safety in recent decades and underlined the energetic rate of ongoing development taking place in all elements of the automotive and racing industries.

It also occurred to me that in our discussions last week about the future of racing I did not write a word about IndyCar simply because it didn't come up. Such is the state of IndyCar that Indy car racing's future is entirely unpredictable and everyone wonders if it ever can regain the vitality and relevance it enjoyed for many decades.

Dan Wheldon's death in Las Vegas last October focused everyone's minds on the problems of pack racing on high-banked ovals with underpowered, overdownforced cars, an essential issue addressed by many big names in the sport, past and present, but ignored by last week's accident report. Wheldon's death also emphasized the web of problems in which IndyCar is enmeshed with a poor officiating team, a weak schedule of races and the smallest media footprint of all professional and many amateur sports in America.

It's deeply ironic of course that Tony George's IRL revolution has resulted in the steep decline in the popularity of Indy car racing on ovals. Next year's IndyCar schedule will include the fewest oval races ever--only three or four--and no less than eight street or temporary circuits. Incredibly, IndyCar has become primarily a street racing series and is in danger of eventually winding up with only one oval race--the Indy 500.

Amid this difficult environment it's also abundantly clear that most traditional and many new fans have little or no interest in spec cars. Despite a choice of engines in 2012 IndyCar still seems trapped in an unappealing spec car world. Many people find the new Dallara DW12 aesthetically unattractive and unsurprisingly, early testing of the new car has gone less than well. The DW12 is quicker than the old Crapwagon on road courses but the car is struggling for speed on ovals--at Indy in particular it appears--because of weight distribution and aero balance problems.

The DW12 has been designed to a tight budget by a committee with no evident designer or lead engineer. It's as if it was designed by a Soviet era politburo rather than a bunch of lean, mean competitors led by a motivated boss and chief designer. That's the way racing has always operated but IndyCar has upended the historic model with its version of the spec car paradigm.

I'm told by some engineers that Dallara missed the mechanical and aerodynamic baselines with the DW12 because the company lost track of where the teams had gone over the past five years as far as aero numbers, spring rates and setups in general. So after four months of testing the first batch of DW12s was delivered to the teams last week and Dallara has offered optional new front and rear suspensions at no charge to alter the wheelbase. Dallara hopes to resolve the aero problems with wind tunnel tests in January. I'm sure the Penske and Ganassi teams will figure out the DW12 but it will be an expensive and demanding test for most other teams.

Meanwhile for another perspective on Indy car racing's sad decade and a half of decline I recommend reading my colleague Nigel Roebuck's column in the January issue of Motor Sport. Nigel has devoted the second half of his monthly eight-page column to his view of Indy car racing's decline. As many of you know Nigel unquestionably is Europe's most knowledgeable writer when it comes to American racing. In fact, he knows far more about the history of US racing than most American racing writers.

Nigel's enthusiasm for Indy car racing allowed my space in Autosport to expand substantially over the eighties and nineties and helped drive the overseas understanding and interest in CART and Indy cars. He writes warmly in Motor Sport about his semi-regular visits in those days not only to Indianapolis but also Long Beach, Phoenix, Pocono and Milwaukee, the latter a particular favorite. But more than ten years have passed since Nigel last attended an Indy car race and sadly he's unlikely to witness another.

© Marc Sproule
"There is no doubt that at the time CART was the best racing series anywhere on earth," Roebuck writes about the early nineties. "The cars were things of beauty and they sounded as good as they looked. At a flat oval like Milwaukee, they would overtake inside and outside through the turns, and with 900 horsepower on tap it didn't take a science degree to see who was good, and who was not.... Milwaukee was infailingly a highlight of my racing season."

Derek Daly keeps making the point to me that while the appeal of the car is an important element the most important thing for IndyCar is developing a new generation of American stars. Daly has a dog in this fight of course. His son Conor has shown plenty of race-winning ability in America and also has been trying to make his name in Europe. But without doubt Derek is right. Until the likes of Graham Rahal or Conor can break through and turn themselves into American sporting superstars by establishing themselves as regular race winners and champions Indy car racing will continue to languish at the margins without any serious media or fan following.

It's ironic that Daly should be a leading proponent of such a simple concept because Derek was among the first wave of overseas drivers to arrive in Indy car racing in company with Teo Fabi back in 1983. It was almost thirty years ago when Daly, Fabi, Emerson Fittipaldi and Roberto Guerrero formed the leading edge of a wave that swept over Indy car racing. For a while the new wave of ex-F1 drivers was a good thing, helping broaden the global interest in what was once a strictly American sport. But eventually the overseas drivers dominated the sport leaving us with only a handful of American drivers none of them with anything like the star power once enjoyed by the likes of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Bobby and Al Unser, Rick Mears, et al.

An overlooked element in the decline of American open-wheel racing was the death of Formula Atlantic and Formula Super Vee. The passing of Atlantic and Super Vee has barely been acknowledged but their demise was a great loss for the sport in the United States and Canada. Through the seventies and eighties the rear-engine categories--Formula Atlantic, Super Vee and Formula Ford--essentially replaced midget and sprint car racing as the training grounds for American open wheel drivers.

Most famously, Gilles Villeneuve and Keke Rosberg leaped to F1 stardom from Formula Atlantic, but so too did Indy car stars like Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Michael Andretti, Jimmy Vasser, Scott Goodyear, Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier, Alex Tagliani, Buddy Rice, Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud come up through Atlantic.

For many years quite a few people in the sport were reluctant to accept Formula Ford, Super Vee and Atlantic as replacements for midget and sprint car racing. But it happened despite a lack of any leadership from the SCCA, USAC, CART, etc. Michael Andretti emphasized the shift away from midgets and sprint cars in the early eighties when he worked his way swiftly through FF1600, Super Vee and Atlantic on his path to Indy cars. Twenty years earlier his father Mario made it to Indy cars by racing midgets and sprint cars but he advised his son to stay away from the front-engined dirt track cars and forge his career in rear-engined road racing cars running on paved tracks.

© Eagle Racing Cars USA
Yet today Super Vee and Atlantic have vanished while Formula Ford in the USA is a feeble version of its once thriving self. The sport's legendary lack of leadership has consigned these formulae to history's trash can while midget and sprint car racing continue across America, not as the path to Indy car racing as they once were but as essential components in the incredibly diverse and thriving grassroots network of US motorsports. And if there's a way forward to the big leagues for most midget or sprint car drivers it's called NASCAR.

Everyone in the sport thanks Mazda for its invaluable support of the 'Road to Indy'. It's a great thing but the 'Road to Indy' needs to be stabilized and strengthened. Each rung on the ladder must be made stronger with clearer brand identities and frankly, the 'Road to Indy' needs a reborn Formula Atlantic.

I have to ask, why not? The last iteration of Atlantic was powered by Cosworth-tuned Mazda engines so Mazda is in a unique position to help recreate the most productive ladder system category we've seen in America over the last forty years.

Looking ahead to next year we all hope for the best from the DW12 Dallara and IndyCar's new formula. It will be interesting to see if any other teams can challenge Ganassi's and Penske's dominance as well as watching the engine battle unfold between Honda, Chevrolet/Ilmor and Lotus/Judd. Almost lost among the grief surrounding Dan Wheldon's death was Dario Franchitti's third straight IndyCar championship and fourth in five years. Franchitti and Ganassi's team have established themselves as the combination to beat in IndyCar and it will be intriguing to see if they can maintain their crown amid the new formula.

NASCAR is sure to remain as competitive as ever in 2012 with more than a few potential champions. After five years of domination by Jimmie Johnson the Sprint Cup series should profit from new champ Tony Stewart who is the perfect advertisement for NASCAR. If Stewart's presence as NASCAR's champion doesn't have a positive pull on ticket sales and TV ratings then NASCAR has a deeper problem than believed.

Finally, many of us look forward to the debut of the Delta Wing in 2012. It's been an uphill battle for Ben Bowlby to see his baby come to life but the prototype is nearing completion thanks to Dan Gurney and the true racers at All American Racers. American motor sport needs a serious shake-up and the Delta Wing may prove to be exactly what's required. AAR's Christmas card shows, as you might expect, that Dan and the folks at AAR have a keen sense of humor about their revolutionary project.

Meantime over the holiday season I'm taking a break from this space for the next three weeks. I'll return on January 16th and wish all of you a Merry Christmas and best of luck in the New Year.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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