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The Way It Is/ Is there a correct formula for open-wheel oval racing?

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
While talking with Newman/Haas's Brian Lisles about spec cars for last week's column we also got to discussing the thorny conundrum of what the right formula might be for succesful Indy or Champ car oval racing. The loss of the proper formula--which CART enjoyed for many years through the late nineties--is one of the greatest failures of the CART/IRL war and is one of the factors in the decline of the Indy 500 and Indy car racing on ovals in general.

The horsepower and aerodynamic restrictions on today's Champ and IRL cars mean they run around in packs on ovals at the bottom of the track with the drivers' right foot planted firmly, pedal to the metal. The drivers don't much like it and to my mind it's nothing like as spectacular as ten and twenty years ago when the drivers had to get out of the throttle for the corners and sometimes use the brakes as well so there were substantial and exciting differences in performance making for breathtaking passing and racing.

The outside pass and the ability to work through traffic, sometimes at prodigious rates, like we've seen in the past from guys like Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, Tom Sneva, Al Unser Jr and Michael Andretti are almost lost arts, as well as lost spectacles, to the fan. Now the inside line is the fastest and shortest line. The name of the game is to protect the inside line at all costs and to force your competitor high where it's all but impossible to inch by.

Full grandstands at the California Speedway, 1999
"It's just so easy flat-out," says Paul Tracy. "There's no driving talent at all. It has nothing to do with it. It's about engineering, aerodynamics and reducing the friction. It's got nothing to do with driving."

On this rare point Sebastien Bourdais agrees completely with Tracy. "You need less downforce so you have to drive the car," Bourdais commented. "You need something like a thousand pounds less downforce than we ran at Las Vegas last year. Then you would really have to drive it. Sure, it would go a little faster on the straights but you would have to go slower in the corners. So it would just balance itself and at least you would be driving it. When it's flat, you have to take big chances to make anything happen. It's just about how stupid you're willing to be. You need to lift for the corners. That's the way all racing is supposed to be."

I always will remember at Indianapolis in 1979 after the rejected CART teams had been allowed to start practice for that year's 500. In the middle of the CART/USAC war USAC had cut the boost limit from 80 to 50 inches in an attempt to handicap the turbos and encourage normally-aspirated stock-block engines. The reduction in power meant it was suddenly possible to lap the four-cornered Indianapolis Motor Speedway damn near flat and all the CART drivers, while delighted to be back in the race, grumbled mightily about the situation.

"This isn't racing," Bobby Unser declared. "You're not supposed to drive around here flat-out. You're supposed to lift, get on the brakes and drive the car through the corners. That's the test of the driver. Driving around flat-out is just no fun, no fun at all!"

Newman/Haas's Lisles agrees with the drivers old and new. "Personally, I like the fundamental idea that you cannot drive around a track flat-out," Lisles said. "As soon as you can do that, you've more or less got a spec series. To make it a true racing contest you need to have an aerodynamic package that is such that you cannot go flat all the way around the track rather than just a contest of who has the largest balls. That's the way it is if you have a car that will go 'round the track flat with so much downforce like an IRL car. It's a lot more challenging for everybody not to be flat.

"The question is, is it something you need to solve? Or do you accept it for what it is? It is a very big problem and part of the nature of open-wheel oval racing. You can make an argument from a safety point of view that you don't want guys two and three abreast, wheel-to-wheel for lap after lap, because you're going to end up with somebody in the grandstands."

Indeed, that has happened already for the IRL with debris flying into the stands at Charlotte and Atlanta putting a stop to Indy racing at those tracks, while CART had its problems at Michigan in 1998 when one of Adrian Fernandez's wheels flew into the grandstands, killing three spectators. Similar worries about 'the big one' prevail at NASCAR's restrictor plate races where the cars also run around in packs, throttle screwed flat to the floor.

Going back before the CART/IRL split and the introduction of today's dumbed-down rules, I fondly recall both the 1993 and '95 Indy 500s in particular as furiously competitive races with lots of people battling back and forth throughout the race. In '93 there was a fantastic shoot-out to the finish between Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell and Arie Luyendyk and the top eight finishers that year were covered at the finish by ten seconds. The drivers could race and pass each other energetically and the field was plenty competitive.

Those cars were great-looking machines, sleek and clean. My friend and colleague Nigel Roebuck used to regularly take in the Indy 500 in those days and Nigel would rave about how the Indy cars of those days were the best-looking modern open-wheel cars, well ahead of F1 cars to his eye. In contrast, today's IRL cars look angular and crude, distinctly un-sleek in fact, and all too similar aesthetically to NASCAR's boxey and unimaginative 'Car of Tomorrow'. In simple words, they're butt-ugly.

Through the late nineties horsepower increased steadily as Honda and Toyota took on Mercedes-Benz and Ford/Cosworth. CART tried to control things by continually reducing boost limits, but the organization was run ragged by the engine war between the engine manufacturers. "Horsepower almost got out of control," Lisles recalled. "When you have a qualifying lap speed of 240 mph, you know that you've got to make some pretty big changes."

During this time CART adopted the Handford wing, designed by aerodynamicist Mark Handford, for use on the superspeedways. The Handford wing was intended to reduce speeds and keep the cars from running away from each other, the opposite of today's problem of the cars running around in packs.

"In the late nineties when we used to race at Michigan and Fontana, we put on some good races," Lisles commented. "There was a lot of moaning and complaining about the Handford device but a lot of care went into choosing the lift/drag ratio of the car and when it was first introduced it was actually pretty effective. Of course, as things changed, it didn't quite keep up with some of the changes so a couple of times it produced somewhat bizarre races.

"Certainly in the CART days, a lot of attempts were made to produce the most effective aero package," Lisles added. "We ran relatively low downforce at some of the short tracks and we ran high downforce at some other short tracks. In the end, I don't think any of them really produced more or better racing.

"The drivers would complain if we ran low downforce that the cars were slippery and slidy and difficult to drive. And if we ran a lot of downforce they complained that they were pulling such high gs in the corners that if anything went wrong they were going to get seriously hurt. I'm sure both comments were made with equal sincerity."

Another factor is that progress in tire development has produced much safer, more reliable tires. Bridgestone/Firestone does a superb job. Its tires are incredibly consistent in quality, performance and durability and today's radial tires, first introduced more than twenty years ago, are so much better than the old bias-ply tires that the art of getting the best from your rubber has almost gone out of the sport.

"One of the problems is that motor racing continually evolves and everything gets better and better," Lisles remarked. "People remember the good old days of how halfway through a fuel stint all of a sudden somebody would start to go a lot faster and come from eighth place and overtake everybody and pull away. Then he would go to the pits and he was not quite as good for a while, but after burning-off some fuel he would run a lot better again.

"A lot of that was tire-related," Lisles added. "The tires are now so much better that they do not degrade anything like they used to. In the old days, if you had the car set-up to use new tires, it was almost certainly horrible on old tires. That's where the wise and clever drivers would forgo some immediate, new tire performance because they knew in the longterm they were going to have to deal with worn tires and that's where they could make a lot of progress.

"It was almost inevitable that the guy who was going to win the race was not the guy who jumped out into the lead in the first ten laps. And you had people like Mario and Michael and Rick Mears and Al Unser Jr who learned early on what it took. Often, they probably wouldn't even qualify well because they were more interested in the race set-up. They'd fall back to eighth or something at the start, and then all of a sudden, halfway through a fuel stint they'd be charging by everybody and going into the lead. Then there would be a yellow and they might drop back a little bit and then they'd be back up in the lead again. I think that was largely a result of the tires, and the fact that the cars were not flat all the way around the track."

It's too bad so much of that has been removed from the sport because it was a great challenge for both drivers and teams. It really separated the best of the thinking, technical drivers and the teams who could properly support them, from the rest. It also made for interesting, constantly-changing races with cars passing and repassing as they alternatively fell back or came on strong.

"I don't know that there's a solution to the problem," Lisles observed. "It's like you can't uninvent aerodynamics. We all know about ground effect. Even NASCAR teams use ground effect and they've got a big, bumpy underneath to the car. But nevertheless, everybody knows about ground effect. They know the basics of how to make it work. You can't get away from it because it's there.

"And I think it's the same for the tire people. I don't think the tire manufacturer is going to willingly and deliberately make tires that are going to deterioriate like they used to. They're going to do the best job they can because it's not a good advertisement to have your tires going off. So I don't know what the solution is. I guess the question you're asking is, should ovals be part of an open-wheel series? It is a problem, there's no doubt about it, and I don't think there's an easy solution."

The problem is complicated by the fact that most new oval tracks built in recent years are high-banked tracks designed for NASCAR. It's a well-known story that Daytona proved to be tragically too fast for front-engined USAC roadsters when it was opened back in 1959 and as we all have learned the higher the banking, the less a track is suitable for open-wheel cars. "That's absolutely true," Lisles commented. "But I think Michigan and Fontana are doable if you pick the right lift/drag ratio. We have and could put on a good show there.

"I think ovals are important because they so much a part of the history," he went on. "Ideally, I would build the oval part of an open-wheel series around the Triple Crown--three 500-mile races on the traditional tracks at Indianapolis, Michigan and Fontana. And if you want to throw in Milwaukee and another low-banked track, that would be great, but there aren't many like that. On the other hand, we just named four tracks which are perfectly acceptable for open-wheel oval racing and I'm sure there are one or two others I haven't been to that would be good."

Like most people in the business Lisles has been hoping for some good news about Champ Car and IRL getting together. "We're just waiting to hear what our fate is going to be, what kind of car is going to come along, and who and where we're going to be racing with and against next year and the year after," he remarked. "We're hopeful that it will be solved in a way that will enable us to get on with the job rather than spending so much time head-scratching and worrying. Hopefully, that will be the case."

Unfortunately, it appears the latest reunification talks have broken down, so that the IRL and Champ Car will continue to go down separate paths. Regardless, it should be very clear to all that a more enlightened level of technical thinking must be applied to the sport. If not, Indy and/or Champ car racing will continue its fade into irrelevancy.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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