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The Way It Is/ The IRL has a chance to recreate itself with plans for a new Indy Car of Tomorrow in 2011

by Gordon Kirby
For those of us who are concerned about the future of American open-wheel racing the big story from this year's month of May in Indianapolis was the announcement two days before the race that the IMS has entered into an agreement with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena to produce a series of design exercises aimed at formulating an all-new Indy car for 2011.

The Art Center College was founded in 1930 and has worked over the years with many major automobile manufacturers and other industrial giants. The Indy car project is led by Stewart Reed, the design center's chair of transportation design who has thirty-five years experience in the field. Seven faculty members and thirty design students from the Art Center College attended the 91st running of the Indy 500. Included were students specializing in transportation design, product design, environmental design, graphic design and entertainment design.

Terry Angstadt, who was recently named president of the IRL's commercial division, credited Honda Performance Development boss Robert Clarke with making the introductions and getting the ball rolling on this project.

"We really want to thank our friends at Honda," Angstadt said. "They have worked with the design school in the past and Honda made the introduction. As soon as you walk in the place you get this unbelievable sense of energy and innovation. It's an unbelievable environment, so we're very happy to have this opportunity to work with them."

IMS president Tony George exuded unbridled enthusiasm about working with the Art Center College. "When I first went out there I was really blown away by what I saw," George said. "When I came back I was pretty enthusiastic about what I'd seen and I shared it with quite a few people.

"We've been looking at what the Indianapolis 500 has meant to the automotive industry over the last hundred years and now we're looking at the next hundred years. As we come up to the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway [in 2009] and the first running of the Indianapolis 500 [in 2011], we thought what better way to try and incorporate a project like the car of the future with these anniversaries."

To get a better understanding of the IRL's hopes and plans for its 2011 car I talked at length last week with Brian Barnhart, president of the IRL's competition and operations division. "We are funding the project and we are commissioning students to do design projects and take a look at what the Indy car of 2011 could look like," Barnhardt explained. "We were introduced to them through Robert Clarke and Honda and we think this is an excellent time to take a fresh look at the look and feel of tomorrow's Indy car. Tony was blown away by what he saw out there. He said they've got some of the most creative minds in the world and it's a real eye-opener as to where you can go."

Barnhart reiterated some comments made by Tony George during the formal announcement of the Car of 2011 project. "We think the best way to do it is through the minds of people who will live their entire lives in the 21st century, not the people who have spent the majority of their life in the twentieth century," Barnhardt remarked. "We think that only makes common sense."

He was quick to point out that making practical sense of the Art Center's concepts will be the key to making the new car project succesful. "As you have discussed in some of your columns, the trick as always is going to be the practical implementation of concepts," Barnhart observed. "There are always balances that will come into that and that will be the big challenge for us."

Barnhart pointed out that the essential parameters of Indy car design were laid down almost thirty years ago when Jim Hall debuted his John Barnard-designed Chaparral 2K. "The look of an Indy car hasn't really changed since 1979 when Jim Hall brought the first real ground effects car with front and rear wings and tunnels on it," he commented. "Basically that's been the car for the past twenty-eight years. I don't know that it's necessarily the time to change but it's certainly worth a look into the future and to become more relevant. Relevant technology is important.

"As you've pointed out in some of your writing, not everything from the NASCAR model applies to what we're doing. You do have to have relevant technology in our type of racing. But again, achieving a balance is always the hardest work. You can never be all things to all people, and in the end it's all about balance. This is our way of looking at the style of our cars and it's all about innovation and relevant technology. This is our future and we're excited about it."

Both Honda and the IRL want to find a new engine formula for 2011 that will encourage other manufacturers to compete a point also made by Dario Franchitti in Monday's column. "Our ultimate goal would be multiple engine manufacturers in a competitive environment," Barnhart said. "That should be our target and our goal. It would be ideal if we can achieve that and get into that type of arena.

"The hard part--as you've discussed in your columns--is, do you do that with multiple manufacturers under the same set of rules, or do you do different types of fuels for different manufacturers with V-8s, V-10s and V-12s? I guess that's the ALMS model, but it's never really worked or been applied at this level and philosophically I think that's a difficult question to answer by saying this is the direction we want to take the Indy 500."

The fact is equivalency formulas have never worked over racing's one hundred-plus years of history. One way always turns out to be best and everyone finally goes down that route, sometimes seriously upsetting the applecart. In the meantime, those manufacturers on the losing end of equivalency formulas often are driven from the sport, sometimes forever.

"Robert Clarke has acknowledged that," Barnhardt commented. "Of course, it's the sanctioning body's responsibility to continually tweak those equivalencies, and that's a problem in itself right there. You just can't keep moving the goalposts on people. You get to the point where you upset them enough that they decide to leave, to take their ball and go home.

"As you've already pointed out, no matter how hard a sanctioning body tries, they're never going to be completely equal. There are going to be different torque bands, different power curves, different fuel efficiency, different weights, no matter how much you can calculate the energy in any given fuel. So is that something you really want at the Indianapolis 500? I'm not sure that we need to follow the ALMS model."

Barnhart would like to see the next stage in green or alternative fuels be integral to the 2011 engine rules. "I think we need to have the responsibility to continue to look towards alternative fuels, whether it's the next evolution of ethanol or whether it's cellulosic ethanol or biodiesels or hydrogen fuel cells," he said. "As many manufacturers you have out there, almost all of them have got their stake in the ground somewhere and most of them aren't the same. So that's our challenge."

Barnhart believes the IRL must identify a single alternate fuel for 2011 rather than attempting to embrace multiple fuels. "I think we need to get with the manufacturers and find three or four of them that have common ground or a common stake in the ground for what they think the future is and that's the type of alternate fuel we need to go with," he remarked. "If we get two or three or four manufacturers to come on board with a common goal to develop an alternate fuel that might be the ideal way to go. But at this stage the manufacturers are all over the board on what the right way to go may be.

"Honda likes hydrogen fuel cells, but I'm not sure there's any other manufacturer out there who feels that way. So if we choose to go that direction as our future fuel source, we've got Honda's attention, but do we have anybody else's? That goes back to my point that we want the model with engine competition, and I know Honda wants that too, but we may not get that if we choose the platform that they prefer. So there is no simple answer."

Barnhart said he took heart from reading similar concerns from other people in the sport. "It was good to see and read other people talking about it in your columns because there is no simple answer to this," he added. "It is a huge balancing act, but it's one we're taking very seriously."

Barnhart is delighted with how smoothly the IRL's switch has gone this year from methanol to one hundred percent ethanol. "I couldn't be more proud of what we've done with ethanol," he commented. "I think it's a continuation of the leadership of innovation associated with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 from Ray Harroun's rear view mirror to the safer barrier to being the first series to ever run on one hundred percent ethanol. It's a continuation of our leadership position within the industry, especially with regard to innovation.

"I think Honda has done a brilliant job of making a seamless transition to ethanol," Barnhart added. "The only noticeable difference is the smell of the fumes. There's zero difference in terms of performance, competition and reliability, and it has a much more pleasant odor. How many times have you stood around a methanol car and your eyes are watering and you can't breath? Not with ethanol."

Barnhart said he's pleased to see Jerry Forsythe pushing Champ Car to switch to E85 ethanol next year. "I read Jerry Forsythe's comments about wanting Champ Car to go to E85 and I think that would be brilliant," Barnhart remarked. "I think that is only logical and that it would be nothing but a good thing. I don't think anybody pretends that ethanol is the answer, but it's part of the answer and a great transition. It is definitely the first step in the process of weaning ourselves off our dependence on foreign oil. It's not the answer, but without a doubt it's part of the answer.

"What we have with ethanol may not be what you want to put in your home air freshener, but it's considerably more pleasant than methanol and it's considerably better for the environment and for emmissions. It's clearly the right thing to do, but it's just a bridge. It's going to be in place for us for several years but we're going to be very open-minded to alternative fuels as we go down the road."

Getting the right aerodynamic package for the new IRL car so that it makes for good racing and the cars can be raced safely will be equally demanding as choosing the right fuel for the future. "You're absolutely right and I have to say I could not be more happier than I am with our current car in that regards," Barnhart remarked. "These cars have been brilliant cars for us and I'm extremely pleased with their performance on all types of circuits, especially on the road and street circuits. To take an oval-optimized car and go road and street racing with it as well as we have, I think we've done an exceptional job. They've served their purpose and now's the time for us to start looking at our future specification and the package as a whole--chassis and engines.

"We've had plenty of passing and close racing in the past four 500s," Barnhart added. "The package that we have right now is a pretty good balance and we've got them running at the speeds were they're comfortable and can clearly race wheel-to-wheel and overtake. If we can run nose-to-tail and side-by-side and run on street circuits, road courses, flat superspeedways and high-banked tracks, then I don't think we have to reinvent the wheel as far as our aero package. I think that's to the League's credit. It demonstrates our ability to react. I think we've got a great baseline to base the next generation car on and that works in our favor."

Tony Kanaan agrees with Barnhart about the IRL's current aero package. "I would say right now we are the best that we could possibly have," Kanaan said. "We're very quick on the short ovals. We still run a little bit slower than the Champ cars but we can race side-by-side, like back in the days when we had the road course wings at Nazareth. That was perfect.

"We have a very good road course package. I think we could actually have a bit more power for the road courses but for the short ovals and the big ovals I think we do have the best compromise right now. As far as I remember for having fun, if I don't go back ten years ago to the CART days when we had street course wings on the short ovals, that was the most fun I ever had.

"But this is fun as well, and I think the IRL has made smart decisions on the aero package," Kanaan added. "We had cars flying a few years ago, but we don't anymore. It's competitive and you still have to drive. So I would say right now, if it's good, don't change it. And if you look at the races, it's damn close. So I don't think we're that far off. It could be better, but right now I couldn't point to what we need to do to make that extra step."

Barnhart believes the aerodynamic lessons of the past few years can be applied to the Car of 2011. "Change is inevitable and we can't always control the direction of the change," he commented. "But I think we can influence the changes and we can influence technologies. We've proven that we can respond to technological challenges as they're presented to us. I think you need to be not only reactive but you need to be proactive and that's part of what the design school project for 2011 is going to be about. Let's look at some concepts and let's see if we can get an idea of what the Indy car of the future could look like."

The current cars certainly can be improved on aesthetically. In the modern age they look distinctly agricultural and I believe the Art Center needs to rediscover the aesthetics of the Indy car of the nineties in its Car of 2011 design project. My longtime colleague Nigel Roebuck frequently reminds me that the CART cars from the last decade in superspeedway trim with tiny wings front and rear were the most beautiful open-wheel cars of the modern era. Nigel is passionate in his belief and I know many people who agree with him.

Barnhart agrees that improving the look is an important element to the new car. "Absolutely," Barnhart said. "There's no question that's part of what we want to see from these design exercises.

"Now again," he added, "the practical implementation of that concept will be a challenge but that's where guys like Les McTaggart and Kevin Blanche and our technical staff come into play. Let those creative minds from the Art Center come up with their ideas and let's find that balance and the mix to put a good package together. It's very exciting."

Kanaan thinks the timing of the car of 2011 is perfect because it will allow plenty of time to develop the car but also will bring stability and reduced costs for some IRL teams. "I think it's smart because we know we'll be running the same cars through 2010 and you're always going to have at least twenty cars up until 2011," Kanaan observed. "Nobody needs to buy anything new. I'm sure our team will buy some new cars, but you won't have to. But it means more cheaper, competitive cars will be on the market and if a team from the Champ Car side wants to come over they can buy some used but more affordable cars from some of the IRL teams.

"This is the only way to grow again," he added. "We can't be stubborn and keep living in the past dreaming that teams have got to come up with $10 million to race in this series. But that ain't happening. So this is a smart way to grow. The last thing we need right now is a new car. This one is working and we're slowing the cars down so that means the current car is still good. We're not limited by it."

Kanaan expanded on Dario Franchitti's point made in this space a few weeks ago that mid-corner speeds are as high as ever. "I would say we are beyond the limit," Kanaan said. "We are already backing down the road. We're already making changes to go slow. Technology will make it better so they will have to keep restricting us.

"When we started in these cars they were easier to drive than the Champ cars, but like Dario says, the corner speeds were always much higher, so that makes it really physical and really diffficult. What it did was it gave more people more opportunity to win which would mask sometimes a very good driver from an average driver.

"But right now if you look at the last three years there's not many people winning races anymore," Kanaan added. "It's between three teams and if you go back to the CART days, Dario and me, Helio and Dixon were there. Only Sam and Wheldon have come along since then. So the good guys will still show themselves. I think the cars are more and more difficult to drive. Right now, if anybody thinks it's easy, I would invite them to come over and try it."

Kanaan says he would love to see the IRL go to a paddle shifter system--now used almost universally in most global forms of open-wheel racing--for its 2011 car. "I think one way technology-wise they could make it better would be to go to a paddle shift because everybody has that in racing today," he said. "That wouldn't make the performance of the car better, but it would feel great and make it better for any future American driver who wanted to go to Europe."

The IRL's announcement of its new car project gives Kanaan confidence for the future. "I think for the first time after this announcement about the car of 2011, we're in the best shape strategically that we have been for a long time," he remarked. "With a big company like Honda behind us, if we don't make it this time, we'll never make it.

"Now, everybody is breathing a little easier. Before, it was a big competition between us and CART. Now they've gone and are doing their own thing. No disrepect to them, but I think we are doing a better job in some ways although they do a better job in some other ways. I still think we should be just one group but right now we have time to breath and to think clearly until 2011. I think the future looks brighter than it did four years ago."

After years of technical stagnation and the dreaded arrival of spec-car racing throughout the sport, it's exciting to think that we may be on the brink of a revival of innovation and technical variety. Stewart Reed and his students at the Art Center College in Pasadena bear a great responsibility for making this happen. They carry on their shoulders the hopes of many people who desperately want to see a flagging sport heartily revived.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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