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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/ Some lateral and other critical thinking about the IRL's Car of 2011 and the right way forward for the sport PLUS Appreciating Bill France Jr.

by Gordon Kirby
You may not be surprised to hear that many people with years of experience in the sport are skeptical about Pasadena's Art Center College of Design having a realistic effect on the Indy car of 2011. Many racing veterans believe the idea of producing fanciful design concepts is putting the cart before the horse although most of them are enthusiastic about the Art College contributing to improving the aesthetic appeal of the cars once the design parameters, or rules, are defined.

My colleague Quentin Spurring pointed out that back in 1993 Honda commissioned the Art Center College to produce some Indy car of the future design concepts. Spurring was the editor of Autosport from the late seventies through the eighties and went on to found Race Car Engineering magazine. He published some photos of the concept cars in volume 4, issue no 1 of Race Car Engineering in 1994.

Near the front of the magazine, eight different Art Center design concepts were pictured, all of them zoomy but more fanciful than functional. Four of the 1993 concept Indy cars photographed in Race Car Engineering are presented here.

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Kurt Borman is a veteran software engineer who was one of the pioneers more than twenty years ago of onboard data systems in racing. He's worked in many of the sport's major disciplines from CART to F1, GP motor cycle racing to NASCAR, and often shares his ideas with me about technology in racing and where the sport is or isn't headed. Borman argues strongly that 'form follows function' is essential to real world engineering and to racing in particular.

"As far as the California art and design people go," Borman remarked. "I'm afraid I'm a firm believer that form follows function, and that the general look of racing cars designed and developed by clever engineers is a product of the rules, the laws of physics, and the technology of the time. That includes those lovely 90's CART machines that Nigel Roebuck and you remember so fondly. Trying to make that play backwards will not be easy, and unintended consequences may well arise. The more you dictate the form, the less room you leave for the kind of diversity we'd all like to see."

Borman adds that no matter how open the rules may be a common technical path always emerges. "Even having left a lot of room for diversity, when the rules are stable for a long enough period the designs will converge on the one dictated by Messieurs Newton and Bernoulli. The well-heeled teams will get there first, of course, but in the long run rules stability ultimately gives the small teams the best chance--and gives us a world where all the cars look the same. Which, of course, is a given in a spec car series, too."

Borman believes the Art Center College could bring vast improvements to the uninspired graphic presentation of some of today's race cars. "I have to say that a great many cars in all series desperately need some savvy design input in regards to their paint schemes," Borman remarked. "It is just astonishing how badly some of them are done, both in terms of sponsor visibility for television and pure aesthetics. And not just by low-budget teams. My theory is that they are designed by people trained to design static objects, and so indeed they do look like rolling billboards instead of making a statement in a dynamic environment."

Borman would like to see the Art Center take a serious stab at producing some sensible, closed-wheel design concepts. He's not sure it would be wise to turn our backs on the long history of open-wheel race cars, but believes there's no question that a fendered car is more relevant to any road car.

"The most profound change possible for 2011 to make the sport more relevant--one which I would not like to see--is going away from open wheel to enclosed bodywork," Borman commented. "That would certainly be a huge step in relevance, aerodynamic efficiency and possibly safety, but at the cost of losing an entire segment of the sport as we know it. Mind you, if they start with an open mind and no restrictions I tend to think the artsy types in Pasadena will at least consider that change. And maybe they should."

Borman also believes there are some lessons to be learned from reflecting on the original challenges of motor racing. "I've been musing about the 100th anniversary of the first 500, coming up in just four years, and thinking that we have largely lost sight of what it was when it began," he ruminated. "Indeed, many of us never understood it at all. And what the 500 was at the start--forgive me for dragging up this old phrase--was an epic test of man and machine. The very reason that it started at 11AM was so there would be enough hours of daylight left to get the race in. At 80-some mph it was a 6 hour race. And the race did not end when the lead car finished that distance. To be classified you had to complete 500 miles.

"I don't suppose that pattern will ever work in the modern world, and we have to let it go. I suppose it is neither TV nor fan friendly. A modern Indy Car race on an oval is really more akin to a board speedway race than to the original 500 mile race at Indianapolis. It's more about speed than endurance. But it would be nice to hold on to at least some semblance of that feeling that you were seeing something larger than life, something only heros could do."

Borman says the Le Mans 24 hours is the only modern race that makes him feel this way. "I still feel that at Le Mans, especially when it rains in the night, but at other times too. Le Mans remains a glorious exception for which we must all be grateful. The experience is not entirely a comfortable one. But should it be? Its concept and tradition are a central part of our sport and it is also increasingly relevant, what with two major manufacturers seriously racing advanced and environmentally friendly diesels for the overall win."

And of course, let's not forget that the key element to the correct formula for the future is establishing the right green engine formula. We've been discussing this central issue in this column and will continue to do so over the coming weeks and months. As already discussed, the big challenge for the rulemakers is selecting the right green fuel and engine formula to attract a number of manufacturers and to make for exciting, technically interesting and competitive racing. Borman reiterates that to do this without resorting to dangerous equivalency formulas is the big test for racing's rulemakers.

"The discovery of new technology has the same effect in racing as a major rules change, so long as it's not made illegal, and that's what gave us some great eras in the past," Borman observed. "Fiddling with equivalency rules to level the playing field every time someone finds an advantage somewhat defeats the purpose, from a purely racing point of view. ALMS are doing OK with that--just. But brother, it's a tough call."

Indeed. And if open-wheel and sports car racing are to thrive in America in the second and third decades of the 21st century so too must the tough and hopefully right choices be made in fuel and engine formulas.

*The passing of Bill France Jr. this week after a long battle with cancer and general ill-health marks the end of an era in American automobile racing. France and his father Bill Sr. were the great dictators of NASCAR. France Sr. took control of the organization from its start almost sixty years ago and ran NASCAR with an iron fist, steering stock car racing into the superspeedway and big money era by conceiving and building the Daytona Speedway.

Bill Jr. worked on the construction team building the new, high-banked track and learned his trade from bottom to top by working all aspects of the business before taking over from his retiring father in 1972. At the same time Winston cigarettes came on board as NASCAR's series sponsor and over the next thirty years R.J. Reynolds tobacco money and France's leadership took the stock car organization to new heights of national and worldwide recognition.

A key to this era of steady growth was maintaining an almost entirely unchanged, thirty-race schedule over twenty years and building serious date equity where little existed in the rest of American racing. Another key was Bill Jr's ability to play tough with the manufacturers, other promoters, car owners and drivers, a skill he learned from his father. Bill Jr. also built a system from top to bottom, including the Busch and Truck series and the many NASCAR-sanctioned regional and local championships reaching down to the sport's grass roots.

Between them Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. carved a unique course in American motor sport history marked by utter pragmatism, hard-headedness, an unrelenting vision and a determination to succeed beyond the South and expand into the national sporting phenomenom NASCAR is today. We'll never see their like again.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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