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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/ Do aesthetics matter in racing today?

by Gordon Kirby
Anyone I know who fell in love with motor racing was instantly and eternally attracted by the look of the cars--their aesthetics. The sport has been brought to life by beautiful cars and fantastic wailing engines, whether they were those superb, svelte supercharged Miller straight-eight Indy cars from the nineteen-twenties, or Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union Grand Prix cars from the thirties, or numerous Ferrari V-12 Grand Prix cars down through the years, or low-slung USAC roadsters from the fifties and early sixties, or turbocharged Offy and Ford-powered Indy cars from the unlimited sixties and early seventies, or All American Racers' legendary F1 Eagle-Weslake V-12, or the black and gold JPS Lotus 72s and 79s, not to mention the many superb sports/racers from the high-winged Chaparral and McLaren CanAm cars and the truly awesome turbo Porsche 917/30 CanAm car to the classic Ferrari Testa Rossa from the late fifties, the exotic little 250GTO coupe from the early sixties, the Ferrari 512 and Porsche 917 Le Mans cars and, of course, the classic Ford GT40 which even today remains an entirely contemporary shape.

The list goes on and on, and I don't mean to malign or offend anyone by not mentioning their favorite car because it would require a carefully considered book to begin to properly explore the subject. But over the last ten or fifteen years the great God of Aerodynamics has wreaked what many believe is a deleterious effect on the look of both Formula 1 cars and Le Mans or ALMS sports cars. There are too many nooks and crannies in the bodywork, too many 'bargeboards' and other devices invented to channel, deflect or otherwise mess artfully with the airflow. Smooth and continuous lines--once the essence of racing car design--have been abandoned in the never-ending pursuit of more downforce.

Further damage has been done to the sport's aesthetic appeal by the mythical quest for a level playing field and the resulting arrival of today's great spec car age in NASCAR, Grand-Am, Champ Car, IRL, etc. NASCAR has led the 21st century move into spec car racing with its Car of Tomorrow project and its loosely-affiliated Grand-Am sports car series. In both cases, fans and competitors alike complain about the large, boxey, retro-looking shapes of these cars.

Even the most ardent NASCAR fans believe in the age-old mantra of lower, sleeker, faster, and many of them see the CoT and Grand-Am cars as steps backward in time. People inside and outside the garage areas are asking, what happened to the aesthetics?

© Bob Tronolone
And of course, the IRL has managed to produce a de facto Dallara-Honda spec car that is not only ugly but also makes a disagreeable noise. I know some people don't like to hear this and everyone has their own aesthetic view, but again, I've heard many people inside the IRL garage area and fans on the outside grumble about the clunky look of today's Indy cars and the unhappy sound they hammer out. Champ Car's Panoz-Cosworth looks and sounds better but there's little doubt that the move to a spec car has cost that series interest, credibility and fans.

Over the past month or so I've been working through the photo edit for my biography of Rick Mears to be published next spring. I've looked at hundreds of photographs of Indy cars from the late seventies through the early nineties and it's been a delight to look at so many beautiful cars--clean, elegant machines built by Penske, Lola, All American Racers, March and Reynard. To my eye, those cars look much more attractive than today's IRL cars. I find it hard to imagine any race car radiating a better visual or aesthetic appeal than a CART Indy car in superspeedway trim with tiny wings from any time during the nineties. I also believe that if the IRL is to have any hope of recreating Indy car racing with its new formula for 2011 the Indy car of the future must be an aesthetic rival for its superb brethren from the eighties and nineties.

By the way, there were two other truly striking aspects to doing the photo edit of Rick Mears' career. The first was the full fields of almost thirty cars at every race and the fact that the front half of the field was chock a block with famous names from Mario and Michael Andretti to Al Unser and Al Jr, A.J. Foyt, Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan. Even the mid and backfield featured some pretty stout names and reputations.

The other thing that struck me were the packed grandstands at all the races whether it was Michigan, Milwaukee, Nazareth, Long Beach, Toronto, or Indy qualifying. And too, there was the diversity in chassis and engines with everybody busting their tails to do their own thing--the antithesis of today's dreaded spec cars.

So here's the challenge for the IRL's 2011 formula: It must produce aesthetic delights which can race spectacularly and well on all types of tracks. The cars must be able to pass freely and race each other, unlike the current IRL cars or NASCAR's new CoT. In fact, it's essential that the Indy car of 2011 produces a type of oval racing that differentiates itself from NASCAR, a type of oval racing not seen today but exactly the kind of spectacular racing provided by the Indy cars of the eighties and nineties.

The new formula must also attract multiple chassis and engine manufacturers eager to compete against Dallara and Honda in a diverse, commercially viable environment. And that will be very difficult to achieve when the series has been dominated for years by one chassis and one engine manufacturer. Indeed, it will be a particularly daunting challenge to produce an engine formula that suits Honda and also inspires other manufacturers to tackle the tall order of competing against a company renowned for its great historical commitment to racing.

© Art Center Shool of Design
With Toyota having departed CART and then the IRL to focus on NASCAR, the IRL has to hope to attract European manufacturers like BMW or Mercedes-Benz who are already married to Formula 1, or American manufacturers who may find themselves overpowered in NASCAR over the intervening years between now and 2011 by Toyota's money and technology and decide to shut-down their failing NASCAR programs in favor of re-entering Indy car racing. An unlikely scenario, you would think....

In a laudable attempt to cater to the aesthetic factor of the new IRL formula Tony George has committed the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena to produce a series of design concepts to inspire the Indy car of 2011. This is an admirable goal but it's important to understand that the formula cannot define the shape or concept of the car like it was a spec car. The formula must trigger multiple solutions and be as free-form as possible. No matter how creative the Art Center's students may be the world's fully-focused race car designers will find even more inventive solutions. If the formula is to be truly effective in reinvigorating Indy car racing it must encourage some seriously creative thinking.

I have to emphasize that over the past thirty or more years this is exactly the philosophical and practical ground on which motor racing has utterly failed. Instead of embracing new technology, the sport has almost invariably dealt with any technical conundrum by banning the offending new idea or inventive thinking. Whether it was the original, unlimited CanAm series of 1966-'74, IMSA's GTP series of the eighties and early nineties, CART's Indy Car World Series, or the IRL, each and every sanctioning body responded to new thinking by banning and seriously restricting it rather than encouraging new concepts in a thoughtfully useful way.

Over many decades legion upon legion of management and marketing types in the SCCA, IMSA, CART and IRL have failed miserably to organize, promote and market the sport. But the heart of the problem is that these organizations failed at every turn in the road to cope with and embrace technology and innovation, and they also walked slowly away from any belief or commitment to the sport's essential aesthetic appeal.

Can the IRL buck this tide and do it right in 2011? If they seriously hope to, they should establish a blue ribbon panel of racing experts to design the new formula. I would suggest Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Gordon Murray, John Barnard, Adrian Newey, Tony Cicale and John Ward. These guys would provide the IRL with some first-class council on the subject.

Otherwise, based on the sport's history, they don't stand a chance of getting it right. I hope they prove me wrong.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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