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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/ Technology, aesthetics and speed. How to recreate racing's essential equation?

by Gordon Kirby
Over the course of last year it became abundantly clear to many of us that spec car or single-make racing will be the death of Indy or Champ car racing. The weakened commercial state of IRL and Champ Car, with sponsorship all but impossible to sell, has forced American open-wheel racing down the spec car path from which there seems no escape. Champ Car's new spec car was seen by many as a panacea for the organization's many ills, but Champ Car's deliberate adoption of the Panoz DP01-Cosworth and the IRL's de facto devolution to a Dallara-Honda has reduced both series to minor leagues with zero technical variety or competition among car builders or engine manufacturers--the lifeblood that has always driven motor racing.

Regardless of what either series may want to claim or believe, they've both sunk into the alphabet soup of open-wheel, spec car formulae, simmering rather unappetizingly in company with A1GP, GP2, the new Super League series, Formula Nippon, Renault World Series, etc. The days of Indy car racing as a uniquely dissimilar rival for Formula 1 are long-gone.

As any regular reader knows, I believe the only way either IRL or Champ Car can claw their way out of this primordial ooze and reverse their deadly downward spirals is to reinvent themselves as soon as possible with a new formula that will bring back technical variety and interest in competing car builders and engine manufacturers. Without these elements, IRL and Champ Car are doomed to survive at the margins of the sport with slim fields, no pizazz and an ever-dwindling pool of name drivers. It's a sad way to arrive on the doorstep of the 100th anniversaries of both American national championship racing and the birth of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

If either the Speedway, IRL or Champ Car are seriously interested in celebrating the beginning of the sport's second century they will realize it's essential for them to come together to create an exciting new formula for 2010, or 2011 at the latest. It's essential to reintroduce innovation, new technology and the creative spirit which fueled the sport for most of its life.

Certainly, Honda has made clear to the IRL that if it is to continue as the IRL's engine supplier it wants the new formula to embrace these things as well as competition from other manufacturers. In this space on November 15th, Honda's retiring Robert Clarke strongly inferred that if the IRL is unable to respond and demonstrate a clear path to a technically-challenging formula for 2011, Honda will withdraw from Indy car racing at the end of 2009. Clarke said Honda wants to continue in the IRL beyond 2009 but is carefully reviewing the situation in deciding American Honda's and HPD's longterm futures in racing.

"We made a commitment back at the end of 2005 to stay through 2009 and I think we did it for all the right reasons, which was to give the series some stability," Clarke commented. "GM and Toyota had just left and if we had left, too, who knows what would have happened? I would have feared the worst. But we stayed and I think when we made that announcement there was an audible sigh of relief.

"I'm reminded on a frequent basis by owners and drivers, and those in the sanctioning body, that they appreciate what we did and what we've contributed. They're all hopeful that Honda will stay beyond '09 and I've been talking internally about it in recent discussions with our management. Back in 2005 we said we don't want to be a sole supplier. We want competition, but we also want this series to be strong and a place we want to stay longterm."

Clarke believes the key to attracting other manufacturers into the IRL is to write hybrid and energy-preserving technologies into the rules for 2011, matters discussed at length in this space over the course of last year.

"My thought is the series needs to become more relevant in using a product and technology which is related more toward production car technologies," Clarke said. "We need something that we can actually talk about and promote. Right now, there's nothing we can talk about, other than Honda quality and reliability.

"If the IRL were to embrace real-world challenges like fuel consumption, emmissions, noise, and using energy better, I think other manufacturers will take notice. Hopefully, that would cause them to enter the series because they really can't afford to let us continue to do it on our own and not be involved.

"Every manufacturer is living and dying with the perception of the public," Clarke added. "You have to try to be a leader in those areas and other than ALMS there's no series in American racing that's embracing those things. The ALMS is a very good series but they don't have a race that's anything close to the Indy 500. So there's a great opportunity out there if the IRL do it right."

For almost ninety years innovation and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were considered to be fellow travellers. The race was founded on that spirit and continued to be a hotbed of new concepts and independent thinking until the introduction of the cost and technology-restricted IRL formula in 1996. As the 500 deserted the cutting edge in favor of a pedestrian, ostensibly everyman's formula, the race fell into steady and inexorable decline.

Ray Harroun's victory in the first Indy 500 in 1911 is celebrated for a number of reasons, including the fact that his rare, single-seat Marmon Wasp (all the other cars were two-seaters carrying riding mechanics) was the only car in the field with a rear-view mirror. Thus was born the Speedway's tradition of innovation.

Of course, an even more important factor in Harroun's win were his Firestone tires which he managed to perfection over the 500 miles. During practice, Harroun discovered his tires wouldn't last if he pushed his lap speed beyond 75 mph, and in the race he kept a disciplined eye on his pace so that he had to make only four pitstops to change tires, considerably fewer than anyone else.

The inaugural 500 was a great success and almost instantly the race became an international event. Frenchman Jules Goux won the 1913 running of the 500 aboard a factory Grand Prix Peugeot. This was followed by wins for Delage and Mercedes-Benz in 1914 and '15 and two more wins for Peugeot in 1916 and '19. The four-cylinder Peugeot engine designed by Ernest Henry heralded a move to smaller, higher-revving engines and featured twin overhead camshafts and a pent roof combustion chamber. The basic design has remained a key to high-performance engine design through today.

The French engine inspired others to try to do a better job, including Duesenberg and in particular, Harry Miller, whose straight-eight engines--supercharged and otherwise--and elegant cars dominated Indy car racing through the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Miller's engines served in turn as the basis for the four-cylinder Offenhauser engine which ruled Indy car racing through the post-WWII era.

The nineteen-fifites and sixties are famous for the 'roadster' era. These beautiful, increasingly sleeker, Offy-powered cars were built by people like Frank Kurtis, Eddie Kuzma and A.J. Watson. The Kurtis in which Bill Vukovich won the 1953 and '54 Indy 500s was a particularly attractive car and was followed by a series of beautiful, lowline roadsters with 'laydown' engines.

In the sixties and early seventies the Speedway erupted with innovation at every turn as rear-engined cars, turbocharging and aerodynamics arrived. It was a spectacular time with new cars and concepts appearing every year and new track records, too. Looking back, it was a particularly remarkable time for American racing with teams like Lotus, All American Racers, Vel's Parnelli Jones and McLaren building and racing exciting new cars every year and track records going through the roof. In 1972, Bobby Unser broke the track record at Indianapolis by no less than seventeen mph!

One year later, after a disastrous, rain-sodden, crash-riddled 500, USAC began to restrict and restrain the cars and engines. Since those days the sanctioning bodies--USAC, CART, IRL and Champ Car--have spent most of their efforts trying to figure-out ways to slow-down the cars. More and more restrictions were placed on engines and aerodynamics and the sanctioning bodies responded to new thinking and new technology simply by banning most everything, resulting in today's interest-free, spec cars.

As I've written many times, all our domestic open-wheel and sports car racing sanctioning bodies have failed to produce powerful and wise leaders or fervent promoters of the sport. But their biggest failure has been their incredible ineptitude at managing the technical rules. As a result, they threw away what an Indy car (or CanAm or GTP car) was all about which was a car with extreme power and speed--substantially more than both F1 and NASCAR cars.

Power and speed was what the spectacle was all about for Indy car fans and it was part of the challenge for the drivers as well. Those things made the Indy 500 what it was and gave the race its position as one of the sport's pinnacles. How to write the correct formula for such a spectacular car in today's aerodynamically-dominated world is no easy question, but it's one which both IRL and Champ Car should be dedicated to solving.

And too, over the course of the past dozen years' debilitating civil war, the powers-that-be have also succeeded in breaking the long chain of Indy car superstars from Ray Harroun through Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr, Michael Andretti and their contemporaries. A sporting superstar, after all, is made by arriving on the scene and beating the established superstars. It's a very simple process that happens this way in all sports.

But when the sheen wears off and you have no superstars to beat, it becomes increasingly difficult for the new guys to make their names. Today, we've gone through two or three generations of new faces beating unknowns from Buddy Lazier and Buzz Calkins to recent Indy 500 winners like Buddy Rice, Sam Hornish and Dan Wheldon who are almost unrecognized as national sports figures and are non-entities in the sport's historic pantheon.

You can say all you like about guys like Alex Zanardi and Greg Moore, whose stars shone brightly in CART for a few, fleeting years. But neither Zanardi nor Moore ever raced at Indianapolis. Partially as a result, neither achieved the fame and recognition they deserved. But at the same time, the Speedway also suffered from not enjoying their presence.

Since then, whether it's Paul Tracy, Dario Franchitti, Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan or Sebastien Bourdais, their achievements have been minimized and otherwise reduced because the guys they beat progressively lost their luster as Indy and Champ car racing became smaller and smaller and smaller.

IRL and Champ Car can talk all they like about this or that marketing scheme as they have over the past dozen years to the point of utter tedium. The fact is all that marketing piffle is entirely irrelevant until they get the technical formula right and provide the right manufacturer-driven environment to reproduce a reputable, professional racing series and a new generation of superstars.

Equally true is the fact that hardly anybody in the media is interested in covering either series anymore. I can attest to this on a personal level. For twenty or more years I enjoyed a worldwide business covering CART's Indy Car World Series. Over twenty-six years from 1979-2004 I covered all but ten CART/Champ Car races--407 to be exact--for magazines in the USA, UK, Europe, Japan and Australia. But all that interest has vanished. Nobody cares anymore. The media space once lavished across America and around the world covering Indy car racing has faded almost to zero and been replaced by more F1 and NASCAR coverage, and in some cases by World Rally, or Moto GP, et al.

Robin Miller tells me SpeedTV's interest in Champ Car is at an all-time low and that this year he will continue the trend of covering more USAC sprint and midget racing and NHRA drag racing, rather than IRL, or Champ Car in particular. Then there's David Malsher who's covered Champ Car for Autosport the past three years and is moving to California to edit Racer magazine as Autosport's coverage of Champ Car is even further reduced. David Phillips will also be doing less Champ Car and more broader-based coverage for Racer this year. John Oreovicz remains steadfast, covering IRL and Champ Car for ESPN.com and Champ Car for Speed-Sport News, but Oreo reports he will likely do much more IRL than Champ Car this year. Jeff Olson continues on the IRL beat for Racer, SpeedTV and Autosport.

The way things are going, IRL and Champ Car soon will be left with Autoracing1.com, which may be to their liking because the powers-that-be in open-wheel racing never had much enthusiasm for the press. They preferred that these sometimes scruffy, often irreverant men and women write only sunny, pr-puff pieces, or go away.

Maybe they're relieved that their wishes of not having to deal with any pesky, probing press people have come true. But that's why Indy or Champ car racing has no commercial value--as Chip Ganassi has declared in this space--and in this day and age, it's not much more than glorified club racing.

If there's any hope of fixing this sad situation, the only way is with an inspired, new technical formula. The time has come for some seriously big thinking. I'm sorry to keep banging on about this but I have to ask, is anyone out there who's up to this monumental task?

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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