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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/ Fighting the great spec car plague

by Gordon Kirby
The SAE's annual Motorsports Engineering Conference takes place this week in Concord, North Carolina and on Tuesday's agenda is a debate about the state of rules-making in the age of the spec car. The session is titled, 'Is innovation being outlawed?' and will be chaired by the NHRA's Don Taylor.

Over the last few years in this space and elsewhere I've written a great deal about spec car racing and any regular reader will know I'm not a fan of this unfortunate trend in modern motor sport. So I thought I'd revisit some of the discussions I've had over the past couple of years about the arrival of spec car racing with some of the sport's most accomplished people.

Every category of racing, F1 included, is moving ever more in the direction of limiting everyone to essentially identical cars. This trend is being driven, of course, by the need to try to control spiralling costs and in today's economic environment it has become almost an article of faith.

Everyone understands the importance of trying to limit costs, but more and more people in the sport are worried that the flame of competition is fluttering in the wind and may soon be extinguished. The drive to innovate and compete is what makes people race car engineers and mechanics rather than garden variety examples of the same professions. But these folks are being blocked at every turn and their motivation is being drained by the proliferation of the spec car disease.

In my first 'The Way It Is' column in April, 2006, I touched on the increasing plague of spec cars in racing and all-time American racing great Dan Gurney added some cogent comments about this state of affairs. Dan's All American Racers built Eagles for thirty-four years from 1966-'99. Many Eagles were innovative or ground-breaking and all of AAR's cars were beautifully built to the highest possible engineering and aesthetic standards.

"The rules have become such that the factories are the only ones that are allowed any creative input." Dan told me in April of '06. "Since Toyota and Honda started racing in CART in the nineties and the IRL in 2003 you have to sign a release from them that you cannot look inside the engine. You can't do anything. In effect, they passed a rule that said you're not allowed to compete with them.

"When they started doing that I said, 'Why would you do that? Why stop innovation? Why stop creativity? What effect does that have on young people coming along and wanting to learn about those things?' The answer is it bleaches them out. So the social consequences of the way the manufacturers have control of the rules really bothers me. If these mega outfits aren't pushed to do something, nothing new will happen. Maybe the hundred mpg carburetor that everybody jokes about is out there, but we won't find it the way the rules are written today.

"You're not allowed to do what you want anymore," Dan added. "You're darn near classed as a criminal because you might want to continue to be creative against the bureaucratic rules. The freedom to be creative is what I liked so much about the sport and it's just been wrung out of it by the bureaucrats."

Like Gurney, I believe the sport has been consumed by provincialism, uninspired thinking and bureaucrats. I think a serious shake-up is required but I see no evidence of such a thing happening. Instead, it's business-as-usual, but given the challenges the sport faces a much more radical approach is required in all ways.

Last May I talked to another great American racer about the spec car plague. Parnelli Jones was a tremendous driver in many types of cars through the sixties and seventies while his race team, Vel's Parnelli Jones, built a series of interesting and sometimes superb Indy cars during the seventies as well as some very successful off-road trucks. Today, Jones remains as sharp as ever, and as knowledgeable a man about racing as anyone alive. Parnelli is delighted to see a unified IndyCar series emerge from the sport's long civil war, but he emphasizes that the real work begins now.

"We need to build respect for Indy car racing again and the only way we're ever going to get there is to make some dramatic changes," Jones observed. "It's a great start that the two series have merged back together, but it's not the answer. When you've got fifty cars like NASCAR, then you've got something. It's been embarrassing to go watch qualifying at Indianapolis in recent years. There's nobody there. We used to have 250,000 people show up for the first day of qualifying. But today, we don't have respect for the Indy winners that we used to have."

Parnelli believes the most important factor is for the sanctioning body to take control and devise a new formula that will create plenty of competition among engine and car builders.

"Before we go forward they've got to step back and take a long look," he commented. "You can't let the manufacturer run the series. What made all the series in the world in the first place, even NASCAR, is having all those different types of cars for people to root for. But it's easier said than done.

"They've got to get more than one manufacturer. I have nothing against Honda, but right now Honda is calling the shots. NASCAR controls not only the drivers and teams but they control the manufacturers, and that's what Indy car racing needs to get back to.

"We need to have competition and we need to look at it not just from a technical, Formula 1-type mentality. We need to look at it from an entertainment value because we have to compete against so many other entertainments in this country. It's not anymore about going out and seeing who's the best racer and seeing how many laps he can lead or how quick he can lap the field. Those days are gone.

"We need to be entertaining, but how do you get there? You're not going to get there with one manufacturer supplying the same thing to everybody because there's no entertainment value and there's nothing for you writers to write about!"

Another American racing legend who has no interest in spec cars is Jim Hall, creator of the legendary Chaparral Can-Am, long-distance sports cars and Indy cars.

"Something that's happened since we started putting downforce on the cars is that it's been optimized," Hall said. "We haven't changed the configuration of the cars in a long time. They're all mid-engined, rear-drive, ground-effect cars that have been optimized. Nobody's thought of a better idea and they've fixed the basic design of the cars.

"I don't like that," Hall added. "I think that if you could have room for a little bit different tack on it, a different strategy to design the car, maybe it would be more fun for everybody. But I don't know how to do it. I really don't. Even the NASCAR folks have made their car the same for everybody and I don't like to see racing go down that road."

Veteran team owner Carl Haas and his general manager Brian Lisles are equally concerned about where the sport is headed in the spec car age.

"The IRL is very expensive," Haas declared. "There are some areas in the rulebook that are very restricted but other areas leave plenty of room to spend lots of time and money on engineering. But any attempt to restrict the rules and go down the spec car road just forces us to go and spend our money and time on other things.

"You always do. That's the way it is. The guys who work for me are innovative guys. They want to do their own thing. That's the way they are. They're always going to find their own solution to a problem. But you know, in the end, I think it'll just push more people into NASCAR because there's more room for engineering in NASCAR. Everybody builds their own cars and until recently, at least, you could sell plenty of sponsorship to pay for whatever you wanted to do in NASCAR.

"The other thing is we do have a fan base in Indy car racing as long as they stick with the better street races and road courses," Haas added. "There is a fan base, but they want to see new things on the cars. That's one of the things they like about this type of racing. I hear it from the fans all the time. They don't like this move to spec cars, trying to make it look like NASCAR. They want to see new and different things."

Newman/Haas/Lanigan's general manager Brian Lisles has been with the team for eighteen years. He was race engineer for both Mario and Michael Andretti and has run the team for the past eight years. Before joining Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Lisles spent ten years as an engineer with the Tyrrell F1 team. Lisles says he understands the need to restrict costs but strongly believes there is a limit to these restrictions and is a fervent opponent of spec cars.

"I do applaud the idea of cutting costs," Lisles said. "There is no doubt that given the unfortunate set of self-made circumstances prevailing in open-wheel racing that we need to make it possible for people to purchase the cars and go race them so that the entry level is in line with what can be done in terms of raising funds. But having said that, we know that some people always have more funding than others. Why should those who do a better job be penalized for it and not be allowed to use their talents to be more competitive?

"The argument for a spec series is that it's less expensive, which of course, is a purely futile argument because any team can only spend the money it has. If we had a huge budget and the cars cost almost nothing we'd probably end up paying ninety percent of our budget to the driver because he would be the only thing that made a difference."

Lisles agrees with Haas that the passion for new and different cars and engines is a key driving force behind all racing beyond NASCAR.

"If spec cars are what got people excited I guess we'd all be buying Model T Fords," Lisles joked. "But the fact of the matter is motor cars, for whatever reason, play to some human emotions. That's why there are so many different cars on sale and why one person buys one car and another person buys something completely different. That perception of motor cars should surely be carried forward into the racing world because it's the same passion."

Lisles expanded on Haas's point that the people who work on race teams are highly motivated and skilled individuals with very competitive natures.

"The vast majority of people who work in professional motor sport--the technicians, engineers, fabricators, mechanics and pit crew, and all the people you need to do the job--they are competitive people," Lisles said. "They are in the sport because they like to feel they're part of winning. They like to feel that they contribute to the winning process and clearly a spec series will remove a significant amount of that satisfaction for them."

Traditionally, spec car formula also result in a big increase in cheating as everyone searches for some way to find more speed.

"The other problem is inherently, the more spec the series, the worse the cheating," Lisles remarked. "We all know that every fourth race in NASCAR there's a huge furor in the garage area because somebody's been accused of cheating or has figured out a way to not meet the rules without anybody finding out. Now, of course, that's expensive, and the other thing is, is that a good thing to set yourself up for? Is it a good thing to make it inevitable that people are going to cheat?

"I think there are all sorts of practical reasons that at a professional level in a series with reasonable budgets and clever people working fulltime at it, the more spec it is, the more likely you're going to have a big cheating problem. So there are a number of practical reasons why you don't want a spec series."

A year ago at this time I wrote two columns about Kenny Hill's Metalore operation located in El Segundo, California, close to LAX. Metalore manufactures drivetrain components and wheel hubs, among other things, for top Formula 1 teams and other teams across the worldwide motor sport business.

Metalore has been a highly respected supplier to major race teams for more than thirty years. Included among its customers at various times have been Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton in F1, and Penske, Newman/Haas, All American Racers, Ganassi and Rahal in the heydays of CART. Today, Metalore continues to supply three F1 teams with driveline and wheel hub components and the company built a full inventory of these components for Champ Car's short-lived Panoz DP01 spec car. But Kenny Hill objects to the spec car concept from deep in his soul.

"On the one hand, a spec car is in a sense kind of fun for me," Hill remarked. "But I'm afraid I'm absolutely adamant about the fact that it's not going to go anywhere. I think everybody was always rooting at the Speedway for the V-6 Buick, or Pontiac, that was never going to make it. Or the Novi, or the turbine, because they were different. All these things, like Barnard's Chaparral ground-effect car, were all invented pieces and people loved it.

"Something new is always good," Hill added. "That's been the lifeblood of racing and I think this whole idea of a spec series is absolutely, diabolically dead wrong. It should be a mix of different cars and different engines. I really believe that's what people want to see."

Among many people who have made the sport what it once was there's a clear consensus against spec cars. There's no question that if racing in America ever is to thrive again the sport must be escalated, not contracted. This concept runs against the grain of many people today but it's imperative to pursue this path if racing is to be restored as a major league sport. It will take some radical thinking to achieve such a lofty goal. Speaking in today's popular parlance, a stimulus package is desperately needed to fight off a disease that's slowly killing the sport.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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