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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/ What the drivers want from IndyCar's new formula

by Gordon Kirby
Tomorrow at the Museum of Art in Indianapolis IndyCar's CEO Randy Bernard will unveil the Iconic Committee's selection of IndyCar's 'Future Car Strategy'. The committee's final vote takes place tomorrow morning just before the event at the Museum of Art. It's said there will be a hologram with the new car rising out of the current car, but more than that none of the contending car builders and designers know anything about their chances.

"We will not vote on the final decision until that day," Bernard said last week at Watkins Glen. "So anyone who tells you they know the answer are lying through their teeth. I promise that. I don't want anyone knowing. We'll vote on that day. At this point, no chassis has been ruled out."

At the Glen I talked with this year's five Izod IndyCar championship contenders about what they would like to see from the new car and engine. Championship leader Will Power reminisced about his trips as a kid to Surfers Paradise from his home in nearby Toowoomba and said he would love to see a return to more horsepower like CART's Indy cars turned out a decade ago.

"They've got to have 750 horsepower plus," Power remarked. "That'll make the racing better because it'll be harder to drive and the cars will look more spectacular. More horsepower will also mean the tires will go off which makes them more spectacular. I remember when I was a kid going to the Surfers race when they had 900 horsepower and the ground would rumble. It was unbelievable and it just looked and sounded fast. They revved to 17,000 rpm. It sounded awesome.

"That's what they need," Power added. "It's like when you go to a drag race. When they put 6,000 horsepower or whatever they make to the ground, it just shakes the ground. It's spectacular. So there are so many good reasons to have a lot of horsepower on the road courses."

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Dario Franchitti agrees wholeheartedly with Power, but Dario cautions against the downside of increased power and acceleration.

"Having more power obviously makes the straights shorter so it's harder to pass," Franchitti observed. "That's the downside to more power. It's easier to pass on tracks that we've been going back to with today's car that we used to race on with 900 to 1,000 hp CART cars because you get a longer draft with this car. With the CART cars the straight was over so quickly that you couldn't make those passes."

Scott Dixon believes a substantially bigger push-to-pass power boost will be available with a turbocharged engine which will help passing.

"I think the idea is to have a push-to-pass with the turbo that actually gives you a large amount of power kinda like ChampCar did," Dixon said. "So that could make for more passing."

Dixon would also like to se a much lighter car.

"For me, I think the car needs to be a ton lighter," Scott commented. "The current car is a bit of a heavy thing. Being a lot lighter will make it a ton safer too because you won't hit the wall as hard."

Power agrees with Dixon.

"I think hey need to make the car lighter," Power said. "That would make it easier to race, to run different lanes and get off the corners better than the other guy. And it would probably make safer car too."

And Dixon agrees with Power that more horsepower is essential.

"I think you need more power-to-weight ratio," Dixon remarked. "You definitely need a lot more power. The mile-and-a-half tracks are just flat-out. It's boring. It's kind of the luck of the draw sometimes how the car rolls off the truck or what engine you've got. At these tracks it's not too much about the driving, especially in qualifying where it's almost non-existent."

Franchitti pointed out that the package worked well at Texas this year.

"Texas was a handling race this year," Dario said.

Dixon agreed: "You need all the mile-and-a-half tracks to be like that so you can actually drive the thing, find your limitations, and work on it."

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Scott aded that there are pros and cons on most oval tracks to going for a high or low downforce setup.

"As far as the downforce, I'm not sure," he remarked. "Low downforce is good for racing, but then high downforce has been good for racing in the past too. I think adjustment is the key. You've got to have different strategies.

"In my second Indy Lights race at Milwaukee ten years ago we opted to go with a two-element wing so we were flat in the race where the guys with single element wings were fast as hell on the straights but nowhere near as quick through the corners. It was a bloody good race because you had the difference of probably 500 pounds of downforce.

"So adjustability is the key. All this specifying of the wing angle I think is just wrong. There needs to be room in the rules for adjustability so different drivers and teams are able to run different strategies."

Everyone agrees on this point. Franchitti believes the freedom to make your own aerodynamic adjustments is essential to good racing.

"You've got have room for adjustment so if you want to put downforce on you can, or if you want to run lighter downforce you can, so you can actually work the downforce," Franchitti said. "I think we'll be able to do that with the power if we have more power as we're supposed to.

"But again, I don't think the problem is the car, I think it's the tracks. The one-and-a-half-mile tracks weren't built for Indy cars and are not suitable for Indy cars and that's an unfortunate truth.

"The short ovals are great. Someplace like Iowa with a lot more power would be really tricky but somewhere like Milwaukee, Loudon, Phoenix or Richmond with a load of power would be great. And on the street and road courses for sure you need to get back up there with your horsepower figures.

"And as Scott says make it a bit lighter. It's unfortunate that from necessity the side intrusion panels and certain other bits have made the cars heavy."

Castroneves added his agreement.

"I want to see it so we can work a little more in certain areas of the rules," Helio said. "I'd like to see the rules not be so tight with room for a little more flexibility on the part of the teams. I think you should be able to play a little more with the wings like we did in the past. Certainly horsepower is always fun to have and I'd like to see the push-to-pass have a little more increase in power instead of just five or ten percent."

Briscoe agrees that more power would be good but he's not sure a lighter car is the way to go. He'd also like to see an extractable seat in the new car.

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"When you make the car lighter you make shorter braking zones which makes it more difficult to pass," Briscoe said. "For sure a lighter car with more downforce is going to be a great car to drive, but I'm not sure it will improve the racing. I think what we've got right now is not that bad. I think people will love seeing more horsepower, but the racing right now is pretty good. I think we've had some awesome races this year.

"With a turbo, passing should be more significant, so I think that will be a good change. I like the idea of a turbo engine where we can give it a lot more power on the road courses. I'd like to see as much power as we can on the road courses.

"Visually," Briscoe added, "I don't think we need to change it much. I don't think we need to go for a different look. I think the cars look great. I think safety-wise it needs an extractable seat which F1 has and F3000 had ten years ago. Indy car racing excels in safety, but that's one area we need to catch up on."

Power remains a fan of the Panoz DP01 he raced in 2007, Champ Car's last year. The DP01 made most of its dowforce from its underwing and had much smaller external wings than the current Dallara.

"We had pretty good racing with the Panoz," Power observed. "And to me, they need to develop a lot more downforce from the floor and have smaller wings like the Panoz. The most turbulent air comes from the wings and the bigger the wings, the more turbulent the air.

"I think they need to take some of what they did with the Panoz. It wasn't as pitch-sensitive and the differential was better. I think it was easier to get the Panoz out of the corners and easier to get a run on people. The diff in the Panoz really locked up well and worked well."

Dixon agrees with Power about the Panoz DP01's aerodynamic qualities.

"I'd like to see a lot of the downforce created by the underwing, like ChampCar did," Dixon said. "I think that would be nice so you're not relying so much on the wings that are so massive. I think that would be an easy way to make the racing better. It would help us get close and make runs on the other guy."

Castroneves also believes most of the downforce should come from the underwing.

"The aerodynamics should be a little like they used to be in CART so the cars won't flip over when you touch wheels," Helio commented. "I'd like to see more downforce from the underbody so that when you're running behind somebody you don't have so much turbulence. If you put a bigger push-to-pass together with more downforce from the underbody you'll be in better shape to set up somebody to make a move."

Briscoe and Franchitti added words of caution.

"You're always going to have the same problem with turbulence," Briscoe said. "But I think using more downforce from the floor is the right direction. In modern open-wheel racing you're always going to rely a lot on downforce."

Franchitti emphasized that it's difficult to create a package that works well on the wide range of tracks IndyCar races on.

"It's a tough job to make a car that works on road and street courses and on one-and-a-half-mile tracks and short ovals and Indianapolis too," Dario commented. "You've got all these different combinations which have different requirements. It's not an easy decision. I suppose it depends as well on is it going to be just one chassis or are they going to open it up? If they do open it up to multiple chassis that will change things."

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Power believes the current combination is ideal for Indianapolis.

"At Indy, I think the current formula--the speed, downforce and horsepower--is about right," Power said. "In qualifying you're on the edge and when the car goes off it makes good racing. It's pretty much right at Indy."

Castroneves agrees.

"It certainly is pretty good at Indy," Helio added. "I think the speeds we're achieving are fast enough. Qualifying this year was really on the edge. Indy was a lot of fun for everyone but we were on the edge a lot, which is the way it's supposed to be. I'm glad I was able to make it onto the pole this year."

Castroneves thinks IndyCar's experiment with four-lap qualifying runs at all ovals races was a noble but unsuccessful idea.

"I think Indy should be the only oval where we make a four-lap qualifying run," Helio said. "I don't think we should do that everywhere else on the ovals. It's a special thing that works for Indy, but not at the other tracks."

Penske team boss Tim Cindric would like to see speeds be allowed to creep up.

"By having a new car and going to the next evolution in safety it hopefully means we're able to increase the speeds too," Cindric commented. "People want to see speed. I don't know if I can see two mph watching at Indy, but the perception is about high speeds and perception is the driving factor for what's popular."

Based for the past five years in the heart of NASCAR country at Team Penske's mammoth facility in Mooresville, North Carolina, Cindric has done a lot of thinking about how to make Indy car racing better.

"I'm excited about where it's going but we have to continue to get the word out," Cindric said. "The racing has been pretty good this year and to me some of the reason why the racing has been good is because good racing has to do with unpredictability. When you create unpredictability you create good racing.

"It used to be about equipment and engines and development. It was about reliability in a lot of ways, but there was also that element of danger and we still have that element of danger. But from a reliability standpoint we're almost too reliable. So we have to come up with ways in which that unpredictable aspect comes into play."

Cindric and many others believe the tires are a key element in creating unpredictability. Firestone's tires are a superb product, but in many ways the tires have become just too damn good. Firestone's rubber barely deteriorates in performance over the course of a run and they never go off like Goodyear's tires used to in the old bias-ply days. Tire management remains a big factor in stock car racing because NASCAR's cars are very heavy and under-tired so that there's a big drop-off in performance in NASCAR's spec Goodyear tires. Cindric is pleased to see Firestone beginning to provide a more adventurous strategy on tire compounds.

"Right now, the most unpredictable aspect of NASCAR is the tire because of the weight of car and the rest of it," Cindric observed. "I think in the past few races our racing has been better because we've had tires that have worn out. Places like Texas and Iowa where in the past few years you didn't see a lot of passing, they were better this year."

Power and Castroneves agree with Cindric.

"I think Texas was a good example of when the tires go off it makes for good racing," Power said. "I think they need to make the tires softer and go off quicker. You want to make the tires go off so it's more challenging for the drivers and makes it more possible to pass as people lose grip."

Cindric believes it would be far better for Firestone to continue to work in this direction rather than IndyCar inviting another manufacturer to try to compete against Bridgestone/Firestone's superb resources.

"I've continued to tell Al Speyer and the Firestone guys that we've got to send the right message that it's a racing tire and we're pushing the limits and doing the best for the sport, not that it's a bad tire," Cindric comments. "If you coach the drivers and the media to what the end game is I think the drivers and the fans and the viewership will enjoy what we do more. We had that back in the eighties and the nineties.

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"If we're going to put red tires out there make them where they're good for five or ten laps and it mixes up the show, not so you can get to the end of a stint. I think a lot can be done if we manage it properly and I don't think we need a tire war to do it. I haven't seen a tire war work anywhere in racing."

Cindric is a Randy Bernard fan and believes Bernard is on the right track.

"I think Randy has done a very good job of being completely engaged in what's going on," Cindric said. "We've seen all these different CEOs come through the Indy car business and I think he's one of the few who is completely engaged in trying to grow the series. I think he's taken the right approach in terms of looking, listening and talking.

"What I like is he's decisive. Whether you agree with him or disagree with his decisions, the facts are in the four or five months he's been engaged we've already made a decision about the engines. You can argue about was it the best decision or not, but we won't know until we get going. But the facts in this business are that it's been very difficult to get a decision from those type of people. So I'm thrilled that we have a decision and a direction.

"We need to work on it," Cindric added. "Rather than reacting we need to anticipate and build it. I think Randy has done a good job of that. He's surrounded himself with people who are very knowledgeable in the sport. He's not afraid to make the phone call or have a meeting or have a face-to-face with anybody. He doesn't run from any of the difficult things. When you call him, he's there. He gets back to you and he's responsive. He's not on the golf course at four in the afternoon. He's on it, and that's the best part of it."

Cindric believes IndyCar must push its sponsors to make the drivers become complete personalities in the sponsors' national marketing programs, just like NASCAR has done so successfully.

"I think the series really has a lot of work to do to grow their personalities and names," Cindric said. "But when you've got the Rahals and the Andrettis and guys like Helio and Dario you have a great platform. Danica has made her mark more off the track than on. But that's okay, we need that.

"In the same way Helio has made his mark more off the track from the standpoint of the overall population from 'Dancing with the Stars'. That had as much impact to his general presence as winning the Indy 500. Not to the racing people. But it increased his general presence in the popular culture equally to winning at Indy.

"We need more sponsors to do like Peak, Motorola and Boost have done with Danica," Cindric went on. "They've made her a household name because they've promoted her outside of racing. That's what we need. We don't have that and that's one of the things that built NASCAR. Many of the sponsors in NASCAR have used their sponsorship and their drivers as a key part of their mainstream marketing program with advertising running at all different times, not just during the race broadcast. You see their ads on the Super Bowl and many other mainstream TV shows."

Cindric believes IndyCar must use the NASCAR model to help make its drivers more popular.

"I think they can build on the Rahals and Andrettis," he commented. "To me, it has to go beyond the marketing side of showing Indy car racing on television in commercials. It has to come back to letting the people speak. You have to let the drivers have a personality. I think Izod took a good shot at putting their marketing dollars behind it, but they have to let the drivers speak. You have to hear them and they have to develop a personality with the public. When people see you speaking on television they learn to know that person and appreciate their personality."

Castroneves also has a few words for Randy Bernard and the IndyCar organization.

"I like the move to two-day events on ovals but maybe they should open it up a little more for testing," Helio opined. "When you have more open testing everyone's going to benefit, including the small teams. The little teams need the testing to become better. They're not going to learn anything on the race weekend. So I think they should open it up a little more for testing.

"Another thing is they should establish a clearer link to the ladder system series down through F2000 so they can discover more American talent. They need to have more than just an Indy Lights race running with the Indy cars each weekened so the young talent is showcased. If those smaller series could run with us all the time it would give those guys hope and help generate drivers and teams and help the fans learn who the young up-and-coming drivers are. It would be great for everybody and great for the sport."

As you can see and hear, plenty of thoughtful talk has been roiling through IndyCar's garage area in recent months. Tomorrow, the concept of the Indy car of the future will be revealed. Next comes the devilish details of determining the specifics of the new car rules and writing a workable, equitable rulebook for 2012. Wednesday's announcement is the first step in Randy Bernard's giant mission to recreate and rebuild Indy car racing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

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