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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/ Rethinking motor racing's basics

by Gordon Kirby
Last month in this space Jim McGee discussed his broad brush ideas for re-inventing Indy car racing. McGee's thoughts sparked plenty of conversation and it's clear to most everyone in the sport that IndyCar desperately needs a new formula that will generate creativity and competition among car and engine builders and revive the fading interest in the sport.

Based on recent history and the Boston Consulting Group's shockingly lightweight, uninformed study, any such move seems beyond IndyCar or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Neither IndyCar, the IMS, nor the Boston Consulting Group have grasped the fact that it's the formula that's the primary problem. If they don't fix it in the right way they're doomed to fail and it's time they opened their ears and listened to the many ideas boiling away these days among numerous people who have lived their lives in motor racing.

As one of IndyCar's top team owners Chip Ganassi is deeply concerned about where the sport is headed. Ganassi and I recently talked about the state of affairs, starting with Chip's critique of Jim McGee's analysis.

"I agree with Jim about the new car," Ganassi said. "We need multiple manufacturers and competition to bring the price down and get better service and to generate more excitement and interest from the fans and media."

But Ganassi vigorously debated McGee's idea of going to stock-block engines.

© Paul Webb
"He's wrong about the engines," Chip declared. "He doesn't understand what's happened to the engine business in NASCAR. Today, the only engine builders are Hendrick, Roush, RCR and Toyota. They've consolidated over the years so that there are only four engine builders in NASCAR today at the Sprint Cup level.

"The manufacturers are the people that put the money into the sport and they can't afford to support two or three engine builders. With one engine builder they control the quality and they control the costs. But mostly, it controls the quality of what they're doing. It's easier to control one engine builder than it is five of them."

Ganassi believes IndyCar's current engine formula is the right way to go and says stock-block V8s would be no less expensive than turbocharged, four-cam racing engines.

"When McGee says there are other engines out there that would produce the same or better performance at a cheaper price than what we have today, I'd like him to name them. Sure, there are plenty of stock-block V8s out there running today in ALMS or Grand-Am and other places, but they're basically NASCAR engines. They're not any less expensive. It's going to cost you more than $3 million for the year, or $100,000 a race."

A few months ago Ganassi wrote in Road & Track that he believes a radical approach is required to revive the chassis part of the equation. When he was involved with Ben Bowlby in the creation of the Delta Wing concept Ganassi became a big believer in racing adopting an open source method and he's convinced it's the best way forward for the sport.

"I agree we've got to change the approach to the way the cars are built and the way the formula works," he said. "But I believe a more radical approach is required to bring us into the 21st century. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I believe open source is the future.

"Ben (Bowlby) and I talked a lot about the idea of adopting the open source concept in racing. They need to have a network where one guy is developing the suspension, another guy developing the gearbox, another developing the aero, another guy developing the drive line and so on, and you lay the costs off on that. That's the future."

Chip outlined how he believes an open source system would work.

"You start by taking whatever car you want in whatever series to want to name--IndyCar, sports car racing, any series you want to name. You put a price tag on the car and say that's the car of today. On day one, the new car is a spec car. You say here's the car and here's all the pieces and you publish it on the web. You also publish a list and price of all the parts.

"Then in year one, you say you can develop the suspension and driveline. You can't touch anything else in the first year. We're going to start slow. We're not going to go in gang busters.

"By February 1st you would announce your intent to be a participant to be a possible supplier of suspension and driveline. By March 1st you would submit a drawing and by May 1st you would have a working prototype. You have to show your design has the wherewithal to pass the safety committee's tests and by July 1st two people will be selected to develop the suspension and the driveline."

Ganassi thinks the real fun would begin in the second year of an open source formula.

"In year two we open up more of the car," he said. "Maybe we open up the wings or the topside aerodynamics. We look for more areas of development and allow it to unfold year by year. The open source system would attract smart young engineers and attract interest from engineering schools around the world. It would make the sport relevant again, particularly to young people. It would bring in new ideas and new thinking and the competition among young engineers and prospective suppliers would lower the price and improve supply and service.

"And the other thing is this could be done with maybe six engineers overseeing the open source system and the supplier approval and development process. It could be done very efficiently and it would put the sport on a new platform that would be relevant and exciting."

I applaud Chip for pushing a radical concept. He's suggesting a whole new way of running and regulating the sport and to make it happen would require a considerable leap of faith. It would change the way sanctioning bodies do business and require them to adopt a higher level of in-house engineering.

Like any revolution it would be fraught with peril, but this was the spirit that drove motor racing through most of its history. As we all know, that spirit has been all but wrung out of the sport in recent years leaving us stuck in time amid the plague of spec cars.

But the Delta Wing has shown us that a radical concept can work, proving wrong the disbelieving Luddites who ridiculed the idea. The Delta Wing's story is only just beginning to unfold and I hope it's a harbinger of new thinking to come in a sport that's allowed itself to become reactionary and resistant to change.

Some will laugh at Chip Ganassi's fascination with radicalizing racing, but I have no doubts that the sport is doomed to an irrelevant future if it doesn't act soon to move itself into the 21st century. Is there a sanctioning body out there with the courage and cojones to step up to the plate?

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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