Sunday, February 14, 2010

Danica Invades Daytona - Indycar Concepts Unveiled

By just about any measure, Danica Patrick's first weekend of stock car racing has been a success. She ran strong all week at Daytona, finishing 6th in her debut with ARCA and surviving a lurid spin down the front strecth after getting shoved into the grass by fellow rookie Nelson Piquet, Jr. Her Nationwide Series result was marred by getting collected in one of the "big ones" that she couldn't avoid, but she looked good while she was out there and her feedback on the car's performance was excellent.

Meanwhile, leadership of the Indy Racing League missed an opportunity to make hay while the sun shines as they unveiled future car concepts at an auto show rather than at the race track where their marquee star and best known name was competing. On top of hiring a CEO from professional bull riding, I wonder where this is all leading. The Delta Wing concept is so radical as to bear little resemblance to anything run in Indycars before. Some have likened it to a Bonneville Salt Flats machine or an NHRA top fuel dragster. If the stated desire is to embrace technology, then this machine may fit the bill but it is beyond my understanding how this will attract new fans without alienating the fan base that has supported the IRL since its first season in 1996. The Delta Wing concept is a product of Chip Ganassi's organization but it's never been on a track nor crash tested. It does not look to me like it would be very stable on ovals, although it would be very slick aerodynamically. It's hard to imagine this creation sideways in Turn 1 at Indianapolis and a driver being able to save it with the narrow front end that has been depicted. Besides that, it is not an open wheel car! Indycars don't have fenders so those have got to go!

The Swift and Dallara concepts are much less radical and more evolutionary. All of the manufacturers want exclusivity of their designs for cost recovery; that makes sense for the IRL in terms of keeping team costs down. The last thing the IRL needs is a chassis war, or teams like Penske deciding to run one brand for road courses and another on the ovals.

Much work remains to be done before any of these concepts hit the racetrack for testing. I wonder if these concepts have been floated simply to gauge public reaction before the real money has to be spent on prototypes and testing. Something will have to be done soon to have a new chassis available for 2012 which has been the expressed goal. Turbo powered, smaller displacement engines that can fit in any chassis still must be designed as it seems clear to me that the non-turbo Honda will eventually go by the wayside in favor of more engine manufacturers in the IRL. Development of the current Dallara has maxed out and this next chassis/engine spec may be either the saving grace or the next step downward in the spiral of popularity for the series. The Indy 500 will still be run every year as the prestige and cache of a century of races cannot be duplicated anywhere else in racing with the possible exception of LeMans. But teams need races to run to attract sponsors and a series must be viable around Indy to make open wheel racing relevant for the next generation of race fans. The new Speedway and IRL brass have their work cut out for them this year, and having Danica involved in whatever technical direction they decide to go is going to be essential for development of fan interest for the years ahead.

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