Commentary

Will new ideas save Indy racing?

Updated: June 3, 2010, 7:11 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com senior writer Ed Hinton has spent more than 35 years covering motorsports across the globe for entities including Sports Illustrated, The National Sports Daily, Tribune Newspapers and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The four-part series, The Damage Done, is his memoir of what he saw and reported leading up to the American open-wheel civil war and the consequences it wrought. This final story, Coda, is about the steps the Indy Racing League is taking in hopes of steering the sport into a brighter future.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Coda

Indy Racing Leaguewww.deltawingracing.comIs this the future of the Indy Racing League? What many observers would like to see is multiple chassis -- including this DeltaWing design -- and multiple engine packages.

In Indy car racing, "This is a watershed time," Roger Penske says.

"It's a major opportunity for a rebirth," says Ben Bowlby, the engineer ordered by Chip Ganassi, Penske's archrival team owner, to throw away the rulebook and completely rethink race cars.

"But you have to, so to speak, hit the wall before you can attempt a culture change," Bowlby adds.

The wall clearly having been hit, radical change is being contemplated for 2012 and beyond -- an all-out breakout attempt from the mire of minuscule television ratings and poor attendance in the aftermath of the devastating open-wheel civil war of 1996-2008.

Get it right, and Indy car racing could rebound mightily -- "There's a great opportunity to turn some heads," says Danica Patrick, the most popular driver in the Indy Racing League.

Get it wrong, flinch from change, and Indy car racing could die out entirely -- "They might as well dig a hole and throw it in there and cover it up," says three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser, still a sage observer of the sport.

What will drive the revolution, if there is to be one, is innovation -- a return to the spirit of American ingenuity that made the Indianapolis 500 and satellite events capture the public's fancy in the first place.

Amid global crises in areas such as energy, pollution, climate change, economics and a struggling automotive industry, Ganassi wants "racing to take more of a leadership role by showing the public and the government that racing is about innovation," he says.

There is no greater or more astounding symbol of what Ganassi is talking about, and the degree of change being contemplated in the Indy Racing League, than the DeltaWing car being developed by Bowlby on marching orders from Ganassi.

[+] EnlargeLola concept car
Courtesy Lola USA Engineering Inc.One of Lola's artistic renderings; it has a few departures from current spec, including side pods and intakes.

At first glance, the DeltaWing -- one of five designs being considered for 2012 -- would appear to be some absurd hybrid between a fighter jet and the "Bluebird" cars in which Sir Malcolm Campbell broke land-speed records in the 1930s.

But the more you hear Ganassi and Bowlby out, the more the DeltaWing makes sense.

"I told him to answer the questions that are all the problems of racing today," Ganassi says.

So Bowlby set out to "halve the power of the cars, halve the weight, halve the drag, halve the cost, halve the fuel burn -- and still go 230 miles an hour," Bowlby says.

"We didn't go out to come up with a car that looks like that," Ganassi says. "But we said, 'Let's build a car that's recyclable, green, fuel-efficient, half the horsepower, half the weight, half the cost, safer -- all those issues … put them together, that's the car you come up with."

Four other designs under consideration but without full mockups -- by chassis constructors Dallara, Swift, Lola and Ashmore -- are less drastic in appearance but still a radical departure from current cars.

To power the new cars, "there's an interest in four-cylinder versus six-cylinder engines," Penske says. "They want to have potentially a formula where you could have one or the other, which I think is good."

On Wednesday, Randy Bernard, new CEO of the Indy Racing League, announced a change from current V-8 engines to a mandatory maximum V-6, turbocharged, for 2012. Displacement cannot exceed 2.4 cubic liters. And IRL operations chief Brian Barnhart indicated the league might also adopt an inline 4-cylinder engine.

For the latter, the likeliest candidate is the new, tiny (1.6-liter), variably powerful Global Racing Engine being developed by international manufacturers in conjunction with the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, world racing's governing body.

The FIA also regulates most of the world's automobile clubs for the public highways, so the engine applications developed in racing could go to the streets in very similar configurations -- just not as powerful.

[+] EnlargeDeltaWing Right Rear
Courtesy of www.deltawingracing.comThe DeltaWing as seen from above. One concern mentioned is will the car turn well?

To power the DeltaWing, "We were looking at an inline 4, maybe even an inline 3, direct injection, turbocharged, highly relevant to the auto industry," Bowlby says. "Then, what did we stumble upon but the fact that this GRE is in development and something like nine of the world's [auto manufacturers] are under way with it. The Fords, the General Motors, the Mercedes of the world."

A rethought, revitalized Indy Racing League must "begin with multiple engine manufacturers and multiple car manufacturers," Ganassi believes.

And the automotive industry will return to Indy only if it can learn on the track and apply the innovation to showroom cars that help solve global energy and climate issues, and help rekindle the driving enthusiasm of younger generations that have lost interest in cars.

"What's important in the world today?" Ganassi asks rhetorically. "Being green, being recyclable, using less fuel, being safer … you can have all that and still have something that's fun to drive.

"Sixteen-year-olds today aspire to have a smart phone," Ganassi continues. "And we want to get them back to where they aspire to have a car. And I think it's up to the racing people to show the car companies, the public, the government, the people who make the laws, that all these things are possible."

Current Indy car technology is as unimaginative as it has been since the "junk formula" of the 1930s necessitated by the Great Depression.

With only one legal chassis (made in Italy by Dallara) and one legal engine (branded by Honda but built in England by Ilmor Engineering), the IndyCar Series fits a long-derogatory term in motor racing.

It's a "spec series."

"I think it's time for us to change the cars," says Bernard, who was hired to replace Indianapolis Motor Speedway heir and IRL founder Tony George, who was ousted by his own family last year.

"But it's also a time when we make sure that [new designs are] economically viable," Bernard continues. "I mean, it would be terrible to have a car that's unbelievable, and it's jinxed because it's a car that no one can afford."

Bowlby and Ganassi say the DeltaWing, including engine, should sell for about $600,000 -- less than the current Dallara-Honda package in which engines are leased.

[+] EnlargeSwift Indy Car Design
Courtesy Swift Engineering Inc.The Swift Indy car rendering includes a large front wing with pods in front of the wheels.

And they'll make the DeltaWing design available on the Internet to anyone who wants to copy or improve it.

"I hope a lot of people manufacture that car," Ganassi says. "I don't want to be the single manufacturer."

With five designs under consideration, "I'd like to see multiple [designs approved]," Penske says.

But the design revolution is hurtling along so fast that Penske, whose company in the past designed and built both Indy and Formula One cars, will watch from the sideline -- "I think I'm going to be a purchaser, not a builder," he says.

Regardless, "It has to change from what it is," says Unser, who in his time drove before crowds of almost 400,000, nearly twice the attendance at Sunday's Indianapolis 500.

"Whoever you talk to, they're all saying spec-series racing has to go," Unser continues. "It has to end. It has no chance."

Spec racing is a weakness Unser also sees in NASCAR, which has dominated the television market and public attention since the Indy car split of 1996.

"I think NASCAR's great … but it's on the decline," Unser says. "The Car of Tomorrow [essentially a spec car] buried them. The fans hate it; the teams don't like it; and the drivers really don't like it.

"So, they [NASCAR] are just going to shove it down everybody's throats and make 'em take it.

"Well, the fans don't have to buy those tickets. The driver has to keep working because he's trying to make a living. But the fan can just say, 'Hell, I'm gonna go do something else next weekend.' And he is. You can look at their grandstands."

And at the television ratings. NASCAR reportedly has lost 29 percent of the audience advertisers want most -- males ages 18-34 -- in the past year alone. TV executives, most notably Fox Sports chairman David Hill, have been warning that rights fees must be brought into balance with advertising sales.

"I know the economy is bad," Unser says, acknowledging the primary excuse NASCAR offers for its slide. However, "Their TV deals are coming down. Everything is coming down.

"That's the time over here."

Even in a slump, NASCAR is far better off at the ticket booths and on television than the IRL, where TV ratings can't even break the 1-point barrier for races other than the Indy 500 itself, and even Indy fell in the Nielsen overnights this year compared with last year, from a 3.96 to 3.68 -- considered about average for a NASCAR race.

IRL officials maintain that average ratings are up this year, but minuscule plus minuscule still equals minuscule.

"No. 1, we need to get more TV exposure," Penske says. "With the ratings where they are -- we need to get better."

But rising television exposure is contingent on quality of show, and that's where the five new designs -- especially the DeltaWing -- could come in.

One major directive for the new cars is that they prevent "wheel interlocking," or "climbing wheels" -- historically a major cause of horrific crashes in open-wheel cars.

[+] EnlargeDelta Wing Rear
Courtesy of www.deltawingracing.comThe DeltaWing from the rear.

The risk of touching or tangling wheels, which tends to flip one or both cars involved, inherently prevents Indy cars from racing as closely as fendered NASCAR cars.

But now the proud old open-wheelers' saying that "Real race cars don't have fenders" might be coming to an end. As it turns out, open-wheel racing was cruder all along. Bowlby calculates that "54 percent" of the aerodynamic drag on a current Indy car is attributable to "the exposed open wheels."

All five designs protect wheels to some extent with bodywork, and the DeltaWing actually has fenders of a sort, though not much like those in NASCAR.

Enclosing the wheels actually makes the car slicker, and it allows cars to touch without climbing wheels and flipping. So Indy car racing could soon match the NASCAR bromide that "rubbin' is racin'."

"One of the objectives at the very outset was to create a car that had the ability to race more spectacularly, more closely," Bowlby says, "even to the point where there could be contact without catastrophic implications."

Patrick is all for the closer racing.

"We can get everyone in the world to watch our races, but if we don't pass each other, they don't have anything to see," she says. "If I'm a fan, I want to see passing, and if that doesn't happen, they might not watch again."

Patrick concedes that "I'm not a techie person" who understands the science of the new cars.

"So I'm maybe more like a fan. And I think the DeltaWings are -- 'Wow! What is that?' Even just the pictures of the car make people talk, whether they like it or not. It's causing a buzz. If we came out with a next-generation car that looked a little different, I think you'd have a lot of people who'd want to watch that race and see how it went. And if we had more passing out there, that would be a positive, too."

As a bonus, there's enough bodywork on the DeltaWing for bigger signage and numbers -- and therefore more ease for the spectator, either live or via television, in differentiating one car from another -- similar to in NASCAR.

The IRL isn't ready to start marketing the tech revolution yet, but "I think you will see us, into next year, begin to talk about future innovation and the future equipment package," says Terry Angstadt, president of the IRL's commercial division.

Meanwhile, the new series sponsor, Izod, is churning out the media buys and stirring buzz, under ball-of-fire marketing vice president Mike Kelly of parent company Phillips-Van Heusen.

[+] Enlargenew concept cars from Dallara Automobili
Courtesy Dallara PhotosDallara's Concept No. 2 car has an overall design that appears similar to the current one.

"This is in fact the fastest sport; we're not getting credit for that," says Kelly, who is running wide open to change that. Indeed, Indy cars generally run faster than in either NASCAR or Formula One.

"If you want to get at those 18-24 guys [advertisers' key demographic group because their purchasing habits haven't been formed yet]," Kelly says, "speed will do it."

Kelly does concede this about the tech revolution: "I'd love for it to be earlier and sooner … but the things that are coming down the road, by way of innovation, innovative automotive solutions … being part of the brand bringing solutions and not just talking about problems … this is a very exciting place to be."

Bernard, 43, by no means was hired by the Hulman-George family, owners of the hallowed Speedway and the IRL, for his racing expertise.

He was hired out of the blue, in February, after 15 years running Professional Bull Riders, where he increased sponsorship revenues and scheduled events 50-fold -- to more than $26 million and more than 400 events -- and brought PBR into mainstream cable TV.

"My past experience in marketing and sports entertainment, I believe, was what helped drive me here," he says. "I wasn't looking for a job. Within a week, I would have signed a new deal [with PBR] through 2013."

It began with the Hulman-George family interviewing Bernard as a possible consultant to help IndyCar dig out from its marketing, media and ticket-sales doldrums.

"I flew in and we talked for several hours," Bernard recalls. "I'd done quite a bit of due diligence before I landed here [in Indianapolis]. Probably about nine days of homework on IndyCar."

After the meeting, "I got back on the airplane and flew to our event at Madison Square Garden. When I landed in New York, they called me back and said, 'We just have one more question. Would you ever be interested in being CEO?'"

And now the IRL is not quite seeking to reinvent motor racing -- not quite -- as much as to return to working laboratory status for the automotive industry as world conditions demand drastic changes in automobiles.

And that is a turnabout for Indy car racing from its recent past.

"We're one of the few sports that not only involve an athlete and a game but also a vehicle," Ganassi says. "That vehicle is closely tied to corporate America.

"So we not only have to take the trend where the sport wants to go but we have to parallel ourselves with where the industry is going with the automobile.

"We can't get diametrically opposed to it," Ganassi adds. "We wouldn't last very long."

This is indeed a watershed time.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.