IRL think tank has its hands full
Somewhere in Indianapolis on Monday, the long-term fate of IndyCar racing is being determined by a handful of men behind closed doors.
That might sound a little melodramatic, but the three-day secret session going on now for the Indy Racing League's advisory committee -- open-wheel racing's version of a Washington think tank -- will determine the key decision these men make about the future of the IndyCar Series.
Seven men with various expertise in racing, along with new league CEO Randy Bernard, are listening intently (at least let's hope they are listening intently) to proposals from chassis designers making their pitch for the car of the future.
This is so important that the committee has a highly decorated retired general to oversee the proceedings. Gen. William Looney III, who learned a thing or two about speed and technology in his distinguished career with the Air Force, is moderating the meetings.
Now doesn't that sound exciting? Sure it does, if you enjoy watching C-SPAN or reading engineering textbooks.
But these meetings, which conclude on Tuesday, aren't just about choosing a new car to race in 2012. Based on what they see and hear, these men will try to set a course to a brighter future for American open-wheel racing.
The five chassis designs on the table run the gamut of imagination -- from the traditional look of today's Indy car science to something that comes closer in appearance to science fiction.
The right decision could propel Indy car racing back to its former glory. The wrong decision could bury it for good. And everyone on the panel knows it.
So, no pressure, guys. Just go with your gut instinct.
The men in the power seats include Eddie Gossage, Tony Cotman, Gil de Ferran, Brian Barnhart, Tony Purnell, Neil Ressler and Rick Long. I won't bore you with all their credentials, but they bring an ocean of racing knowledge to the table.
In the end, the IRL can accept or reject their recommendation, but the reality is these men are the Supreme Court.
And every man on this panel realizes the IRL needs to make a big splash. It needs this decision to take some attention away from NASCAR and bring casual fans back to IndyCar. It needs to create some hoopla, but it needs to do it with substance.
No one knows for sure how the committee is leaning. Every man on the panel has been sworn to secrecy. But there are some clues that came last week from the committee's selection of a new engine formula -- a six-cylinder, turbo-charged motor.
"Bringing innovation and diversity back into Indy cars is something we felt was very important," said de Ferran, a team owner and former IRL driver who spoke to reporters at Texas Motor Speedway this past weekend. "It's also very important to be cost-effective."
The committee announced an engine plan that it hopes will help it achieve its goal of bringing in as many manufacturers as possible. Honda is the only engine supplier now.
Bringing innovation and diversity back into Indy cars is something we felt was very important. It's also very important to be cost-effective.” -- Gil de Ferran
Could that be the same goal for the future car? It isn't as easy as running competing engine manufacturers, which know they must follow basic rules in engine size and power.
The futuristic Delta Wing car, which looks a little like the car Craig Breedlove drove in 1960 while setting land-speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, has nothing in common with the Lola design, which more closely resembles the current IndyCar chassis from Dallara.
How do you make those radically different designs relatively equal for competition?
Picking more than one design could be the easy way out for the committee. If it chooses one chassis design, some fans will like it and some won't. Some fans want a futuristic look; some want a traditional look.
Finding a way to satisfy both and keep the competition balanced is the tough part.
After hearing all the proposals this week, the committee has only three weeks to make a decision. The stated goal is to announce a new chassis by June 30. Clearly that means picking a new car without extensive track testing.
"We have 18 months to get the car ready," said Barnhart, the IndyCar Series' president of competition.
It's a lot to work out in a short time. Does the car meet all the necessary safety requirements? Does it produce competitive racing on ovals and road courses?
If not, can it be altered to meet those requirements? The league doesn't want to pick a car that flops in testing and gives the impression that the series is heading in the wrong direction before the new car officially debuts.
NASCAR made that mistake with the Car of Tomorrow, which many fans hated before it ever raced.
So take detailed notes in these meetings, gentlemen. Listen well and give it all you've got. Deliberate with passion during the next few weeks.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall. It's bound to get a little heated at times. That's OK. It's pretty darn important stuff.
The fate of IndyCar racing rests in your hands. Make it count.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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