Putting the "Open" Back in "Open Wheel"

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IJune 6, 2010

I don't think that I'm the only person to be excited about the ICONIC committee's decision to bring turbocharged 2.4 liter V6 engines to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012. The new engine will be a lot smaller and lighter than the current Honda powerplant, will maintain up to 700 horsepower, and will return turbos to major American open-wheel racing for the first time since Champ Car's demise. It should also allow other engine manufacturers, potentially including one of the Volkswagen Group's brands and a Lotus-Cosworth collaboration, to join the party. All of this is excellent news.

Now the ICONIC committee turns to chassis selection, where five industry leaders are currently fighting for the single contract to produce IndyCar chassis. Three of the companies - Dallara, Lola, and Swift - have built chassis before. BAT Engineering is comprised of three men who dominated the sport in the 1980s. Delta Wing is the pet project of some of the series' biggest owners.

The problem here is that three or fourth worthy chassis designers are going to go home, while one secures a contract, keeping IndyCar in its spec-design age. But why?

When CART reached its latest peak in the mid-to-late 1990s, when entry lists were full, big names were all around, and the IRL hadn't yet lured the top teams back to Indianapolis, there were three chassis manufacturers (and Roger Penske's in-house design) battling for supremacy, as there were four engine manufacturers competing to build the best engines. The competition may have driven up costs a bit, but that's what added to the prestige of the series - you had to beat everybody else on the track, not in the bidding.

Opening up chassis production to at least two manufacturers would increase competition, and hearken back to better days in the sport, before the nasty political split had scorched much of the open-wheel earth. The series could set a cost cap on chassis development and production in order to protect its owners from the potential of escalating costs, and perhaps adjust that cap on a yearly basis, as stick-and-ball sports do with player salary caps. If nothing else, multiple chassis would make the races far more visually interesting, in a way that multiple engine companies cannot.

Allowing multiple chassis contracts will also help bring the sport's biggest and best track back to the prominence and prestige it once held. Indianapolis used to be a proving ground for new road technologies, and a breeding ground for open-wheel innovation. Think of some of the cars used in the past 40 years, and how much change has occurred, both in aerodynamics and underneath the engine cowling. The changes have been massive, and part of it came from the less restrictive rules at Indianapolis.

Remember that during the CART era of the 1980s and 90s, the Indianapolis 500 was a USAC-sanctioned race in which CART decided to award points to its teams. Because the race was not run under CART sanctioning, and thus, under Indianapolis 500-specific rules, teams had the ability to experiment a little more freely with their cars. Some of the most dominating performances in all of motorsports have come due to this provision.

In 1994, Team Penske, with drivers Al Unser Jr., Paul Tracy, and Emerson Fittipaldi, had one of the most dominating combinations in open-wheel history: the Penske PC-23 chassis and Ilmor-Mercedes Indy V8 engine. This combination allowed Penske to rip off a seven-race winning streak at one points in the 16-race season, and allowed the team to take 12 victories overall. Everybody knew that coming into Indy that year, the team to beat was going to be Team Penske, especially coming off of their win the previous year with Fittipaldi.

But Penske outdid themselves at Indy, bringing along a secretly-built 209 cid pushrod Mercedes engine, the 500I. Penske utilized rules provisions that allowed pushrod engines like John Menard's Buick V6 an extra 650 cubic centimeters and 4.9 psi of boost. For those of us who aren't engineers, it meant that the engine could produce 1000 horsepower, significantly more than Penske's competitors. The team went on to dominate the race.

Randy Bernard, CEO of IndyCar, has said that he wants to bring innovation back to the series. Bernard has also proven himself willing to make some huge decisions - awarding split oval and road course championships, attempting to implement bonuses next year of $10 million for series champions and $20 million for winning both Indy and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, and so on.

What about opening up the field at Indianapolis to innovation once again?

In its heyday long ago, the Indianapolis 500 was so highly regarded that it counted in Formula 1 world championship points. That won't happen again, but the race can still go a long way towards attracting racing powerhouses from across the globe by opening up its engine formula and allowing multiple chassis manufacturers to build Indy racers.

In other words, by encouraging innovation and the competition of technologies, with the assumed goal of bringing what's learned on the racetrack back to the streets, Indianapolis can recapture the prestige it used to have, years and years ago. Because, let's be honest: Indianapolis still matters, but it just isn't the same.

The key difference in racing nowadays, compared to years ago, is that what's running on the track nowadays has little or no correlation to the cars that we drive on the streets. Sure, IndyCar does a lot with ethanol, but how many of us currently have ethanol-based cars? And what does an eight-year-old Dallara chassis have to do with the aerodynamics of the vehicles that any of us drive?

The reason why sports car racing flourishes in its niche is because the developments made at Le Mans have street relevance. When Peugeot and Audi battle at Circuit de la Sarthe, they're not just racing for glory. They're in it because what they learn at the track will make their performance vehicles on the road that much better. The American Le Mans Series does a fantastic job, with its embrace of multiple fuels and the Michelin Green Challenge, which awards a championship to the most efficient team over the course of the year.

By loosening restrictions on competitors in the Indianapolis 500, the sport's most prestigious race, IndyCar can push its own "green" initiative even further, by encouraging participants to develop the fastest and most efficient cars they possibly can. Only cars that meet certain standards for efficiency can attempt to qualify; as usual, the fastest 33 race. Exclusive supplier contracts be damned - let them apply to every other race of the season but Indy, because years of spec 500s is beginning to grow old.

If Chip Ganassi and Bobby Rahal want to bring the BMW motors they run in sports car racing to Indy, by all means let them. See if Duncan Dayton's Highcroft Racing can run as well with Honda at Indianapolis as they do at Sebring and Laguna Seca. Manufacturers currently on the outside looking in would have a reason to care about Indy again, and so would fair-weather motorsports fans.

It'd be the biggest and best race in the world, if only we opened it up.

Read more on the IZOD IndyCar Series from Christopher Leone at OpenWheelAmerica.com .