The Indy 500 has a history of innovation. From the cars, to the track itself, many great ideas have been tried there. Some, like the turbine car, looked promising but despite being banned, likely wouldn't have been a very good option in the long run.
Others, such as aerodynamic downforce, raised cockpit edges, energy deflecting crash structures, and turbo engines, proved quite brilliant.
Even the track itself has been innovative: it was the first track in the world to incorporate the SAFER barrier, now a staple of oval tracks all over the country.
But the SAFER barrier was sadly the last true innovation the Indy 500 has given us. Throughout the split, as both sides focused on survival and beating the other series, innovation fell to the wayside.
Even leading up to that, innovation was weak. Limited to coming up with new aerodynamic ideas and engine setups, being innovative had become too expensive and difficult for many. Through most of the '80s and '90s, Penske Racing was the only real independent innovative team.
The sad truth is, with the modern focus on safety, innovation in the future would be limited to those same expensive things.
But is innovation what's needed?
One of the big problems preventing true innovation was the effectiveness of third-party chassis supplied to teams. The Lolas, Reynards, and Marches all pushed the understanding of aerodynamics to a level a small manufacturer could never hope to match.
But why? The wing is not a terribly difficult system to fine-tune, and building cheap scale wind tunnels isn't terribly difficult.
The problem is one of the other big innovations. Though not CREATED at Indy, it was certainly PERFECTED at Indy...
Underbody aerodynamics are the hardest thing for an independent manufacturer to work out. Cheap scale wind tunnels are extremely tiny and you need close to 1/2 scale to effectively work out the underbody. And that's a level where it starts getting painfully expensive.
If I only had to worry about the bodywork of the car and the wings, I could design an IndyCar in my garage with a 1/43-scale custom tunnel for less than a grand.
Of course, I know NOTHING about what to look for when working out the aerodynamics, so I actually couldn't do what I just said. But I think you get the point.
So how do we get a bunch of original, innovative cars designs back into the Indy 500 when things like safety and ground effects make it so difficult?
The sad truth is...we can't. Innovation is gone from Indy, and will likely never be brought back.
But I ask again: Is innovation what Indy needs?
Many people have expressed displeasure at Dallara being guaranteed a continuation of being the sole manufacturer of IRL chassis when the new specs come into effect in 2011 for the EXACT reasons I've specified above: preventing a return of the spirit of innovation to the Indy 500.
But actually, this could help. A lot.
As I've said, TRUE innovation is likely gone at Indy. We'll likely never see new and unique technologies developed for use at Indy. Even Formula One is having problems in that regard.
But what we can do is bring back the SPIRIT of innovation—that spark that ultimately resulted in the occasional innovative breakthrough.
What is that spark? The idea that literally anyone could build a car for Indy.
But wait, didn't I just point out that this is impossible because Dallara's been guaranteed sole chassis supply? Well, yes, I did point out that this is the case, but that doesn't make it impossible to keep people from designing their own cars...
You see, just because Dallara is guaranteed sole chassis supply doesn't mean they have to supply only ONE chassis design.
Nor does it mean that they have to be COMPLETE CARS.
Ground effects have been essentially spec for years now. That's not likely to change. So why can't Dallara provide, for privateers, an underbody (same one the full-time teams use), safety cell, and some basic INTERNAL crash structures that meet IRL requirements?
Design the crash structures to be housed inside some bodywork designed to give literally NO resistance in a crash (thereby not negatively impacting the crash-worthiness of the resulting car), which the privateer team can design using a cheap small-scale wind tunnel to maximize effectiveness.
Without having to worry about building the underbody aerodynamics, they're suddenly free to focus on what's a little more easily dealt with.
The expectation is that in 2011, IRL cars will be using four- or six-cylinder turbo engines. This is great news for people who would want to build their own IndyCar, as such a formula makes stock-block engines potential competitors once again.
A basic chassis for privateers would likely come out heavier than your average IRL car. So why not raise the minimum weight requirements for Indy only and let these guys have a shot at bringing a home-built car to race at Indy again?
Such cars may never win. But wouldn't you love to see a few capable of running fast enough to make the field?
Innovation is gone. It may never come back. But that doesn't mean we should let the spark that made innovation possible die. The Indy 500 was once a "run what you brung" event. Why not create something that can make it similar to those days, while still being able to maintain the IRL formula?
Take it from me. If I could get an underbody, tub, and crash structures from Dallara for about 100 grand or so...I do know some people who know how to work out aerodynamics.
And if the engine formula would give me the ability to tweak a Honda Civic or Mitsubishi Evo engine (yeah - I could get IndyCar power out of a turbocharged Civic engine EASILY. Question is: Would it survive a 500-mile race?) and drop it into a chassis made with a body made of carefully-crafted paper-thin aluminum, I'd be at Indy within a few years.
And you know what? If we got things to that point, I don't think anyone would care that innovation was gone.