In April, therefore, freshly minted IRL CEO Randy Bernard created the ICONIC (Innovative, Competitive, Open-Wheel, New, Industry-Relevant, Cost-Effective) Advisory Committee to choose a new IndyCar engine and chassis for 2012. Proposals were submitted by Dallara, Lola, DeltaWing, Swift (the premier American open-wheel chassis manufacturer), and BAT (a new company founded by three IndyCar stalwarts). The seven members of the committee evaluated pitches for three months before convening in July in front of a standing-room-only audience at the Indianapolis Museum of Art to unveil the car of the future:
Yesterday's Dallara was being replaced by tomorrow's ... Dallara?
The initial reaction was anticlimax. ("All that to get the same thing?" one tweeter complained on the IndyCar website. "Barney Oldfield is the test driver," tweeted another.) The DeltaWing had generated lovers and haters in roughly equal proportion, and to be honest, even supporters realized that it was probably too radical to be selected. But Lola and Swift were both proven commodities, and wasn't it disenchantment with Dallara that had prompted the creation of the ICONIC committee in the first place? To see the Italian manufacturer rewarded again seemed like a slap in the face.
But as the committee members explained their thinking, it became clear that the 2012 chassis package represents an ingenious approach to controlling costs while promoting diversity. The per-unit price was minimized by giving Dallara the exclusive right to build and sell the rolling chassis, i.e., everything besides the drivetrain and the bodywork. But anybody will be able to design the "aero kits" that form the visible skin of the car as long as they meet as-yet-undetermined parameters and are offered for sale at no more than $70,000. Tt's not clear who's going to invest the millions of dollars necessary to develop this bodywork. But Dallara's proposal at least creates the possibility that the cars will look different even though the chassis are identical.
Money was another driving factor in the decisionmaking process. The state of Indiana offered $5 million in incentives to persuade Dallara to build a factory-cum-R&D facility in the city of Speedway, and Dallara, in turn, agreed to offer huge discounts to local teams that buy new cars. The bottom line, according to the committee's calculations, is that car-and-engine costs should be slashed in half.
You'd think that team owners would be jumping for joy. But, in fact, the major players were conspicuously absent from the official presentation, and their reaction since then has been strangely muted. In interviews days after the announcement, several committee members acknowledged that the Dallara concept was an imperfect solution. In retrospect, it's obvious that they weren't dealing with a multiple-choice question that came with one indisputably correct answer. Their challenge was to choose the best option on the table, and it had to be something that absolutely, positively could be implemented in 2012.
Bowlby, naturally, was gutted by the news. Partel bitterly derided the presentation as "a joke" and questioned the logic behind the committee's decision. He was especially aggravated by the realization that some of the most compelling selling points in Dallara's proposal seemed to have been lifted from the DeltaWing playbook. There's no question that, even though it was rejected, the DeltaWing figured prominently in the deliberations. As committee member Gil de Ferran, an Indy 500 winner who's now a team owner, puts it: "I think we're better off today because we had the DeltaWing project to consider."
Like most of his colleagues, de Ferran was intrigued by the concept but felt there were too many holes in the proposal. For example, the DeltaWing was designed around the Global Racing Engine—a proposed international formula for a small, direct-injected, turbocharged in-line four-cylinder. "The advocates of the world racing engine have a good case to make," says committee member Neil Ressler, the retired Ford VP who previously served as chairman of the Jaguar F1 team. "But while I think it will come to pass, no [engine manufacturer] was in a position to commit to the series, and no one did." So the committee voted to permit larger, turbocharged V-6s making up to 700 hp, which computer simulations suggest would allow the low-drag, lightweight DeltaWing to lap Indianapolis at an implausible 310 mph.
Timing, ultimately, was what sank the DeltaWing. "I agreed with a lot of the concepts behind it," says committee member Tony Cotman, formerly Champ Car's VP of operations and the IRL's well-respected VP of competition. "If we had been talking about 2014, we may have gone in a totally different direction. But there were too many unknowns about the vehicle. I wouldn't be surprised to see it surface again down the road. The contract with Dallara is for four years. So who knows what will happen in 2016?"
Partel hopes to have the DeltaWing up and running long before that. He's putting together proposals for alternative engines and high-profile record attempts, and he's thinking about shopping the car in Europe and Asia. "We have engines," he says, referring to manufacturers who are developing Global Racing Engines. "We have teams. We have tires. We have fuels. We have chassis. With all those elements in place, I don't think starting up an alternative series would be that difficult."
History suggests that the task may be harder than Partel predicts. Then again, history hasn't seen anything like the DeltaWing, which looks like open-wheel racing's best chance to reconnect with fans at a time when the sport seems increasingly dull and irrelevant. Maybe the car is too radical for Indy. But it's too promising to be filed and forgotten. "The genie is out of the bottle," Bowlby says, still managing to sound upbeat "Somehow, somewhere, someplace, we believe the DeltaWing will be raced."
Let the revolution begin, am
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