Should The IRL Go Radical?

It will probably come as no surprise to regular readers of this site that I am not a proponent of this so-called “radical” new chassis that the IRL is reportedly strongly considering for use in 2012, when a new engine/chassis package will probably be put into use. There are two chassis under consideration by the IRL brain trusts. Dallara has a conventional but updated version of their current chassis on the drawing board. Supposedly, the evolutionary car maintains most of the distinctive features of what we have called an Indy car for the past thirty-five years; open-wheels, narrow body with sidepods, open cockpit and front & rear wings.

However, former Lola designer and current Ganassi racing engineer, Ben Bowlby has a revolutionary concept chassis that supposedly resembles NOTHING that we have grown accustomed to seeing race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May. I would say that one of the few similarities between them was that they both had four wheels. Then again, I’ve even seen reports that say this revolutionary chassis was originally designed with only three wheels. Fortunately, word has it that the FIA stepped in and nixed that idea with the thought that in order to be classified as a car, it must have four wheels. What a concept.

I don’t normally pay a whole lot of attention to hearsay and rumors such as the three-wheeled concept. But with so little information coming out of the IRL bunker these days regarding the chassis, you have to give some credence to whatever is out there. One report I have heard on several occasions is that the new design looks like something between a motorcycle and an ALMS car, which is a somewhat curious description.

Keep in mind; I come from an era where change, innovation and radical ideas were the norm at 16th and Georgetown. The first IndyCar race I ever attended was as a wide-eyed six year-old at the 1965 Indianapolis 500. That year, there were six front-engine roadsters in the field along with many different chassis that embraced the outrageous notion of the engine in the rear of the car. That was the first time ever that a rear-engine car won the Indianapolis 500 and it has been that waySidecar ever since. That year was also just one year removed from the radical Smokey Yunick sidecar, which placed the driver in a separate capsule to the left of the engine. The car crashed on its qualifying attempt in 1964 and never made the race, but it was emblematic of the radical engineering of the day. Two years after my first race, I was lucky enough to witness the dawn of the jet engine powered turbine cars of Andy Granatelli. I grew up and witnessed the most change-ladened decade in the 100-year history of the Speedway.

I say this to make the point that I am certainly not opposed to change in the design or the appearance of an Indy car. Quite the contrary. If you’ve read this site for very long, you know that I have chastised the league for limiting innovation and risk taking in recent years. I am opposed to a spec series where every car looks identical, sounds identical and is identical to every other car on the grid. Innovation is what made the Indianapolis famous in the first place. The fact that innovation has been stymied in recent years is what has made the IndyCar Series become so stagnant.

So after being saddled with the same chassis for seven years (and at least two more to go), the Izod IndyCar Series is seriously considering a futuristic design that supposedly looks nothing like what we have grown accustomed to being an Indy car. My question is…why?

In the past, radical designs were pursued by either a team or a chassis manufacturer in order to gain a competitive edge over Belond more traditional engineering. Sometimes they worked as in the case of the George Salih designed “laydown” roadster. He got the idea of tilting the Offenhauser engine on its side in order to lower the front cowling. His creation was the sleekest car to ever grace the Speedway up to that point. The result was a car that won two consecutive Indy 500’s; in 1957 with Sam Hanks and in 1958 with Jimmy Bryan. The car could have just as easily been a dud. Tilting an engine 72-degrees on its side was a risky proposition, which could have produced unusual wear on the internal parts along with other potential problems. However, it was a radical idea that gave the car a clear edge.

Such was also the thinking of Mickey Thompson’s cars in the early sixties. Known as the “skate”, these cars looked more like  go-karts than Indy cars. The skate was low-slung,Skate measuring only thirty-three inches from the ground to the top of the rollbar. They had small, wide tires to fit the 12-inch wheels. The skate was extremely lightweight, weighing in at just over a thousand pounds with an all-aluminum Chevy V-8 engine behind the driver. Unfortunately, the car was difficult to drive. The skate was very unstable, especially in the corners. The car pictured was driven by Dave MacDonald in 1964. MacDonald lost control of his car coming out of turn four on lap two and spun, causing the fiery crash that took his life as well as the life of popular driver Eddie Sachs.

In the case of the radical chassis that is reportedly under strong consideration by the IRL, I see no reason to go this route. Supposedly, the league is still in favor of a single chassis provider, so this change would not be something to gain an edge over a competitor. All teams would have it. This is simply change for the sake of change. It is purely cosmetic. This is a move that could permanently alienate what fans the IRL has left, with no guarantee of snagging the new crowd that is so highly coveted with the Izod sponsorship. When the casual fan is flipping through the dial and lands on Versus – they will see something totally unrecognizable as an Indy car. Some may see that as good, but I don’t. I think the IRL is playing with fire with this concept. At this juncture in the business cycle of the IRL, I think they need to go with a design more associated with what people know as an Indy car.

If the IRL is so intent on introducing this radical new design to the Izod IndyCar Series, they should make it one of two or three approved chassis that will be made available to the teams. If a team chooses to stray from the tried and true Dallara and go for something more radical – great. Let the performance and the results of such a chassis dictate the market demand for it. If such a crazy and futuristic design is faster and safer than the others, then it will become the chassis of choice. I don’t care if it looks like a garbage truck – if it wins, it will ultimately be what teams go for.

But “choice” is the operative word here. If the IRL mandates that all teams will use something that looks like it was designed by Hot Wheels, I think they are taking a HUGE gamble. The IRL doesn’t have enough marketing clout for a mistake of this magnitude. It reeks of desperation by the league trying to go after a younger, hip audience. If this car offers no significant improvement over a more conventional design, why build it? Engineering and marketing don’t always mix. The damage caused by the last truly radical idea that was tried in 1996 has caused an uphill climb, at best. If this gamble by the league backfires, I’m not sure they have the staying power in the market place to fix this one.

George Phillips

19 Responses to “Should The IRL Go Radical?”

  1. Perhaps an article such as this should be withheld until the design is viewed by the public. Sure, it may be different, but who is to say it wouldn’t be a good different. Personally, I am cautiosly optimistic, but very curious.

  2. aahhh the relient robin three-wheeler

  3. I didn’t vote because none of the options really fit my opinion. I’m against rules which force everyone into a narrow range to fit the formula. We’re moving closer to IROC, and that series did not exactly capture people’s hearts and minds.

  4. I dunno George. I hear what you are saying, but until I see this supposed “radical” design, and the Dallara “evolutionary” one, I am going to withold my judgment. I am no fan of the current Dallara sleds, and am a bit concerned that the “evolutionary” design they are putting together will be too similar to the current one. As for the supposed revolutionary “3-Wheel” space ship that is also supposedly being designed in paralell, well seeing is believing. It is really hard to believe that such a design is actually being considered. If it is, then the IRL doing an amazing job keeping it from being “leaked”. So good a job that the White House might want to use them as consultants.

    With the Centennial coming, I would like to see the new design be revolutionary, and take a leap forward in innovation. And by innovation, I mean true technical innovation, not just some comic book, Buck Rodgers-ish sideshow, doo-dads to get attention. I think that history has shown that true innovation could be accomplished with either one of these designs. And as you correctly point out, history has also shown that some “innovations” were just pie in the sky ideas that never quite panned out. Only time will tell.

    • oilpressure Says:


      Based on the comments I’ve seen so far, I’m afraid people are missing my point. I am all for innovation, but as you correctly point out – this seems like more Buck Rogers comic book stuff that is being done for marketing than on-track performance. Plus, as JamesO points out – the fact that they may be forcing the teams to use this as a single chassis is a terrible idea.

      But the fact that Curt Cavin and Robin Miller are both commenting on it leads me to believe that what we are hearing has some truth behind it. – GP

  5. I don’t mind the idea of radical, I think they need to “free up” certain areas of the car for engineers to play with.
    As well as that – different engine builders may require a different chassis to gain suitable stability and drive-ability

  6. Jim in Wilmington Says:

    I think to get the kind of innovation that everyone says they want, they’re going to have to completely open the rule book like it was in the mid ’60’s. There was a displacement limit for blown and normally aspirated engines (and later an inlet annulus limit for gas turbines), a minimum wheelbase and track limit and that was about it. Today there should probably also be a minimum weight and tire size limitations.

    The big difference between then and now is all that has been learned about crash survivability. That would have to be incorporated into the rules and there would have to be some kinds of tests to make sure that they weren’t putting something on the track that would get people killed. Of course, this would all cost lots of money so it probably won’t happen..


  7. A question in regard to multiple chassis. Say they allowed two or three options–wouldn’t all the teams eventually go with the one chassis that performed the best anyway? Or–if not–would the “have’s” go with the best performing chassis and the “have-nots” go with whatever was the cheapest?

  8. I voted for option #2; however, I also agree with what Tom and Tom G. said, that until we actually see the designs, it might be a bit unfair to speculate about what the chassis looks like and whether or not it is too radical.

    I also agree with redd. The scenario redd created is exactly what happened to bring us to the current point of everyone using the same Dallara chassis, and that also is a concern to me.

    I do think-and this is only my opinion and I am not a mechanical engineer-that the car design can’t be too radical. It needs to look like other IndyCar/Formula 1/open-wheel cars in other series or it may very well end up turning people away by looking too dissimilar. I am waiting and seeing until I truly make a judgment.

  9. I, too, think it’s too early to draw any conclusions about chassis selection. I think the only things we can infer from Cavin’s and Miller’s comments are that there is an innovative chassis being worked on, and that it must not be stunningly outrageous or one of them, surely, would find a way to report that, non-disclosure agreement or not.

    George, I’m of your generation–the first 500 I saw was in the early 60’s at a theater in Minneapolis on black-and-white closed circuit TV. And it would be fun to have again what boiled down to rules that were essentially “race what you bring.”

    But I don’t know how you do that anymore, since we’ve hit the speed limits. There are two of them, it seems to me. The first is the speed limit that keeps cars from going through the catchfence. I suggest that’s the reason we haven’t seen very many 230mph laps at Indianapolis. The second was discovered by CART when they had to cancel the race in Texas in the late 90’s. G forces were so high the drivers couldn’t withstand them.

    If the purpose of innovation is to be safer, that’s great. But the point of innovation is also to go faster. But how do you write rules which allow innovation and variety, but still enforce the speed limits?

    Heck, all these guys are racers. They like the technical challanges. If it were possible to write simple rules that encouraged innovation and still kept the sport as safe as it has become, they would have been written a long time ago.

    Wish that were the case, but I don’t think it is.

  10. I might be the weird one here, but I like the idea of a radically different chassis. The reason for that is because so many people I know can’t tell the difference between an IndyCar and a Formula 1 car. For the uninformed, they just look like they’re not “NASCARs”. So, I guess I would like something that differentiates IndyCar.

  11. I like the idea of a radical car design, although I worry a little it will turn out like NASCAR’s COT. I don’t think it needs to be similar to the current formula. I hope it looks more like a P1 car from ALMS and Le Mans

  12. Flintstone Flyer Says:

    I, for one, love radical thinking. How about three wheels on the outside, and one on the inside?

  13. This optional, non Dallara concept from the ex-LOLA guy must be legit because Robin Miller says he has signed a confidentiality agreement to even review images of it ❗

    I would love to see this happen… however I would also like to see Dallara bring out their concept for 2012 💡 I’m sick of Indycar being a spec series :idea 💡 CART had something right… March/ Lola/ Penske/ Eagle in the 80s Lola/ Penske/ Reynard/ Swift (briefly) in the 90s.

    Chevy & Ford. Mercedes, Toyota, & Honda. Geez even Alfa & Porsche had motors that were put into a variety of chassis. Crowds were NOT an issue back then… coincidence ❓ ❓ ❓

  14. John McLallen Says:

    I would like to see a rebirth of the days when you knew what was required and what would pass spec and then race it. Open this baby up and see if a new generation of Andy Granatelli is out there. Why can’t a team come up with something like Penske did and run it? If its cost then bring the cost down. I would like to see Lotus or McLaren find the opportunity to come in.

  15. Little birdie Says:

    When you see Ben’s machine you won’t be sorry if they race it. Don’t believe the hype, it’s not THAT radical, it doesn’t have any more or less wheels than the cars have now, it doesn’t look like the COT or a Grand Am car. It is different, but in a good way, vastly better looking than the Dallara and it will use something Indy cars and sports cars haven’t been allowed to use in years (hint hint) and it will lose things that aren’t needed in current cars(hint hint). Now, I’ll shut up before I get sued for breeching my contract.

  16. Mr. 20 Prospect Says:

    All I want for Christmas is a fantastic looking, cutting edge technology, open wheel race car that makes EVERYONE who sees it, stop and say “Ooooooo…”

    Please Santa! I’ve been a good boy this year!

  17. Radical is just an escape from failing at convention. Don’t want. Back 2 Basics, plz. No Radical, no Danica, just good drivers, good cars, good manufacturers, and great racing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: