Are Multiple Chassis a Reality Today?

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Some fans of the NTT IndyCar Series have short memories. Over the weekend, I was reading an article online, and for the life of me – I cannot remember where it was. It was one of those lazy Saturday mornings, lying in bed drinking coffee and reading my iPad; when I was just browsing around looking for a reason to not get up. The article pertained to a possible third engine manufacturer and who it might be. It was one of those articles that didn’t really tell me anything new, but gave people something to discuss – much like what I do here. Perhaps that’s why it’s difficult to remember where I read it.

There were several comments that I read, mostly giving each reader a chance to speculate on their opinion of the next IndyCar engine manufacturer. But somewhere in there, the comment section took an ugly turn. A reader chimed in that IndyCar needed a second chassis manufacturer and possibly a third. Once that topic was thrown out there, it was like sharks going after chum in the water. Everyone chimed in agreeing with that idea.

In an ideal world that would be, well – ideal. But we are not living in an ideal world. The comments predictably pointed to CART in the mid-to-late nineties. In 1997, for example – there were five chassis manufacturers (Lola, Reynard, Penske, Swift and Eagle) and four engine manufacturers (Honda, Ford, Mercedes and Toyota), along with two tire manufacturers (Firestone and Goodyear). The combinations seemed almost limitless, but the best seemed to be the Reynard/Honda with Firestone tires.

But times have changed dramatically in the motorsports world. In those days, sponsorship money flowed like water from three separate industries – tobacco, beer and oil.

Tobacco had the Penske team (Marlboro), PacWest (Hollywood), Team Green (KOOL), and Forsythe (Players). Beer had Newman/Haas (Budweiser), Team Rahal (Miller), Patrick (Brahma), Tasman (Tecate) and Project Indy (Hasseröder). The oil companies were also big players with Walker Racing (Valvoline), Newman/Haas (Texaco-Havoline) and Dan Gurney’s All-American Racing (Castrol).

Life was good in those days. But legislation got rid of the tobacco money and the beer and oil companies found other forms of marketing elsewhere. Today, only Shell/Pennzoil and Total Petroleum are occasional primary oil company sponsors for a couple of races a year. I would be remiss if I failed to mention Sunoco being a series sponsor for several years. They have been replaced by Speedway, but are they an oil company or a convenience store company? I’m not sure. But I can’t remember the last time I saw a beer brand on the sidepod of an Indy car.

The whole point of that trip down memory lane is to show that today’s economic environment in motorsports in general, and specifically IndyCar – is far different than it was a couple of decades ago.

If you were to go back and read some of my posts from 2009 and 2010, I was advocating for more than one chassis manufacturer. Dallara had been with the IRL since they introduced their own cars in 1997, along with G-Force (which later became the Panoz). For a few years, the two seemed to be on somewhat equal footing – at least as far as the Indianapolis 500 was concerned. From 1997 to 2004, G-Force and Dallara won four Indianapolis 500s each. The overall championship was a bit different. In that span, Dallara won six championships, while G-Force won only two (1997 and 2003).

In that time period, Riley & Scott provided cars for a few teams beginning in 1998. They had originally been slated as a third manufacturer in 1997, but their car wasn’t ready. By the time they produced their first car in 1998, there were few takers. The Riley & Scott won a total of one race – at Phoenix in 2000 with eventual champion Buddy Lazier, but they withdrew shortly thereafter and Lazier finished the season in a Dallara.

Don’t forget the Falcon chassis that was spearheaded by Michael Kranefuss. The car was to be built in Charlotte, NC for the 2003 season, when the new Dallara and G-Force would also hit the track. Compared to those two cars, the Falcon appeared to be the best-looking of the crop when it was unveiled in 2002.

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Mysteriously, the Falcon never turned a wheel. Some say it was a funding issue, while others say it was a conspiracy by IndyCar and the other two manufacturers that put it out of business. Whatever the case, the Falcon faded into obscurity as nothing more than a curious footnote.

By 2005, G-Force was bought by Don Panoz and renamed the Panoz. Their fortunes took a tumble as they were recognized only to be superior road course car, which IndyCar started racing that year. By 2006, most teams had ditched the Panoz, while Ganassi switched back-and-forth between Dallara and Panoz depending on the track. By 2007, the Panoz was a dinosaur. The last time a Panoz turned a wheel in IndyCar was in the 2007 Indianapolis 500, when Phil Giebler and Roberto Moreno drove them to finishes of twenty-ninth and thirty-third respectively.

From 2008 through 2011, the IndyCar Series was a true spec series. Every driver drove a Dallara powered by Honda on Firestone tires. In only a decade, Open-wheel had gone from multiple chassis, engine and tire combinations to a situation where everyone was in identical equipment.

Most fans, including myself, didn’t like it. I’ve never been a fan of tire wars, but I like competition between engines and chassis. I just felt like the manufacturers pushed the envelope more when they were trying to beat someone other than themselves.

As the 2003 model Dallara began to show its age, talk of a new car began. By this time, Tony George had been ousted as CEO of the series he founded. New CEO Randy Bernard formed the ICONIC committee to review designs and proposals for the 2012 season. Fans wanted multiple chassis and multiple engines.

They got their wish in the engine department. Honda would be joined by Chevrolet and Lotus, giving teams choices. Most Lotus teams abandoned ship before the 2012 Indianapolis 500, but it sounded good on the front-end. But fans were not happy when the design by Dallara was chosen over proposals by Swift, Lola, BAT and DeltaWing. Personally, I wanted Swift and Lola to both be awarded the contract to be chassis suppliers.

But IndyCar predictably chose their partner of the past fifteen years and gave them the exclusive contract. Fans were tossed a bone by explaining the concept of aero kits, which would give the cars different looks as many companies were expected to bid on the aero kits. We all know that morphed into Honda and Chevy contracting out their aero kit designs for 2015 through 2017.

Never say that I’m old-fashioned and stuck in my ways. Somewhere between 2010 and now, my opinion on multiple chassis has flipped 180°. I’m not sure exactly what changed my mind, but somewhere along the way – a light bulb went off in my head. It occurred to me in this day and age, multiple chassis providers would not be feasible in today’s IndyCar world.

I know when the contract was awarded to Dallara, it was for a set price that the car could cost. I don’t know what that set price is, but for an example – let’s say it is for $400,000 (without engine). If there are twenty-two full-time teams, that’s roughly forty cars to build initially and have parts readily available.

When you know how many orders you will have, it’s easy to make cost projections. IndyCar set the price and Dallara did what it could do to make that cost structure fit.

But what if I had gotten my wish – that Swift and Lola got the business. Each would have had to prepare to build at least twenty-five cars or so, in case they got more orders than their competitor. But they also had to recognize that they may only sell fifteen of those cars. When your sales have the possibility to fluctuate by that much either way, it makes it difficult or even impossible to commit to the set price of $400,000 (or whatever it was).

And then the price increases for whatever chassis is underperforming. Design changes have to be made and that costs money. Add to that, any mandated safety design changes by IndyCar for safety reasons, and the cost projections get skewed even more.

In short, having a single chassis provider is much more cost effective than having two or more. Today’s racing environment is all about cost containment. Yes that stifles development and innovation, but it keeps teams in the series and keeps car count at an acceptable level. That’s why Roger Penske is not allowed to build his own chassis like he did for years in CART. If expenses are not held in check, you’d probably end up with only three teams competing in the series, with maybe three to five cars each. That doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun to me.

So while I would have liked to see Lola and Swift batting it out with Dallara at all the different races, that is just not reality in today’s sponsor-challenged IndyCar environment.

So I guess I didn’t really flip. I just came to realize that it is the only choice for the foreseeable future. If some unforeseen cash cow for teams and the series miraculously appears, I’ll be advocating for multiple chassis.

But when you hear or read someone saying that IndyCar should be pursuing another chassis manufacturer to compete with Dallara in this economic climate – remind them that this is not 1997.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “Are Multiple Chassis a Reality Today?”

  1. I can’t help but chuckle at people who make comments like that. We all want to go back to the good old days but none of that is feasible in today’s world, and probably won’t ever be feasible again.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Multiple chassis will be feasible again when they bring money into the sport. Engines and tires have long brought money into the sport (via marketing and selling/leasing wares to teams at a loss) because they are made by manufacturers who sell similar products to consumers. Chassis, perhaps excluding those built by auto/engine manufacturers (particularly in the sport’s stock-based early days), have NEVER done that.

    With aerokits, IndyCar made a fair effort to use aerodynamics to bring money into the sport along with competition, recall that Boeing was often bandied about as the type of company that might build and aerokit. The idea worked, only technically, because the engine manufacturers paid to have kits created and subsidized the cost to the teams. But it did not work as intended, likely because Indycar isn’t a large enough platform for the aeronautics or tech companies they targeted to justify spending the cost of aerokits. Nevertheless, I very much appreciated the spirit behind the aerokit idea, because attempting to make chassis a marketing platform was fairly novel and it very much was a genuine attempt to give fans what they had been clamoring for while keeping costs to the teams down.

    Also, I believe the last beer company to appear on an Indycar’s sidepods was Itaipava, with Tony Kanaan at Sao Paulo in 2013.

  3. Mark Wick Says:

    Good comments George. I don’t doubt that you are right about the last time a Panoz raced, but i do remembering amazed that, a year of two later, a driver did take to the track for 500 practice in a Panoz. I remember asking myself if those chassis were even still allowed under the regulations. In any case a hard trip into the wall definitively ended the history of the Panoz.

    • billytheskink Says:

      That was Phil Giebler in 2008. I believe the Panoz was legal to run at the 500 only in 2008 and maybe 2009 – I recall reading a rulebook around that time and there being an exception to the rule that all cars must use paddle shifters for the 500 (IndyCar had switched to paddles in 2008 and Xtrac surely never made equipment for the Panoz). Understandably, there were no takers beyond Giebler in 2008, though the exception may well have been in place in case the 500 was desperate for a 33rd car.

      The last Panoz to turn a wheel in a race was Jaques Lazier’s Indiana Ice-sponsored car, which wrecked on its 155th lap in the 2007 Indianapolis 500. In addition to Lazier, Moreno, and Giebler, who all qualified for the 2007 race, Jimmy Kite attempted to qualify in a Panoz as well (he failed).

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    The Emma Dixon chassis remains my favorite.

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