Things Have Changed Over a Dozen Years

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After a couple of weeks over Christmas and New Year’s, it was good to take a step back and recharge the old batteries. I hesitate to mention the Music City Bowl we attended. Purdue played a good game and deserved the win, but the game was marred by horrible officiating on both sides. That’s all I’m going to say about that. But with all of the festivities of the holidays now behind us and the hope that a new year brings in front of us, it’s good to get back here to focus on IndyCar racing.

Unfortunately, we were only four days into the new year on Tuesday, when we learned that Kevin Kalkhoven passed away yesterday morning after a short illness at the age of seventy-seven. Personally, I think that Kalkhoven was the voice of reason in the latter stages of The Split. After the reunification of 2008, he and Jimmy Vasser were partners in KV Racing Technologies. This was the team that Tony Kanaan was driving for, when he won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013. Indulge me, while I share a self-promoting photo of a much younger Mr. Oilpressure with Kevin Kalkhoven, when we met on the grid at Barber in 2012. Godspeed, Mr. Kalkhoven!

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Now, on to far less significant ramblings…With the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg scheduled to run in late February, the offseason is a few weeks shorter this year than normal. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the IndyCar schedule runs unaltered for the first time since 2019. With a shorter offseason, we can expect a lot of activity in January.

One announcement came over the Christmas break – Dallara will continue as the chassis provider for the NTT IndyCar Series for the foreseeable future.

When we last went down this road almost twelve years ago, I would have seen this as a bad thing. The ICONIC Committee examined bids from five manufacturers; Lola, Swift, BAT, DeltaWing and Dallara. Each offered something unique in design or function. The DeltaWing was the most controversial-looking, and I was glad it was not chosen. Personally, I thought the Lola was the best looking design of the bunch and it brought a legendary name to the series.

I was hoping that at least two manufacturers would be chosen, just to spark a little competition and offer some variety – so that the series would escape the accusations of being a spec series.. It didn’t happen.

Ultimately, Dallara was chosen to be the sole chassis manufacturer. While I wasn’t happy that only one was chosen – they promised variety through multiple aero kits. It was presented that companies like Boeing, Ferrari and even those that lost in their bids – like Lola and Swift – would manufacture various aero kits that would fit to the tub of the chosen chassis. Teams would be allowed to buy two different aero kits and could swap them around throughout the season depending on the track and conditions. Just in case, Dallara would make an aero kit for their common tub as well.

This sounded great in theory, and it placated those of us that wanted some chassis variety in the series. Unfortunately, proposals from Boeing, Ferrari or Lola never materialized. When the aero kit era finally became reality in 2015, it was between Chevy and Honda – mostly deciding who could create the ugliest race car. Honda won.

The aero kit era came to a merciful end after the 2017 season. The result was everyone cheering because the common body kit produced the best looking race car since the CART days of the late nineties. In that three-season span of the aero kit era; Honda won two Indianapolis 500s, while Chevrolet won the driver’s championship twice.

When the ICONIC committee was formed, it was to replace the aging Dallara IR-03. When it ran its last race at the end of the 2011 season, the design had nine seasons of wear and tear – although few teams were running actual cars that old. Fast forward to 2022, and the current DW12 tub is about to start its eleventh season. Granted, the car looks a lot different that the cars driven in 2012 – but the tub is pretty much the same. New engines are promised for 2023 and a new chassis is to be raced by the 2024 season. By that time, the current chassis will have been around for thirteen seasons.

Unless you are under 35, you probably remember the days when all of the good teams shed their equipment every year and bought new cars. Part of the fun in January was waiting for IndyCar Racing Magazine to show up in the mailbox to catch a glimpse of the newest Lola or Reynard, to see what changes had been made from last year’s model. It may be drastic like higher sidepods, or something very minute – like the position of the front wings in speedway configuration.

Those days are long gone, and now cars change once a decade instead of once a year. I’m OK with that because Dallara has done a good job of keeping the cars fresh as they evolve. Unlike in 2010, I am also now OK with the fact that there is only one chassis manufacturer. Yes, variety is nice – but I also like keeping the car affordable. Having multiple chassis manufacturers means that the companies can only sell half as many (or less), so they would have to charge more – a lot more – to be able to turn a profit. With Dallara having a monopoly on the series, they can charge less. It’s a business model that works. I would rather have more cars on the grid for each race, than a variety of cars on the track.

Dallara also has experience with this series. They have been a partner for the past twenty-six years, when Dallara and G-Force first provided cars to the fledgling Indy Racing League in 1997. By 1998, Riley & Scott entered the fold briefly. The Falcon chassis had a prototype built for the 2003 season, but it had no customers and never turned a wheel. G-Force was bought out by Panoz and eventually faded away. The last time a chassis other than a Dallara raced in the Indianapolis 500 was in 2007, when Jacques Lazier and Roberto Moreno both drove a Panoz chassis. Phil Giebler attempted to qualify a Panoz in 2008, but failed. Since then – it has been all-Dallara.

Dallara has been an excellent partner over the years. They have constructed safe and nimble cars, especially the DW12. There has been only one fatality with the current chassis – when the nose of Sage Karam’s car flew up in the air after a 2015 crash at Pocono and struck Justin Wilson in the helmet on the way down. As tragic as that was, it was more of a fluke accident and not really chassis related. The most serious non-fatal accident involved Robert Wickens frightening 2018 crash at Pocono, that has left him in a wheelchair ever since. Was that injury related at all to the chassis? I am not qualified to answer.

Those two incidents aside, I think most would agree that the current chassis has been considered a very safe car. That may have contributed to its longevity. It has survived the aero kit era, the unified body kit era and the aero screen era. In 2023, it will have way more than a hundred pounds of weight added on when the new hybrid-based engines are introduced before the new car is scheduled to come online in 2024.

In 2010, I was not happy with the ICONIC Committee’s decision to go with only one chassis. The fact that it was Dallara made me suspect that collecting bids was all a sham. Dallara had been on board since 1997 and had built a facility just down the street from Turn One of IMS. I thought the deck was stacked in their favor and the other bidding manufacturers never had a chance.

But in 2022, I am all for Dallara retaining all of the business. Yes, chassis-wise, this is a spec series. But the economics have changed since the nineties, when tobacco, beer and oil sponsorship money flowed like water. I think Jay Frye and the powers-that-be, have worked very hard to create an affordable product that provides great racing and promotes an increased car count. The future for IndyCar looks a lot brighter in 2022 than it did in 2010. Let’s hope it keeps moving in that direction.

George Phillips

2 Responses to “Things Have Changed Over a Dozen Years”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    It is good that Indycar continues to have a partner in Dallara in large part because there are few car builders in the world in this day and age who can construct a safe and modern top-level open wheel race car… and even fewer who are likely to do it as well as Dallara does at the current price point.

    I think most of us miss the days of chassis competition. I rather appreciated the aerokit era for its attempt to provide that kind of competition again. Unfortunately, we won’t see chassis/aerodynamic competition again unless/until the chassis itself brings marketing money/subsidy into the series the way engines and tires do. Not likely to happen, it seems, as this is essentially what the aerokit concept attempted and failed to do.

  2. Commendable effort from Derrick Walker I agree. Sad it did not deliver or that budgets are too small to allow multiple chassis. From the list mention in the article it looks like they picked the most solvent provider as well.

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