Will Their Future Match Their Past?

geothumbnail10
If you know anything about me, you know that I love any reminder of the past in racing. When Chevy announced they would return to the NTT IndyCar Series in 2012, I was happy because it recreated the 80s and 90s in my mind. When Firestone announced it was planning to return to IndyCar in 1995, visions of my childhood in the 60s danced in my head.

The name Dallara does not conjure up nostalgia in my mind. Quite honestly, the first time I had ever heard of the company was when they were announced as one of two chassis manufacturers to roll out new cars for the 1997 Indy Racing League season, the other being G-Force (which later became the Panoz chassis).

Before The Split, the main customer chassis manufacturers in IndyCar were all British companies; March, Reynard and Lola. After each spent significant time as the dominant chassis in IndyCar; March just seemed to fade away, while Reynard and eventually Lola, both went into receivership.

Lola is one of the most storied brands in motorsports. The were founded by Eric Broadley in 1958. They had success in almost every form of motorsport, but for our purposes, we will focus on their long-term IndyCar program. Lola first entered the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, with two cars in the starting lineup; one driven by Bud Tingelstad, the other by Al Unser. Tingelstad was involved in the day’s only mishap – crashing in Turn Three on Lap 115. Unser, as a rookie, drove his Lola to a ninth-place finish that day. Thus began five decades involvement in IndyCar.

Lola_logo

The next year, Graham Hill drove his Lola to an Indianapolis 500 win as a rookie – one of four Lolas on the starting grid. Two of the other three were driven by teammates Rodger Ward and Jackie Stewart, while Larry Dickson drove the fourth Lola entry.

From 1965 through 1972, the Indianapolis 500 had at least one Lola in the field; before they began to get squeezed out by Eagles and McLarens starting in 1973. But they returned to the grid in 1978, and won with Al Unser behind the wheel for his third Indianapolis 500 win.

After a three-year absence, Lola returned in 1983 with Newman/Haas and Mario Andretti. – and they won the CART championship in 1984. Carl Haas had become the Lola distributor in North America and this eventually marked the beginning of the end of the dominance by the March chassis a few years later. By 1990, exactly two-thirds of the starting grid for the Indianapolis 500 was comprised of Lolas.

The ironic thing is, as dominant as Lola was in the IndyCar championship – 1990 was the only year past 1978 for Lola to win the Indianapolis 500. They won the championship in 1990 (Al Unser, Jr.), 1991 (Michael Andretti), 1992 (Bobby Rahal) and 1993 (Nigel Mansell) But they were beaten by the Penske chassis, and even the Galmer, in the 500 during that same time frame.

The 1994 Lola was not a good car. It may have had the most beautiful and graceful lines of any race car in the modern era, but on the track – it was a sled. Lola picked a bad year to put a dog on the track. The Penske chassis won twelve of the sixteen races that season. Newcomer Reynard won three races in their inaugural season (including their debut in the season-opener). Lola won only once.

By 1995, many of Lola’s customers weren’t waiting around to see if they could produce a better car after a lackluster 1994. Almost half of the field was made up of Reynards, even though Lola did actually redeem themselves with a better car in 1995. But Reynard won the Indianapolis 500 and the CART championship that year. Reynard also won the Indianapolis 500 in the year of The Split before the IRL went to their own equipment in 1997.

The late 90s were not good for Lola. Although the elusive Indianapolis 500 was now off the table, the CART championship was still up for grabs. In 1996, Lola and Reynard split the season with eight wins each. The Penske chassis went winless. But the wheels fell off for Lola in 1997. Out of seventeen races, Reynard won thirteen, Penske won three, Swift won one and Lola went winless for the first time since 1982.

As you can imagine, of the few teams that Lola had in 1997, they all fled in 1998. Even Newman/Haas jumped ship from Lola, to use the promising Swift chassis. Davis Racing with Arnd Meier as the driver was the lone Lola entry for 1998. As you might guess, Lola’s winless streak extended through the 1999 season.

In the second half of the nineties, Reynard came onto the scene and immediately became the chassis of choice. Pairing the Reynard with the Honda engine and Firestone tires was the only real way to compete for the championship. But as quickly as Reynard rose to dominance and Lola appeared gone – the situation changed. Reynard was suddenly having financial trouble and Lola had regained its footing in CART. Even though Reynard won the 2000 and 2001 championships with Team Penske, Lola won seven races in 2000. By 2001, the field was evenly split between Lola and Reynard and Lola won ten of the twenty races.

By 2003, Lola was the only chassis manufacturer building new cars for what was about to become Champ Car and was once again the dominant chassis in what was becoming a more diluted series. For the 2007 season, Champ Car switched to the Panoz DP-01, regulating Lola out of the series for the first time since 1982.

Lola then turned its sites on Formula One, aiming to become a constructor for the 2010 season. However, they were unable to secure a spot and they abandoned the project.

There was one last gasp for Lola. When IndyCar announced they would be retiring the Dallara IR-03 after the 2011 season, they formed the ICONIC committee which would select one or more manufacturers for a new chassis in a very public bidding process. Fans were teased with concepts submitted by chassis manufacturers such as Swift, BAT, DeltaWing, Lola and Dallara. Fans really liked the designs by Swift and Lola, but the committee chose Dallara to continue as the sole chassis provider for the series.

Not long after that, Lola ceased operations and went into receivership in 2012, never to be heard from again – until now.

A wealthy Brit and IMSA driver, Till Bechtolscheimer, is buying the assets of Lola Cars Ltd. He wants to bring the brand back into many forms of motorsports, including IndyCar.

Aside from the history lesson I just went into regarding Lola, the real question I am asking is two-fold. Will IndyCar ever allow a second chassis manufacturer into the series, and the bigger question is – should they?

I am really torn on this. The racing history fan in me wants a legendary brand like Lola back into the series it dominated in the early 90s. I am also not really a fan of Dallara. It’s one thing if the market dictates that a brand will dominate the series. If you go winless, like Lola did for a long stretch in the late 90s – no team will choose to buy your chassis. A competing chassis will ultimately get everyone’s business.

But I don’t like to see a company, like Dallara, be rewarded an exclusive contract, when they did nothing on the track to earn the business. Instead, a sales executive for the company struck a deal (likely) over cocktails with an IndyCar executive a dozen or so years ago. They figured it could be a mutually beneficial relationship to give fans a spec series because a focus group told them that fans don’t care about competing chassis…or something like that.

At my ripe old age, it’s quite possible that I am completely out of touch with what IndyCar fans want. But I know I always enjoyed seeing what improvements each manufacturer made in the offseason.

The reason I’m torn is that even though I would love to see different looks among chassis manufacturers battling it out on-track, especially with Lola among them – I’m not sure that today’s business model for IndyCar can sustain that. Thirty years ago, each chassis manufacturer came out with a brand new car every season. If you were serious about competing for the championship, you had to buy it. That would not be possible in today’s IndyCar. Only a handful of teams could afford that. The others would simply drop out.

This Sunday’s race at Mid-Ohio will boast a robust twenty-seven cars on the grid. If teams were expected to buy a new car each year that number would probably be trimmed to ten or twelve. That’s not something that many people would tune in to watch each week. And good luck, reaching thirty-three cars at the Indianapolis 500 each year.

Is there a compromise? Could two chassis manufacturers co-exist? In the mid-to-late 2000s, Panoz and Dallara tried to sustain competition between each other, but the Dallara was a much better car, so all teams naturally went away from the Panoz. Eventually, the Panoz was no longer an option to teams and Dallara was the default chassis manufacturer.

I can see that situation repeating itself in the future. Let’s say that IndyCar opened bids for a new car in 2025. Dallara and Lola were selected to build the next chassis that would be expected to last for at least eight years. They should both be required to be able to supply at least 75% of the field, in case one is preferred over the other and it’s not an even split on the grid. Let’s assume that Lola goes winless in the first season. Will Lola be allowed to test and do the research to improve in Year Two? If you grant that latitude to Lola, do you also grant it to Dallara? When they spend that extra money, who pays it? The series? The teams?

Some of the wealthier teams may want to try and buy both chassis, to keep on hand. Will that be allowed? If you don’t make allowances, and a team like ECR is stuck with the wrong chassis – then what happens?

The potential for the dreaded unintended consequences is huge with competing chassis manufacturers in today’s IndyCar climate. I don’t like spec racing anymore than anyone else does, but I’m afraid that allowing a second chassis builder will drive up the cost of doing business so much that many teams will drop out.

Then the question becomes; would IndyCar ever choose Lola over Dallara to be the sole chassis provider? Probably not, and that’s a shame.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “Will Their Future Match Their Past?”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Racing, in general, has been moving away from chassis competition because nearly every form of racing is attempting to control costs for economic reasons as much as competitive ones. Chassis are the one major component of a racing car that (outside of auto manufacturer-built/branded cars) does not have any history of bringing marketing money in to racing the way engines and tires do (and to a lesser extent, small components like wheels, electronics, suspensions, exhaust systems, etc.).

    Indycar won’t see chassis competition unless/until chassis bring money into the series rather than only take money out or unless/until the series and teams bring in so much money that the cost of chassis competition does not matter much to the teams. Neither one of these scenarios seems likely. The aerokits were a good effort at making this happen, and they were not able to entice any of the aerospace companies and university research departments that were proposed as potential aerokit builders/subsidizers.

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    Then versus now & bottomle$$ pockets.

  3. would Lola be allowed to offer a chassis for $175K (1/2 price)?
    could they give away “free samples”?
    BOGO?

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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: