Why Indy rules are wrong

The IRL IndyCar Series and the Champ Car World Series have finally ended the most sad and damaging chapter in US racing history. Finally a unified series is a reality. Just as Motor Sport closed for press, news broke that a deal had been done for the two series to run as one with immediate effect.

Details were still sketchy at the time of writing, but what we do know is that this is a moment to celebrate. We also know that we are only at the start of a long, hard road to recovery. Twelve years of civil war has wounded open-wheel racing severely in the United States. The sport that attracted a reigning Formula 1 World Champion in Nigel Mansell as recently as 1993 has become a relative backwater. Meanwhile, NASCAR has grown from a regional, inward-looking domestic series to a world force. Open-wheel racing has been left spluttering in its dust.

So now that a union has been achieved, big changes are needed to capitalise on this new opportunity. Here is my outline of what needs to be done if Indycar racing is to be revived and become again the great sport it once was.

Now that there is one unified series, the vital question of technical specification must be dealt with. At the heart of the problem is the fact that over the past 30 years America’s open-wheel sanctioning bodies – USAC, CART, IRL and Champ Car – have spent most of their efforts trying to slow down the cars and restrain costs. Since the mid-1970s, more and more restrictions have been placed on engines and aerodynamics, and the sanctioning bodies responded to new thinking and technology simply by banning almost everything. Add to that the unrelenting civil war which included squabbles over philosophy and rules, and resulted in everyone losing sight of what an Indycar was all about, and the result is today’s interest-free, spec cars.

It’s become abundantly clear that spec car, or single-make racing, will be the death of Indycar racing. The weakened commercial state of both series, with sponsorship all but impossible to sell, forced American open-wheel racing down the spec car path. Champ Car’s new-for-2007 spec car was seen as a panacea for the organisation’s many ills, but its deliberate adoption of the Panoz DP01-Cosworth and the IRL’s de facto devolution to a Dallara-Honda reduced both series to minor leagues with zero technical variety or competition among car builders and engine manufacturers – the lifeblood that has always driven motor racing.

Regardless of what either series wanted to believe, they sunk into the alphabet soup of open-wheel, spec car formulas. Many people believe the only way Indycar racing can now claw its way out of this primordial ooze is to reinvent itself with a new formula that will bring back technical variety and interest in competing car builders and engine manufacturers. The time to introduce these sweeping changes is now: we are on the doorstep of the 100th anniversaries in 2009 of both American national championship racing and the birth of the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

If the Speedway, the series bosses and team owners are seriously interested in celebrating the start of the sport’s second century they will realise that they must keep to the new spirit of unification to create an exciting new formula for 2010, or 2011 at the latest. It’s essential to reintroduce innovation, new technology and the creative spirit which fuelled the sport for most of its life.

For almost 90 years innovation and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were considered to be fellow travellers. The race was founded on that spirit and continued to be a hotbed of new concepts and independent thinking until the introduction of the cost and technology-restricted IRL formula in 1996. But as the 500 deserted the cutting edge in favour of a pedestrian, everyman’s formula, the race fell into a steady decline.

Ray Harroun’s victory in the first Indy 500 in 1911 is celebrated for a number of reasons, including the fact that his rare, single-seater Marmon Wasp (all the other cars carried riding mechanics) was the only car in the field with a rear-view mirror. Thus was born the Speedway’s tradition of innovation.

The inaugural 500 was a great success and almost instantly the race became an international event. Frenchman Jules Goux won the 1913 race aboard a factory Grand Prix Peugeot. This was followed by wins for Delage and Mercedes-Benz in 1914 and 1915, and two more wins for Peugeot in 1916 and 1919. The four-cylinder Peugeot engine designed by Ernest Henry heralded a move to smaller, higher-revving units and featured twin overhead camshafts and a pent roof combustion chamber. This basic design has remained the key to high-performance engines.

The French engine inspired others to try to do a better job, including Duesenberg and in particular Harry Miller, whose straight-eight engines – supercharged and otherwise – and elegant cars dominated Indycar racing through the 1920s and ’30s. Miller’s engines served in turn as the basis for the four-cylinder Offenhauser engine which ruled Indycar racing through the post-WWII era.

The 1950s and ’60s are famous for the ‘roadster’. These beautiful, increasingly sleek, Offy-powered cars were built by people like Frank Kurtis, Eddie Kuzma and A J Watson. The Kurtis in which Bill Vukovich won the 1953 and ’54 Indy 500s was a particularly attractive car and was followed by a series of memorable lowline roadsters, some with ‘laydown’ engines.

In the 1960s and early ’70s the Speedway erupted with innovation as rear-engined cars, turbocharging and aerodynamics arrived. It was a spectacular time with new cars and concepts appearing every year and track records going through the roof. In 1972, Bobby Unser broke the record at Indy by 17mph but one year later, after a rain-sodden, crash-riddled 500, USAC began to restrict the cars and engines, inadvertently putting us on the road to spec cars.

Before the new union deal, Honda had made it clear to the IRL that if it was to continue as its engine supplier, it wanted the new formula to embrace technology as well as competition from other manufacturers. Honda’s retiring American racing boss Robert Clarke had implied that if the IRL was unable to demonstrate a clear path to a technically-challenging formula for 2011, Honda would withdraw from Indycar racing at the end of 2009 and focus its efforts on its American Le Mans Series programme.

Clarke believes the key to attracting manufacturers is to write hybrid and energy-preserving technologies into the rules for 2011. In last month’s Motor Sport, John Barnard and Mario Illien put forward their ideas for a new Formula 1, and Clarke is among those who think the same ideas must be applied to Indycar racing.

“The series needs to become more relevant in using a product which is related more toward production car technologies,” said Clarke, speaking before the peace deal had been struck. “We need something that we can promote. Right now, there’s nothing we can talk about, other than Honda quality and reliability.

“If the IRL were to embrace real-world challenges like fuel consumption, emissions, noise and using energy better, other manufacturers would take notice. You have to be a leader in those areas and other than the ALMS there’s no US series that’s embracing those things. The ALMS a is very good series but they don’t have a race that’s anything close to the Indy 500. So there’s a great opportunity out there if the IRL do it right.”

As I’ve written many times, America’s open-wheel sanctioning bodies have failed to produce powerful and wise leaders or fervent promoters of the sport. But their biggest failure has been their incredible ineptitude at managing the technical rules. Power and speed was what the spectacle was about for Indycar fans and it was part of the challenge for the drivers too. Those things made the 500 what it was. How to write the correct formula for such a car in today’s aerodynamically-dominated world is a problem, but it’s one which the men behind the united Indycar series should be dedicated to solving.

If there’s any hope of fixing US open-wheel racing an inspired technical formula is required. The time has come for big thinking. But is anyone up to this monumental task? So far, the silence on this has been deafening.