The Indianapolis 500 is probably the most well known auto racing event in the country. Even people who know little to nothing about cars have at least heard of the event. Indy is without a doubt, the oldest racing venue in the United States, and its storied past holds many adventures and made legends of those who raced there.
Indy was originally built as a test track for new cars, but it wasn’t long before racing began to lap its squared oval shape. The dirt surface was later replaced with tons of bricks, hence the fitting nickname, “The Brickyard.” To this day, the start/finish line boasts a 36 inch wide stripe of the original brick surface, and winning drivers will kneel and kiss the bricks in celebration.
The winner of the Indianapolis 500 still guzzles milk in victory lane as opposed to champagne; another long standing tradition. However, Indy car racing has suffered in recent years, and fallen from the centerpiece of racing that it used to enjoy.
NASCAR had boomed to such proportions as to create havoc for Indy; stealing away not only the fans but the driving talent as well.
Foreign drivers backed by wealthy owners have excelled in Indy cars, as well as the one woman whirlwind known as Danica Patrick. Unfortunately, now even Indy’s biggest crowd draw is testing the waters of NASCAR.
Some years back, the Indy Racing League was formed as an offshoot of Championship Auto Racing or CART. The formation of the new organization cited that high cost of competing with exotic technology gave an unfair advantage to a few well funded teams and kept new teams from being formed. The plan worked in the short term, but even the IRL became a victim of its own fears. Even after absorbing the last of the teams that formed CART, now the IRL suffers from the same demons, with a few wealthy team owners providing hi-tech equipment and crushing the upstart team owners in the process.
NASCAR had found itself in a similar boat, and their solution was to introduce a standard type car that any team could build and compete with. This gave birth to the now infamous COT or “Car of Tomorrow.” COT has had its growing pains to be sure, and it is constantly undergoing new rule changes in an effort to remedy its ills. Unfortunately, the biggest issue the car has is one NASCAR will never be able to fix, and that is its generic appearance.
I am surrounded by NASCAR fans on my job, and there is not a season or race that goes by that someone doesn’t lament the “good ole days” when the cars on the track actually bore some resemblance to the cars you could go to the showroom and buy.
NASCAR is even now attempting to spice up its Nationwide sub-series by giving the COTs new front ends which bear some passing similarity to the Mustang and the Challenger. While their efforts are to be applauded, only a blind techno-geek would possibly even think one of these machines looks like one of the legendary pony cars whose names are splashed across the front bumper.
Despite all of the disdain incurred by the Car of Tomorrow, NASCAR still at least has the advantage of some level of brand loyalty. Four different auto manufacturers have their names emblazoned on the race cars for the engines that are their basic design. Indy has lost that one shred of fan competition as well, since Honda has dominated the series above all others.
So now the IRL is reaching out in an attempt to regain both fans and teams to race by venturing into the same murky waters that NASCAR dove into. Concepts are being fielded to provide a more affordable, easier to build car that will support different powerplants. I do have to give the IRL points for trying, but I also wonder if open wheel racing has outlived its day in the sun.
The original Indy racing cars were standard autos with everything stripped away to save weight. Then they pared down to one seat and more streamlined bodies in the never ending quest for speed. Today the open wheeled race car is winged demon that scorches around tracks at over 200mph. Virtually every new design utilizes some kind of fairing for the front wheels in an effort to smooth the airflow over the rolling tires. The most radical of these by far is a concept called the “Delta Wing.”
The Delta wing concept was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show and the closest comparison I can draw is a Navy A-4 Skyhawk jet fighter without a canopy. The long, slender nose skirts two narrow front tires mounted close together to streamline the front end. The rear wheels are set wide apart, shrouded in side pods shaped like the delta wings of the aforementioned fighter jet. A vertical tail fin gives lateral stability and completes the aircraft look. The only thing missing on this design is an afterburner thrust nozzle out back to give any Salt Flats racer a go for its money. A website which was set up by the designers shows a simulation of the Delta Wings lapping the track and passing for position. The simulation looks reasonably good, but the sight of the cars themselves is truly bizarre. I am at once reminded of a conversation with one of my co-workers who attended an IRL exhibition race held at Richmond International Raceway. Richmond is a short track of the NASCAR variety, and the Indy cars blistering around its three-quarter mile surface was an exercise in fortitude for both fan and driver. My friend likened the experience to watching a squadron of F-16s fly laps inside a high school gymnasium.
Today, the GT cars of the Grand Am and Le Mans Series stand alone as the last race cars that actually look like their showroom brothers. While the mid-engined Le Mans and Daytona Prototype cars are purpose built machines, they still bear some passing similarity to an exotic two place sports car, and they still enjoy the brand loyalty of their engine providers.
Indy needs an answer to be sure, but I don’t think the Delta Wing is the solution. Just like the NASCAR fans, I personally would love to see a racing series with recognizable cars, or at least the kind of sleek style that the Can-Am cars of old possessed. Even if they built mid-engined machines like the open cockpit prototypes, that allowed different engine builders to be competitive would be huge plus. The modern open wheeled car has become a bullet, and high dollar one at that, so why not get back to the innovative spirit that gave birth to Indianapolis to begin with. I would love to see something not so “cookie cutter” as the modern cars of today.
NASCAR seems to me to be more of beating fest these days, a kind of high speed demolition derby, which can lead to nothing but death and destruction. Indy stands as a monument to the infancy and glory days of racing. I have lapped the hallowed speedway and walked the floors of it museum, and both were experiences that were rich with heritage. If you have the chance to visit, I highly recommend taking the time. I don’t know what the future holds for the IRL but I beg them not to follow in NASCAR’s footsteps. Let Indianapolis once again be the showplace of American ingenuity and engineering. As American as a bottle of milk and a stripe of bricks that are as iconic as the checkered flag itself.
-T. August Green