By on June 3, 2012

Dario, Scott and Bullseye - Indycar PhotoWhat motorsports we cover around here at TTAC are usually the participatory variety, the kind without corporate sponsorship (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or deep pocketed and not quite top level talent rent a riders (Baruth will tell you what’s wrong with that). Still, the Detroit Grand Prix has returned after a hiatus caused by the carpocalypse and subsequent bankruptcies and bailouts. Chevrolet has anted up for title sponsorship, and with all three domestic automakers turning a profit plus reduced unemployment in the Detroit area, there was increased demand for sponsorships and vendor space than the last time the race ran, in 2008.

TTAC may not cover top level motorsports but it does regularly address topics like marketing and the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix is nothing if not about marketing. Which is how I ended up at the Detroit Yacht Club, on Belle Isle, the same island park that hosts the racing this weekend, at the media luncheon. The weekend events include a GrandAm Rolex series race for sports prototypes, a Pirelli Challenge GT/GTS race, an Indy Lights supporting race, and the main event, Indycar’s sixth race of the season, the first since the Indianapolis 500. Andy Pilgrim’s Cadillac CTS-VR team was at the luncheon, so was the factory Corvette racing team. In addition to General Motors, another corporate marketing effort was represented by Target Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, who just finished 1-2 at Indy.

When two noted curmudgeons and on-record critics of the state of open wheel racing in North America like Pete DeLorenzo and Robin Miller agree that the 2012 Indy 500 was one of the best Indy races of all times (Miller actually said it was the best he’d seen) it’s worth noting. It’s particularly noteworthy because both Delorenzo and Miller were somewhat skeptical of Indycar’s new formula, which involves spec chassis made by Dallara with team owners’ choice of new turbo V6 powerplants from Honda, Chevy and Lotus this year, and then individual aero and body packages added next year. Lotus is down on power and there’s been controversy and litigation over how much turbo boost each engine manufacturer will be allowed to use.

The thing is, though, it hasn’t just been Indy. Indycar racing this year has seen good racing, some of the best the series has had. Competitive races with a number of different winners. In five races so far this season, there have been three winners, and the largest margin of victory was 6 seconds. Two races were decided by less than a second (Indy had a smaller margin but it ended under caution and Franchitti, Dixon and Tony Kanaan finished the race in close formation in memory of their good friend Dan Wheldon). Indy this year had a record number of lead changes and the race winner wasn’t really determined until Takuma Sato’s car got loose as he tried to pass Franchitti on the last lap. Say what you will about spec racing, it can be competitive, and I’m guessing that most fans prefer wheel to wheel racing for position over a dominant team winning by multiple laps.

Both Dixon and Franchitti mentioned those large winning margins when I asked them separately about spec racing vs the open formula under which the Indy 500 operated for most of its history, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, with a run what you brung mentality that managed to keep starry eyed garage built specials in the same paddock as elegantly engineered and innovative racers. I asked both drivers how they’d feel about a return to an open formula, albeit with modern safety requirements. People may look back fondly on all those “specials”, but it was genuinely a bloodsport back then.

As fans and students of the history of motorsports, both racers love that era. Franchitti idolized Jim Clark and has driven Clark’s restored revolutionary Indy winning midengine Lotus around the brickyard, a high point in his life. I asked him if he’d been to the new Racing in America exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum, where the car is on display, and he told me, “I asked them if I could come by and see ‘my girl’ when I was in town and they said, ‘anytime.”

Still, though they appreciate the men and machinery of an earlier ear both Franchitti and Dixon said that the racing this year has been fantastic and that fans don’t really want to see someone win by two laps. Franchitti told me that in light of his connection to Clark’s Lotus he was happy to see a Lotus team back on the grid at Indy, but that it was the right call for race control to black flag and DNF both Lotus cars for not getting up to speed. As drivers Dixon and Franchitti still want fast cars that use the latest technology. Robin Miller has popularized the notion of more horsepower and less downdraft to make it more of a skill competition and less about pedal to the metal lap after lap. It’s an attractive idea and both drivers smiled when I mentioned it. I’m just not convinced that will ever happen. Drivers may say that they want a skill competition but if you press them, most agree with the late Mark Donohue about wanting an unfair advantage.

I said to Dixon, “But don’t you really want the fastest car on the track, a car that wins the pole, takes the first corner and leads every lap before taking the checkered flag,” and he said, “Sure,” and smiled.

Good luck and godspeed, gentlemen.


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25 Comments on “Spec Racing vs Open Formula: Indycar’s New Race Cars...”

  • avatar

    Can-Am, CART, previous decade and older NASCAR, Group B, Formula 1, etc. Spec series don’t draw crowds. Managed close racing doesn’t draw crowds. No crowds, no viewers, no sponsorships. I’m waiting for the day when this spec or heavily managed formulas die. IRL is practically on its deathbed. NASCAR has declining attendance. If Formula 1 and Le Mans keep trying to take the engineering and manufacturing out of the races they will suffer as well.

    How hard is it to mandate safer regulations but let everything else be open?

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. I realize that everything is more reliable these days but I miss in racing the factor of, this particular chassis has this weakness, or this manufacturers engines has a tendency to have oil pumps give up, or this transmission tends to be a little weaker or this turbo tends to be a little stronger.

      If you look at LeMons racing as the extreme example, the simple factor of being able to stay on the track in the first place is one of the biggest elements of win and lose, yes, having skilled drivers are important.

      Auto racing is becoming less and less an exercise of engineering and more of an exercise of technical skill of a singular individual. Many of those individuals coming from homes with very rich mummies and daddies that could indulge their need for speed to move them up the driving ranks.

      I’m glad the Aussie V8 Supercar series is coming to the states – that is going to stick a serious thumb in the eye of NASCAR!

      • 0 avatar

        I think the components are only more reliable because of the specs of the series. If they allowed lower weights a quick trade of between reliability and performance will be in adjustment. If you go with a lighted (which usually means weaker) component you can increase your performance at the cost of finishing the race.

    • 0 avatar

      > Spec series don’t draw crowds

      Absolutely right. Rivalries draw crowds, Prost v Senna, Schumacher v Hakkinen, Rossi v Biaggi, etc. The formula has to let the best drivers shine.

      It’s such a delicate balancing act. The progress of technology is pretty much the enemy of safety and cast. When MotoGp switched away from 2-strokes, they pegged it at 990cc to make sure that the new 4-strokes would be faster than the outgoing bikes. It was one of the best racing I had every seen in any series, but those machines were absolute monsters… Rossi’s talent really shone through. And then it was over, they scaled back to 800cc and that magical balance of having just a little more machine than man could handle was gone.

      • 0 avatar

        Rivalries are between manufacturers and teams as well. Ferrari vs Ford. McClaren vs Ferrari. Etc. Hard to root for a team or manufacturer when they’re almost all identical. Taken to the logical conclusion the IRL or NASCAR should run all the cars and just hire drivers.

  • avatar

    I’m a “spec” man all the way.

    I started watching F1 in the late 80’s when McLaren dominated.

    I started watching the IndyCar races around the same time just because they were on. IndyCar wasn’t technically a spec series, but since most of the the top several guys all ran the same equipment (Penske excepted), it was effectively a spec series. And the racing was awesome. Really, it was.

    And I’m not the only one who thought so, because that was the series’ heydey.

    And when we think of the F1 battles that really enthralled us, what do we think of? Senna and Prost – in the same car. Prost and Mansell – in the same car. Hamilton and Alonso – in the same car. Jenson Button’s stock rose more when he took on Hamilton (in the same car) then when he won the WDC in a dominant Brawn.

    Yup. Let me see the best drivers duke it out in equal equipment.

    Spec. All the way.

  • avatar

    Spec racing for Indycar and Pirelli (crapshoot) tires for F1; take your pick.

  • avatar

    This year’s Indy 500 was great to watch and the last laps were very exciting. I like the battle between Honda and Chevrolet but would like to see the Speedway go to production based engines. The “stock block” Buick and Mercedes-Benz engines from the 90’s were great.

  • avatar

    Too bad the track went all Martinsville on them today.

    • 0 avatar

      There’s no excuse for that track. During the broadcast they mentioned how Roger Penske pushed to get Bell Isle back on the schedule. It would have been better if he failed in his attempt.

      As they used to say on ABCs Wide World of Sports, “The thrill of victory (Indy) to the agony of defeat (Detroit)”.

      I don’t get ESPNews so I guess I’m SOL about the rest of the race.

    • 0 avatar

      They knew it was bad. Isn’t that a big part of why CART quit racing there?

  • avatar

    My formative years were in the 1970s when the cars changed every year, and every year brought the promise of a new track record at Indy. I loved that era. It made practice days and qualification days as exciting as the race. The fact is, however, that in the mid-90s, when the cars hit about 230 MPH, the humans driving the cars hit the wall as to the g-forces they could endure. That meant slowing the cars down for safety’s sake. Since the limits on performance were (by necessity) imposed by regulation and not by technology, there wasn’t much choice but to make it somewhat of a spec series. Tony George took a lot of heat, but he deliberately took the edge off the cars repeatedly to protect the drivers. He should get some credit for keeping Indycar from turning into a bloodbath.

    I find it interesting that it took NASCAR about a decade longer to do the same thing. They had to first put restrictor plates in on the super speedways and then introduce the much-maligned “car of the future”. The popularity of NASCAR has declined as well.

    • 0 avatar

      CART managed to keep racing. Choosier in which ovals to go on. Turning down TMS iirc. There are ways to make it viable without going spec or heavily managed.

  • avatar

    “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” isn’t nearly as effective as it was 30-40 years ago. Mostly because the criteria that people use to purchase cars has changed significantly.

    That means mfgr. racing budgets must be relatively smaller. Open formulas lead to massive spending to be a winner. If budgets don’t allow for massive spending, but competition is still desired, some type of tightly controlled specs are needed.

    • 0 avatar

      Win on sunday, sell on monday still works just fine if you’re buying a honda engine or a Dallara chassis.

    • 0 avatar

      NASCAR has huge budgets and is pretty much a spec series.

      ALMS shows there can be different speeds of cars and still be successful. Potentially an all LMP field where some cars are much slower and with lower funding wouldn’t be much different than wist they have now.

      One big difference an open formula gives vs what is around now: cheap to comply with rules. In a spec series getting that extra 1% performance costs a rediculous amount of money.

  • avatar

    It truly was a Detroit race. The half-assed patched track fell apart to represent the essence of the area. Makes you proud to live here.

  • avatar

    Everything that Indy was, Bell Isle wasn’t. I feel sorry for Penske, as he wants to help out Detroit, and spent 10 million of his own money to get this venue back. Having the tar on the track peeling up like masking tape was an embarassment. The excuse was that the downforce on the cars was causing this damage. Really? You mean an Indy car needs a different sort surface preparation than a garbage truck? Who knew? Well pretty much anyone who’s ever raced on a street circuit in the past 20 years. The delay pushed the race into a slightly wet condition and several yellow flags. This is a prime example of all that was wrong with Indycar last year; they raced on an unsuitable track and a good man died, IRL cannot afford to race at a venue out of sympathy. It also looks like Honda has made up the difference between them and Chevrolet, so I think Ganassi will be on the podiums and the rest of the season will be like the previous seasons unless Chevrolet is allowed to make some further changes. I like the new Indy Cars, and I’m looking forward to the new aero kits. I hope Lotus will stick with it and we’ll see their performance improve. I’ve also enjoyed seeing Rubens’ rookie year, he seems to be happier and he’s done very well having only one dnf because of a mechanical problem today, which was probably a blessing in disguise given how badly the race went.

  • avatar

    I’ve been saying it for about 5 years now…

    Go electric.

    Full electric.

    Use Indy to drastically accelerate the auto industry, just like it used to do.

    You will lose stubborn motorheads, but you’ll gain miles of column space and press coverage. Suddenly MANY types of people have an interest, rather than a few Boomers and fanatics (count me in).

    Partner with the government to secure federal funding. Partner with tire companies to create revolutionary high mileage compounds. Partner with any automaker from any country. Partner with BP, Samsung, Google, Apple… all the companies that really matter now, not just 20 years ago. Can you imagine what Tesla would put on the track?

    How to refuel? Swap battery packs. Allow solar. Inductive recharging pads.

    Sure, the races may be slower, but Indy was built as an ENDURANCE race. It’s ridiculous to hear drivers lament how “it’s the Indy 500 and anything can happen”. That’s BS. Nothing happens. Tony Kanaan ran every single lap in one season a few years ago.

    Imagine the TV coverage: CEOs from dynamic, relevant industries would swarm the track. Congressmen would be there. Engineers from around the world. The interviews alone would be polarizing and mesmerizing. The NASDAQ would actually respond to wins & losses.

    Let’s not wait for a thousand Carroll Shelbys to die off before we can shove racing back into relevancy. There are not enough petrol heads to sustain all these major combustion series. We’re not getting any younger or more numerous. Indy can lead, follow, or die.

  • avatar

    This year in IRL has been really exciting to watch, sure the same two teams are still winning but the rest of the field seems more competitive (minus the sad Lotus entries). I agree with more power/less downforce – I want to see drivers fighting the car on corner exit. I’m glad the turbos are back they were awesome in the CART days, push-to-pass should return next year and that will add another element that worked well before. Ironically CHAMP came up with almost all the things that are making the IRL fun again, stuff like the “reds” alternate tire.

    The biggest problem that I see watching the races is not the cars or the spec rules… its the darn start and restarts. Why can’t they just use the pit speed limiter and use the longest straight (on Belle Isle that would be the BACK straight) for restarts? Indy was mess this year with people jumping the start and weaving all over the place. On several tracks (like yesterday) the restarts occurred on a corner before the short section. Its just a total mess!

    I’m a little worried that allowing aero packages is going to give the big budget teams (who already win just about every race) even more of an advantage. Maybe Penske will sell his parts to other teams? Back in the CART days I remember something like that happening. While the races have been closer they need to find a way to balance the field so the smaller teams have a better chance.

    NASCAR is too much of a spec series, Formula 1 still a bit too open (in terms of downforce tweaks), so right now at least the IRL seems to have hit the sweet spot. Street courses have to go – they suck: too tight, too bumpy. We have plenty of high quality road courses in America so lets start using them! It would be great to see the IRL cars run the new Austin F1 track. I know the promoters love the city circuits but from a fans point of view they are horrible.

    FYI – I’ve been to several IRL races at Homestead and Atlanta, seeing (and hearing) them in person is something you have to experience, it’s a blast.

  • avatar

    I like the idea of using Indy as a testing ground for new technology such as electric cars. I think it can be done as a support race held either the day before or the hours before the Indy 500. They could use one of the days that they used to use for time trials. Having experimental vehicles of different types going around the track would give locals something to show up for on practice days. The Indy cars don’t run much during the heat of the day, anyway, so the track could be dedicated to the experimental cars during that period.

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