Sunday, June 10, 2012


WONDERFUL OR WORRISOME?: IndyCar didn't want the DeltaWing as an IndyCar, so it will run at Le Mans as an experimental sports car.

The spirits of legendary automotive creative geniuses Colin Chapman and Carroll Shelby will be stirred this weekend as the DeltaWing makes its competition debut in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The argument can be made this is the boldest technological leap in all of motorsports since Andy Granatelli's turbine, Ken Tyrrell's six-wheel Formula One car, Jim Hall's series of innovative Chaparrals and Chapman's ground-effects Lotus that took Mario Andretti to the world championship. I'll even go back to Don Nichols' downsized UOP Shadow Can-Am car, which I wrote about decades ago. I got to know and liked the Nichols family and driver Jackie Oliver.

DeltaWing's saga has been well-chronicled elsewhere so I'll skip a detailed recounting of that history. Of course, the concept was born with the Indianapolis 500 in mind, but it never really had a chance. As I've explained before, to have had that happen, its backers needed to lay the groundwork via a carefully conceived and executed PR plan, designed to ignite the passions of year-round fans and once-a-year fans alike that would have resulted in an impossible-to-ignore "This is what we want!" communications thrust at the Hulman-George family. That wasn't done -- as best I can tell, it was never even thought of -- and so it was inevitable a less bold course was followed in coming up with the Dallara which debuted this season.

People have given the American Le Mans Series great credit for being more accepting. That's fine, but let's be honest -- what did ALMS have to lose? With not much more than a pencil-point impression on the general U.S. sporting public, lack of big automaker investment in its "Green" formula, and a virtually extinct headliner prototype class, ALMS had an easy call to go for it.

They helped convince Le Mans organizers Automobile Club de l'Ouest to grant DeltaWing the “Garage 56” entry reserved for cars that bring new and innovative technology to the endurance sports car classic.

Designer Ben Bowlby's car is built around the concept of a vehicle that has half the weight, half the horsepower and half the aerodynamic drag of a traditional prototype while also significantly reducing tire wear and fuel consumption. Technical partner Michelin has produced front tires that are only four inches wide and the front-track measurement is listed at just 23.6 inches. Nissan, which officially signed on several months ago, provided a 300-horsepower 1.6 liter turbo. The entire car weighs only 1,047 pounds.

I applaud the out-of-the-box thinking and congratulate Bowlby, builder Dan Gurney, ALMS founder Don Panoz and Highcroft team owner Duncan Dayton for making it happen.

That said, I do have concerns.

The first is safety. Le Mans' history is sadly filled with terrible crashes triggered by the dramatic speed differences between cars of various classes. And, let's be honest about it, drivers of varying skill. First-rate racers Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller, in two of the three factory Audis, were eliminated in huge wrecks just a year ago. DeltaWing will be completely different from everything else on the track and I can only hope all the other drivers will be super heads-up when racing around it -- especially at night.

The attention DeltaWing gets will be because it is SO unique and the main goal no doubt is to try to finish. The problem with such an out-and-out sheer engineering exercise is all the focus is on the machine. I've yet to met the first car that I can interview. As NASCAR has proven, tickets are sold, TV ratings are generated, and headlines are made by drivers as interesting personalities. When the Ford GT won Le Mans in 1967 -- an historic triumph over Ferrari -- what made the story complete was Gurney and A.J. Foyt were its drivers. Gurney and Foyt didn't subtract from Ford's glory. They added to it.

DW's drivers are Marino Franchitti, Michael Krumm and Satoshi Motoyama. No household names there. Franchitti's sports car experience and time with Dayton made him an obvious pick and I have no problem with that. But Motoyama hasn't competed at Le Mans since 1999 and Krumm not since 2005. Obviously, sponsorship and political considerations came into play. That's a reality of the modern Business of Racing environment, but I'm still disappointed.

Here's a radical notion -- but so what, the whole project is radical! -- I wish they'd have added a very available Paul Tracy to the lineup. It probably would have taken some effort to get PT to buy into the program, and it no doubt would have required some effort by team management to get PT to understand was what expected of him from a driving philosophy standpoint. But it would have put a popular name and face and voice to DeltaWing and raised its overall profile in the U.S. and Canada. Which would have been most useful, considering ALMS says it wants to establish DW as a regular entry in its series.

Which brings me to this: After Le Mans, what's next? Panoz said he'll take over from Gurney as constructor and hopes to sell more DWs to customers. ALMS and IMSA will be expected to figure out how to fit what probably would be another class into its overall field. Would that be a game-changer for ALMS on the American sporting scene? I don't see it. And I also don't see DW ever getting onto the Indy 500 grid, even though I've heard some say that might happen if the vehicle's viability is proven at Le Mans. Really? Given the usual narrow Indy mindset and all the other problems the series has these days?

I think we should just enjoy DeltaWing for this weekend and for what it is -- a welcome break from the awful, economy-induced, era of spec car racing. After that, whatever will be, will be.

What to Buy, Sell or Hold in drag racing? My June "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on takes "stock" of NHRA:

FAST LINES: Did ANYONE, ANYWHERE in the IndyCar organization even THINK of trying to get Kurt Busch into a car at Texas? (He once did a few laps in a Champ Car on a road course.) At a minimum, Busch's interest should have been measured and the feasibility studied. He's qualified (this was not a Las Vegas "challenge" type situation) -- remember, they let long-retired Jean Alesi run the Indy 500. Desperate times call for desperate measures -- and if you don't think these are near-desperate times for IndyCar, you are drinking the Indianapolis media cheerleaders' Kool-Aid . . . That sound you heard last week was Busch flushing-away his chances of a more competitive Sprint Cup ride in 2013. Owners and sponsors will do a lot to get/keep a winning driver, but the former Cup champion is near -- if not past -- the point where that isn't enough to balance the downside of his temper. Kurt has always been cooperative with me in, what I concede, have been our limited dealings. I hope he can rid himself of his demons but time is running out -- if it hasn't already . . . I talked about this last Thursday on Sirius XM with Rick Benjamin and Chocolate Myers and said this has gone far beyond a PR problem, it's an urgent issue for Kurt's management team. He needs not a PR rep, but a "body man" around him almost all the time, and his management had best start thinking about options in IndyCar or NHRA if NASCAR is no longer available . . . By the way, NASCAR did what it needed to do in suspending Busch, to protect the integrity of its probation system. For years plenty of people have been asking if probation really means anything -- in this case, it did . . . Count me among those concerned about the racing at Michigan International Speedway this weekend. Speeds during testing were at 200 mph . . . In announcing the start of its public ticket sale, Circuit of the Americas included a chart showing the average lowest three-day grandstand ticket prices in Formula One. Of the 13 venues on the list, Monaco (no surprise) is tops at $520. CotA is fifth at $269 . . . CotA announced last weekend that Mario Andretti will be its official ambassador for November's return of the U.S. Grand Prix. Hmmm. See what I suggested here on April 22 .

[ more next Monday . . . ]