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Friday
Oct142011

Rethinking Racing’s Realities

By Christopher A. Sawyer

Last week William G. Sawyer reminisced about innovation and the death of innocence. Central to his theme was the idea that racing doesn’t hold the promise it once did; it has devolved into a carnival side show held at high speeds.

Is it possible to reward innovation and increase the interest in motor sport again? Can the generation raised on iMacs, iPods, iPhones and iPads come to appreciate the technical excellence and balletic abilities necessary to drive at the maximum while employing superior skill and strategy to win? Or is racing past its prime and destined to be a “Boobs and Bang-ups” parody of its past promise?

As much as we might like to, it’s impossible to go back to the days when technology was changing weekly, and the whole of motor sport was in flux. Things are much different now, certainly safer. And technology has made the old aphorism, “Speed takes money. How fast do you want to go?,” even more true today. It’s not unusual for top Formula One teams to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in what is, increasingly, a spec. series. The best process wedded to the best aerodynamicist, engine designer and the most well-oiled team can easily overcome the best driver in a sub-par car. Or a good one.

Personalities matter, but they have to have the tools and the rules to win with.And that is part of what is missing from racing these days, humanity. Freed from the shackles of overly strict rules, a superior mind can create a quantum leap that leaves even the best-prepared competitor in turmoil. Yet unrestricted technology would devour cubic yards of money. Automakers, especially those from a certain country (Germany comes to mind), would think nothing of pursuing every avenue to prove their technical prowess. This would bankrupt the sport, and destroy the very thing this avenue of inquiry was designed to save.

How, then, do you balance the need for technical discovery with the humanity of pure sport? NASCAR believes that it is enough to create a template-driven series fueled by strong driver personalities, and dominated by the best-prepared teams. Personally, this is about as exciting as professional basketball where only the first, middle and last 10 minutes are important. The rest is just waiting.

Team strategy holds too much sway. We're a few steps removed from URVs (Unmanned Racing Vehicles)..Or do you follow the ways of Formula One, where technology, tightly reined, is king, and the sport is reduced to a chess match between strategists? It can be exciting, but it is mechanized — mechanical — warfare without the bloodshed. The sport and the humanity are but a minor portion of the whole. History is as important as what happens today.

Or is there another way, one that allows sport and technology to coexist? Where safety isn’t marginalized, technology doesn’t run rampant and today’s youth can appreciate and admire the struggle? I’m not sure, but I’m willing to speculate.

The closest I can get is to suggest a series built upon limiting energy use to a maximum number of kilowatts per minute, downforce to a pre-set total maximum loading with no limit on how it is achieved, and tire technology to a total footprint for the vehicle. It would be tough to police. However, that should not stop investigating this avenue.

I remember years ago the great Canadian F1 driver Gilles Villeneuve was asked during the height of the ground effects era what he would change. His answer was simple: Remove the aerodynamic aids, increase the tire width and remove any limits on horsepower. This, he suggested, would limit the aerodynamic component to keeping the car balanced and on the ground at speed, and place the control over this over-powered beast firmly in the hands of the driver. It was an answer perfect for the period — and for the talents of the driver questioned. But it’s only part of the answer today.

Backwards is not the way forward.Limiting energy use to a certain number of kilowatts per minute leaves the door open to any form of propulsion. If you have a battery or fuel cell you think will do the trick, have at it. If you want to run diesel instead of pump gas, go right ahead. Should you come across dilithium crystals and a warp core, scale it down and make it fit. Yet under no circumstances should a limit be set on the amount of fuel each vehicle can carry. Not only do fuel economy formulas never work, no one cares who had the highest mileage car. They want to know who is the fastest.

Much the same thought process is behind the other suggestions. These genies are already out of the bottle. So, rather than try to stuff them back in (an impossibility), how do you limit the harm they can do without eliminating innovation? You do it by setting clear parameters, but leaving open how they are fulfilled. This leaves open the door to disruptive technologies that allow the minnows the chance to swim with the sharks.

Ultimately, these are the questions that must be answered if motor sport is to prosper. Whether anyone has the courage, and the nerve, to stand up to entrenched interests more concerned with preserving their place in the status quo than in balancing the needs of the sport and its supporters, is unknown. What is known, however, is that something must be done to begin answering these question before racing collapses under its own weight.

Reader Comments (1)

The tragic circumstances of this past weekend that took the life of Dan Wheldon only increase the need for a rethink of what racing is, and where it is headed. My original, unedited piece wandered off into the need to bring back the Hanford Device on ovals, to reduce the downforce created by the wings and underbodies, and to break up the clusters of cars running in formation. Fearing that it strayed too far from the central theme, I removed it from the text. Tragically, it proved to be prophetic.

Unfortunately, one needn't be a prophet to see that this was going to happen at some point. Indy cars have been running side-by-side, inches apart, on small banked ovals since Tony George and CART went their separate ways. Honestly, I found it difficult to watch as the drivers battled wheel-to-wheel on banked short tracks. Disaster lurked around each corner. For some that was the draw, a vicarious thrill as drivers cheated death lap after lap. For others it was seeing cars tangle, but drivers walking away relatively unscathed. For me, however, it was nauseating, and about as much "sport" as gladiators doing battle in the arena before the emperor, senate and masses. "The show" as racing's marketing types call it wasn't sport.

Until Wheldon's death, Indy Car had led a charmed existence. Numerous serious crashes, but little carnage. But not every accident is going to happen on the back straight where no one is sitting, as did Kenny Brack's fiery accident at Texas Motor Speedway in 2003, or in a private testing accident as did Tony Renna's fatal crash at Indy 10 days after Brack's Texas accident. For unknown reasons, Renna's car spun 90-degrees to the left just past the apex of Turn 3, skipped across the infield grass, and became airborne. It rotated a further 30 degrees before contacting one of the catch fence poles that sit above the barriers. But that wasn't the end of it.

Three years later journalist turned racer Paul Dana died during practice for the opening round of the IRL series at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His car hit debris from Ed Carpenter's car, damaging the right front suspension, just before Dana slammed into the back of Carpenter's car at 176 mph. Dana had little time to react and fewer of the skills a full-time racer would have built up during his career. But he was the exception that proved the rule, a journalist turned racer that underlined the ease with which the high-downforce Indy cars could be driven at close quarters and at high speeds. And at Las Vegas last weekend, a field of regular, semi-regular and irregular racers showed up for a chance at a $5 million purse in these same cars. It was a recipe for disaster.

Ironically, the 2012 Indy race car Dan Wheldon helped develop will have many new safety features that might have helped save his life; the most important of which is a rear bumper to prevent a following car from vaulting over the car ahead in wheel-to-wheel contact. Unfortunately, it probably also has more downforce than is prudent, making it easy for the cars to drive three-abreast on tracks like Las Vegas. These cars should not be easy to drive, nor stick like glue. They should highlight and magnify the talent of the driver so the best man can win.

Thankfully, the 2012 season will see multiple engine manufacturers involved, raising the possibility that power delivery and output will be different from car-to-car. Also, different bodywork (postponed until the 2013 season) will serve to break up the packs that plague the tracks on which Indy cars run -- many of which are unsuitable for these cars. But this is not enough.

For a number of years, the officiating in the Indy Car series has been near criminally sub-par. Chaotic starts, questionable calls, off-limits passing zones and other travesties have marked it as a bush league operation. And its concentration on "boobs and bang-ups" (as stated in the feature above) place it just a half-rung above the bearded lady in the carnival sideshow. It must do better. And it can start by eliminating the manufactured "competition" that has marked its path since the creation of the IRL. Understanding that safe racing is an oxymoron, Dan Wheldon and his fans deserve a series that eradicates unnecessary dangers, promotes true competition, cherishes real sportsmanship and talent, and conducts itself with sober maturity and class. Anything less is a travesty.

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris Sawyer

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