Look to the engine formula, not aero kits, for growth

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on February 20, 2013 11:49 am

With the recent announcement that aero kits are (a) still on the table, and (b) delayed yet again, IndyCar remains stuck in a vicious cycle of will-they-or-won’t-they stories.

With a reported 12-month lead time needed for Chevy or Honda to supply the series with aero kits, this lingering question needs to be put to bed one way or another — and in the very near future — for the good of the IZOD IndyCar Series, its participants, and its fans.

As the cost-conscious team owners have pointed out repeatedly, aero kits will cost a minimum of $65,000 apiece, not to mention the unknown costs of development and tweaking that will undoubtedly arise at the first sign of a perceived advantage. Any benefits of technological innovation and different appearances between chassis will be offset by these increased costs, which may or may not be affordable given the current status of the sport.

An alternative solution needs to be pursued in the short term — one that will save the teams and the Series money while still leading to a better on-track product and increased technical innovation.

Engine R&D costs are shouldered by the manufacturers, leaving the teams to pay only the fixed costs of leasing, which are far easier for today’s budget-conscious owners to be comfortable with. A renewed focus by IndyCar on attracting new partners would bring increased competition and technical innovation in a way that would not break teams financially in the process.

However, the current engine formula may be preventing the Series from attracting new manufacturers to IndyCar competition.

Some manufacturers, like Chevrolet, see value in badging engines for racing competition that carry little production value. Race fans don’t know who builds the engines for Chevrolet’s IndyCars — they only know those winning cars have Bowties on the side, and Chevrolet evidently finds that’s enough to drive those people into dealerships.

Honda has been a wonderful partner to IndyCar, and its continued support is crucial as well given the relationships they have cultivated with teams like Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Any changes would need to be made with the full intention of including these valuable partners.

But many companies have begun to ramp up sports car programs in recent years as a way to directly showcase their production cars. The GT ranks have swelled to all-time highs while prototype classes face dwindling car counts and decreased manufacturer involvement. “Brand relevance” has become a catch phrase among the top brass of numerous automobile companies.

However, IndyCar’s engine formula prohibits manufacturers from using production-based engines. A change to this formula in the near future could help to attract more partners and inject some needed energy into the Series.

Ford’s global racing presence, ranging from NASCAR all the way down to club racing, makes it one of the targets with the highest potential for attracting to open wheel. Their new EcoBoost engine, a turbocharged V6, is such a natural fit for IndyCar that it seems almost too good to be true. But Jamie Allison, the head of the Ford Racing program, recently revealed to Marshall Pruett that Ford has no intention of joining Chevy and Honda in IndyCar competition unless a return is made to a production-based engine.

Ford has shown a willingness and enthusiasm for spending development dollars on production-based engines, especially given their recent announcement of an EcoBoost twin-turbo engine for Daytona Prototype competition next year. A change in the IndyCar engine formula could prove useful in attracting Ford back to the Speedway in what would surely be considered a marketing and competition coup.

Dodge sits as another shining example of a company with a history in racing and a ripe disposition for attracting to IndyCar. Ralph Gilles, President of SRT/Dodge, has felt the sting of wasted money after developing a new Gen 6 NASCAR Sprint Cup car only to have Penske bolt to Ford at the eleventh hour and leave the Mopar gang holding the bag and unable to attract a top-tier replacement for the 2013 season.

Since that time, Gilles and SRT have rebounded nicely by debuting their popular Viper in ALMS competition last year with the program expanding to possible customer teams this year. The Mopar group also has sponsorship in place in Rallycross, Supercross, and TORC off-road racing.  A return to production-based engines might prove to be the impetus needed to encourage  Dodge to put some of that money into the engine manufacturer battles in IndyCar.

The current formula has without doubt been a step in the right direction. It helped save a sinking ship from imminent doom — the driving is up to the drivers again, and competition is markedly better. But to truly secure the future of IndyCar and get this ship to shore, Mark Miles and company need to boldly plot a new course for this series and announce it to the world.

Shelve the aero kit debate for now. Lay out a timeline for a transition to a new, production-based engine formula for, say, 2015. This gives current manufacturers and team owners plenty of lead time to make necessary changes and gives new manufacturers the time needed to ramp up a new open-wheel program. It will also give Dallara time to adapt the DW12 to the idiosyncrasies of stressed versus non-stressed chassis design.

But should this plan be implemented, IndyCar must be sure not to leave any wiggle room, because many well-meaning owners can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to change.

IndyCar needs to become relevant to manufacturers again to have a hope of attracting them, and the cars and engines need to be opened up to allow real competition and innovation to return to the Speedway. Make IndyCar a showplace for relevant new technology, and chart a bold and innovative course for the future. It’s the only way to right the ship and regain fans.