A new open wheel series is born
There was no major press conference, no fireworks, no big deal made of the event. But the event happened anyway. The newest major American open wheel racing series was born, right in a corner of the USAC booth at the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show in Orlando, Florida. Tucked into the back corner of the booth sat a model of the “proposed car”, described as being very close to the final version. Nearby, two attractive models stood, and a designer involved in the car’s design, and other USAC officials. There was no confetti, no fireworks, and no celebration. USAC’s newest racing series, the Gold Crown Series, was silently thrust into the world.
The world it was thrust into was one of a world-wide recession, not the best of times to launch a new racing series. The series is planning to begin in 2010. This much is known as of this date: it is a front engine car (rear engine design was not considered), the series will include road courses, the intention is to become a destination series for USAC, and the series will not replace the Silver Crown Series, and will not take over Silver Crown Series events. It will be a pavement only series, leaving the dirt events for the Silver Crown Series. USAC wants to develop young drivers and build their careers, “from when they are 5 until when they are 35 years old,” according to Kevin Miller, USAC CEO and President.
Miller wanted to change the way that drivers viewed racing in USAC, where drivers “went through USAC, before moving on, when a plateau is reached. The Gold Crown Series can become a destination series for these drivers, so they may spend a career racing in USAC. IndyCar needs American branded drivers, and we have them” asserted Miller. “The big money is still in NASCAR, but we are open wheel, and we are in Indiana. I’ve offered a major track what will amount to a free race to get involved with us in 2009, to run with our bigger series.” Miller did not mention the name of the track, as it appeared to be a deal that was still being negotiated.
Jason McCord, USAC National Series Director of Competition, revealed that he had just had discussions with VIR (Virginia International Raceway) to have a Gold Crown road race event there in 2010. There are also plans to bring an open wheel race back next year as part of the PRI Trade Show week, and hold the event on Wednesday evening just prior to the traditional Thursday morning launch of the trade show. I asked McCord about the troubled Hoosier Hundred event, which saw a near cancellation in 2006, and rainouts for the next 2 years. The Indiana State Fairgrounds event was back on the 2009 schedule, for the Friday night before the Indy 500. McCord said that “we are looking at the possibility of an announced rain date, to avoid the experience of the past 2 years (when there was no announced rain date).” When asked about the possibility of a Gold Crown event in Indiana during the Indy 500 race weekend, McCord stated “there is no intention to add a Gold Crown event to Indy race weekend, as the pavement tracks in the area already have events and are booked.” Would the Gold Crown Series seek to race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, possibly as a preliminary event before the 500? “We are open to that, and would certainly be open to discuss this with the speedway,” admitted McCord.
As I examined the Gold Crown model car, sitting on a stand in a back corner of the USAC booth, I noticed that the nose cone seemed to be a replica of Dan Gurney’s 1967 Eagle Formula 1 car. The sidepods also had a “retro look”, in that they were sloping, and bore a resemblance to the design trend in IndyCars of the late ‘60s, when Andy Granatelli’s wedge shape design showed up in the design of other IndyCar makers. I asked Bruce Ashmore, President of Ashmore Design, about his involvement in the design of the new car. Ashmore is a member of the Owner’s Exploratory Group (OEG). He stated that there was an awareness that the previous “new generation” Silver Crown car was too boxy, with box shaped sidepods, and an unappealing nose cone, also too boxy looking. They wanted a design that was sleeker, racier, and even had some “retro” elements to the car. It also needed to adapt to both pavement ovals and road courses. According to Ashmore, the GM badge in the nose cone acknowledged the design help from GM design engineer Randy Wittine, who was part of the design process that involved the submission of 21 drawings to the OEG. The nose cone is an interchangeable element, and could be used by auto makers to badge the car as a Toyota, Ford, Dodge or Chevrolet.
The next step for the new Gold Crown car is on-track testing. Four test days are planned for 2009, with one day at Darlington Speedway, and 3 days at other tracks to be announced later. “The 2010 race schedule may be 10 races, of which 2 or 3 will be superspeedway races (tracks longer than 1 mile), and 2-3 road courses, and no dirt tracks. Two mile oval tracks like Michigan and Fontana may be considered, and were not being ruled out for now,” according to Ashmore. Phoenix was also being considered for a Gold Crown race, but not to replace the current Silver Crown race. The Phoenix Gold Crown race would be run at a different time of the year than the Phoenix Silver Crown race. The road courses were scheduled to give young American drivers the road course experience needed to eventually move into IndyCars, and put more Americans into IndyCar seats.
The new car will have a 2-speed transmission, considered sufficient for the road courses, with a cockpit and roll cage similar to the Silver Crown car, and also the fuel tank directly behind the driver, and the tail cone serving as a crush zone to absorb energy in a collision. The tail is longer than on the Silver Crown car, which gives the illusion that the driver is sitting closer to the center of the car, when comparing the two cars. A small gap is visible where the nose cone is attached, allowing it to be interchangeable for a manufacturer change or to remove a crash-damaged nose cone.
By creating the Gold Crown Series, USAC’s intention is for it to be the destination series of USAC, but still part of the ladder system to the IndyCar Series. Drivers would start out in Quarter Midgets, then midgets, followed by Silver Crown cars, and then the Gold Crown Series. The expectation would be for the best drivers to move in Firestone Indy Lights, and then the IndyCar Series. Hopefully, this ladder system will one day find one of its graduates drinking the milk in victory circle at the Indy 500. OpenWheelRacers