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DATE News (chronologically)
06/03/10
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Racing fraternity debate new IndyCar designs  UPDATE IRL boss Randy Bernard said the series plans to have a decision on its new chassis by June 30th.

05/26/10 Drivers could be racing cars that look more like landspeeders from "Star Wars" or something that looks like it came out of "Batman" or "Speed Racer." League officials could opt for Lola's more traditional style or they could approve several chassis designs and let everyone choose their favorite look.

Yes, America's biggest open-wheel series wants to make innovation cool again.

"One thing I will say is that the five chassis out there have created a bit of a buzz and that has helped," league CEO Randy Bernard said.

Bernard embraces any such talk these days.

After accepting his new job in February, he appointed a seven-member committee to review the new designs and five manufacturers are now vying to build the next generation of IndyCars. A representative from one of the companies involved with the bidding process told The Associated Press that full presentations are scheduled for the first week of June. Bernard has said a decision will be made by June 30.

Though committee members will not discuss specifics about the bids, citing a confidentiality agreement, there are clear priorities.

"The furthest I'll go is to say I look at safety first and that's always the most important thing to me," said Brian Barnhart, a committee member who is the series' president of competition and racing operations. "After that, it still has to be a good race car and it has to be cost-efficient."

Cost is a key factor.

Teams estimate the total cost of today's full-season package, chassis and engine, at more than $1 million per car, and series officials believe lower costs will increase the number of teams and cars running in the series.

Bernard, the former Professional Bull Riders executive, also thinks the new designs will radically change the series by bringing back fans who have migrated to NASCAR or other racing circuits over the past 15 years.

By emphasizing innovation and speed, Bernard thinks the new cars will appeal to the old-fashioned IndyCar roots while introducing a new generation of race fans to a series that looks like it came straight out of the big screen.

Committee members won't say whether they've been using focus groups to get fan feedback, but some manufacturers have taken their sales pitches to the masses.

"We've gone through five generations of designs in coming up with this car because we've used social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to get feedback from fans about the designs," said Jan Refsdal, president of Swift Engineering. "Our Facebook account has gone up to 3,000 in about five weeks because the bottom line is that this is about the fans."

They weren't the only ones taking a peek at the placards showing the new designs or the new Delta Wing model, which was on display behind the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend.

Drivers were curious to see the concepts and the fan reactions to them.

"To me it's not a revolution, it's an evolution," said 2007 Indy winner and two-time series champ Dario Franchitti. "Some of these do look quite radical so I keep asking people who were here in the '60s, when the rear engine came here for the first time, if there was a similar reaction to the Delta Wing. They haven't been able to answer that yet."

Franchitti's team owner, Chip Ganassi, has been closely involved with the Delta Wing, which has a thin nose resembling an airplane fuselage, a tail fin and no wings.

Ben Bowlby, chief technical officer for the company, believes the total cost of the car and engine would come in at less than $600,000 because it could use a 4-cylinder engine. Another advantage is that the fuel tank would be reduced from 24 gallons to 11 to maintain the same number of pit stops, though the car could hit 235 mph.

"It would be turbocharged, that's the way you get higher-efficiency," Bowlby said. "Honda could make the engine, Ford, GM, VW, it's the most common powertrain in the world."

BAT Engineering has produced a chassis that looks more like a sports car with its rounded lines and wavy wings, coming in at an estimated $350,000 to $375,000. Bruce Ashmore, chief operating officer of the engineering firm says the car can hit 230 mph with a 3-cylinder turbocharged engine and could run on road and street courses as well as ovals.

And like the Delta Wing, Ashmore says the car will be made entirely in America.

"If we win the bid, every piece of it would be manufactured in Indiana," said Ashmore, who has been designing IndyCars since the 1970s.

Swift Engineering has a different selling point.

The Batmobile comparisons are obvious, but it's the innovative "mushroom busting" technology that clears out the dirty air and allows the cars to run closer together. Swift has already used the concept successfully in the Formula Nippon Series, and thinks it will work in IndyCars, too.

"There's no question innovation has been a part of IndyCar racing and what put it on the map is that appealed to fans," former Indy champ and committee member Gil de Ferran said. "But I know a little bit about the automotive industry and it had the same quandary. If you're not a car engineer or a powerful consumer, most consumers are limited to what they see today, so it's hard to know what excites them."

Perhaps that's why Lola has gone with a more traditional look, while the only manufacturer to currently provide an IndyCar chassis, Dallara, has made moderate adjustments to get the costs down to $350,000 to $400,000.

Sam Garrett, the U.S. technical liaison for Dallara, said the biggest difference between the current chassis and the one on the drawing board is that teams spend about $350,000 on the chassis and about another $350,000 to upgrade the parts. The new version would include 100 percent of the parts.

But Garrett welcomes the competition.

"Personally, I would be quite happy if they announced multiple manufacturers because it makes my job more interesting," he said. "But if it's a single manufacturer, I want it to be Dallara."

Lola was the only company of the five that did not respond to interview requests.

So the biggest question for the committee is this: How radically do they want to change the look of IndyCar racing?

"We've been in the same car for eight or nine years now and they've come up with a design to try something different, which I think is good," 2008 Indy winner Scott Dixon said. "I don't really care what kind of car I drive as long we're racing and having fun."

And appealing to fans. USAToday.com

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