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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Bobby Rahal's vision of the IndyCar of 2011

by Gordon Kirby
Bobby Rahal has lived many lives in racing. As a kid he was a huge fan who became a champion driver, then a winning team owner and briefly, a CART administrator, who branched-out to run the Jaguar F1 team for six months or so. Today, with David Letterman as his partner, Rahal's team--Indy 500 winners with Buddy Rice in '04--continues to race in the IRL and will run a factory-backed BMW IMSA GT program next year. Rahal is also a successful automobile dealer with fourteen dealerships occupying seven stores in Pennsylvania. And let's not forget that Rahal was the man who introduced Honda to IndyCar racing back in 1993 and '94.

A student of the sport, Rahal has his own very clear ideas of where IndyCar racing should be heading. Most people agree there's not enough time to determine and execute a new formula for 2010, that 2011 is a more realistic goal, and Rahal is adamant that the new formula must begin to embrace the wholesale move across the automotive industry to build more fuel-efficient cars.

"I think first and foremost, whatever formula that is adopted, it should have relevance to the retail automotive environment," Rahal says. "If racing is purely for entertainment then it doesn't really matter. But racing has never been purely for entertainment. It's been about technology and developing leading edge thinking.

"So I think the formula must have relevance to where the automotive industry is going in the future in regards to powerplants. That can mean everything from energy-collecting flywheels and you could go completely out there in terms of fuel to hydrogen power--which will take twenty years before it's a serious factor--or you can continue with where we are now, which is ethanol."

Indy 500 rookie-of-the year Ryan Hunter-Reay's Rahal-Letterman Indy car is sponsored by ethanol, of course, so you would expect Rahal to be a fan of the corn-based fuel. There's plenty of controversy these days about ethanol's effects on the increasing cost of food but Rahal is convinced that the IRL should stick with ethanol and plan to adopt some form of cellulosic ethanol for the 2011 formula.

"I think we should remain with ethanol," Bobby commented. "Perhaps the next step is that it becomes cellulosic ethanol so that IndyCar racing can be a test laboratory and have relevance to the evolving automotive market. We're only talking two and a half years from now, and as you know, cellulosic ethanol is very much in the research stages now. So it would be a great way to prove its value in real life. I think that's the way to go in the short term."

Rahal believes kinetic energy recovery systems (kers) or any kind of hybrids should be looked at for adoption by the IRL in 2014, or thereabouts, but no earlier. He's convinced that it would be far too costly to introduce that kind of technology to IndyCar racing at this stage of the game.

"Longer term, we probably should go to flywheels," he remarked. "But that's maybe five, six or seven years down the road. You've got to be realistic."

Bobby is one of many people in the sport who believe the turbocharger must be part of the new IndyCar engine formula. Rahal sees a twin turbo V-6 as the ideal way to go.

"Of course, there are plusses and minuses to everything, but I personally think we ought to be looking at a small capacity 2.0 or 2.2 liter turbocharged V-6 or V-8 engine," he suggests. "I think turbocharged, small capacity engines are the way to go because that's the way the automotive market is going. It's already there, in fact, and with the turbocharger, especially if it's a one-engine series, you can turn the boost up or down depending on the type of circuit and have varying levels of performance.

"With a turbo you don't have to worry about the noise issue when you go to street circuits or places like Laguna Seca where increasingly, you have noise limits. Just about every road course in this day and age is facing noise limits and a turbo is the best way to address those."

Rahal would prefer a twin turbo V-6 which he believes would be cheaper to build and run because it would have fewer parts than a V-8.

"I'd make it a twin turbo rather than a single because it gives better response and better performance. And a V-6 has fewer parts. We did a study some years ago at CART about the difference between a V-6 and V-8 in terms of parts, and it adds up. You've got a smaller crankshaft, two less connecting rods, and eight fewer valves. So it starts to add up."

Another benefit of turbo engines is that the boost control can be used by the sanctioning body to judiciously control horsepower outputs as development among competing manufacturers drives up power. This is one of the many areas in which CART failed to do the job correctly, ultimately chasing away rather than encouraging and maintaining multiple engine manufacturers.

"We saw that in CART when there were three or four different engine manufacturers and whenever there was discussion about changing boost settings for a race or what have you, you could never get all of the manufactuers to agree to it," Rahal recalls. "If one of them perceived that it was not in its narrow, best interest they would veto it.

"So it's difficult when you have multiple manufacturers. A lot of it depends on the sanctioning body, of course. If it's considered of value to be involved in the series then the manufacturers will continue. NASCAR plays around with their engine rules all the time and nobody seems to say much. They all mutter, but nobody says much because they all feel they need to be there."

Rahal agrees with Mario Andretti and many others in the sport who believe the balance between downforce and horsepower must return to where it was some years ago with more power and less downforce so the drivers have to lift substantially for the corners.

"Along with the engines, the aero side of it has to be back where it should be, not where it is currently," Bobby declares. "In the eighties and nineties there was never enough downforce for the power. You might have been able to suck it up for one or two laps for qualifying, and that's fine, but for the race you need to have it to where there is less downforce than power. The power-to-downforce ratio needs to be the inverse of what it is today where you have too much downforce and not enough power.

"The number one benefit of more power and less downforce is that it gives you separation so you don't have people running around stacked on top of one another. And number two is that the good drivers will be able to show themselves."

The other key component in rebuilding IndyCar racing is creating the right schedule of races for 2009 and '10. Rahal believes there will be a healthy influx of road courses and street circuits on next year's IRL schedule.

"I think it's happening," he said confidently. "I think you'll see it go in the right direction."

Back in 1992, on the way to his third Indy car championship, Rahal won the inaugural of four CART and three IRL races in New Hampshire, and he's a supporter of the IRL returning to New England.

"I think that would be great," Rahal says. "It's a great track, the kind of oval we should race on, and we need a race in the northeast. I think it would be a great move."

On these issues, I find it hard to disagree with Bobby, all the way down the line. I hope his ideas are given serious consideration by the IRL.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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