"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman
The Way It Is/ Swift's 2012 Indy car conceptby Gordon Kirby
Swift Engineering has been in the race car building business for twenty-eight years. Swift was created in 1983 by Alex Cross, R.K. Smith, David Bruns, Paul White and Jim Chapman and quickly established itself as America's most successful builder of Formula Fords and Atlantic cars. In fact, Swift has built more than twice as many Atlantic cars than any other constructor.
The company was bought in 1992 by Hiro Matsushita whose ambition was to build an Indy car. Matsushita invested in new machinery and equipment, including a state-of-the-art rolling road wind tunnel that was completed in 1995. Swift leased time in the tunnel to a handful of F1 teams and an agreement was struck in 1996 with Newman/Haas to collaborate on building and developing a Swift Indy car.
Remarkably, Michael Andretti won in the car's debut at Homestead in the spring of 1997 but the early success flattered only to deceive. Andretti was able to win again at Homestead in '98 and St. Louis in '99. Teammate Christian Fittipaldi added a fourth win at Elkhart Lake in the summer of '99 with Andretti completing a one-two sweep for Swift and Newman/Haas. Swift were able to sell a handful of cars in 1998 but by the middle of '99 the program was beginning to run out of money and steam. Newman/Haas returned to racing Lolas in 2000 and the Swift Indy car effort came to an end.
Swift continued building Atlantic cars. The DB4 Atlantic car from 1986 was followed by the 008 in '95, then the 014 and finally the 016 manufactured in 2007 for the revived Atlantic series. But the demise of Champ Car meant the beginning of the end for the Atlantic series which has been parked for this year. Many competitors and fans hope the Atlantic series can be brought back to life but at this stage no such plans exist.
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Two years ago Swift was commissioned to build a run of Formula Nippon cars for Japan's national open-wheel racing championship.
"We did the Formula Nippon series car in 2008," Refsdal relates. "We delivered thirty-four chassis but unfortunately the economy hit Japan worse than it hit us here in the States. They've only been able to field about thirteen cars so the parts business hasn't been what we hoped it would be."
Refsdal has been with Swift for twelve years and has been Swift's president for almost two years.
"I spent thirty years building aircraft for major airframe manufacturers as well as sub-tier suppliers to the industry," Refsdal says. "I have a manufacturing and engineering and business background. I originally came on board as a consultant helping them with process and systems development and was then promoted to manufacturing director and then director of operations before becoming president of the company."
The CART/IRL civil war and the unintended arrival of spec car racing pushed Swift into exploring new business opportunities outside racing.
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"Our basic philosophy is that we're racers and what we most enjoy doing is motorsports projects. But in the lean times we take the same tools that build lightweight aerodynamic structures and apply them to other projects. Going forward, our strategy is to remain diversified. We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket. I came out of the aerospace industry and it's been known to go the same direction as the overall economy is now. The aerospace industry had some terrible times in the early seventies."
Swift operates out of two buildings, one comprising design and production. The wind tunnel is housed in a separate building.
"Our main facility is 60,000 square feet," Refsdal says. "That's where we do all of our engineering and manufacturing. The other building is 15,000 square feet and that houses the wind tunnel."
Swift employs twenty engineers, including mechanical and aerospace engineers and aerodynamicists. Casper van der Schoot is Swift's Indy car program director.
"Casper's been in this business for many years and has worked in several different roles in CART during its heyday," Refsdal remarks. "Casper also has experience in NHRA, NASCAR, FIM motorcycle racing, Formula Atantic and Formula Nippon.
"Chris Norris is our chief designer," Refsdal adds. "He was responsible for the complete 016 Atlantic car mechanical design as well as the Formula Nippon design.
"Mark Page is our chief scientist and he's well-known in the aviation and aerospace world. It's been said there are only five people in the United States who can develop an airplane from the ground up and he's one of them. Those skills translate directly across to motorsports. After Mark left Boeing he worked for Dan Gurney for several years before he came to Swift.
"Dr. John Winkler is our chief aerodynamicist," Refsdal adds. "He was also a Boeing engineer at one time. He came on board in the late nineties when we were still doing Champ Car wind tunnel development and he's been involved in all our aircraft, aerospace and motorsports projects including Nippon and the Atlantic series. So all these guys are highly-experienced and well-respected in the industry."
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"One of the things we've been very successful in doing is to scale up when we get these larger projects," Refsdal says. "We actually get a lot of folks from the motorsports industry, especially during the off-season when they're looking for work. We're able to get a lot of mechanics and team people to come to work for us."
Swift based its original 2012 Indy car renderings on its Formula Nippon car.
"We've already done quite a bit of work in coming up with some concepts of what the next Indy chassis might look like," Refsdal comments. "Our first shot was to propose a design that was based on the Nippon chassis. The images numbers 23, 32 and 33 all assumed we were going to use the Nippon chassis. But in going through the process and meeting with Brian (Barnhart) and Les (MacTaggart) several times we found what they really wanted was a chassis that provided three-inch padding for the driver. So we had to increase the depth of the chassis to coincide with that. Our number 50 image was based on that new chassis.
"One of the things we felt would be neat from the get-go was to offer a car that had a retro look and #23 was pretty typical of that. In fact, 23 was one of the favorites of the six different concepts we've proposed. It had that retro look back to the Lotus or Honda F1 car with an exposed engine but with enough updates to make it look contemporary.
"Mark Page is responsible for a lot of the conceptual design and during his time with Swift and his previous time with All American Racers he found that covering the engine completely doesn't have that much negative impact on the car's aero. So we felt we could do that and still provide a car that had good aerodynamic properties.
"We've been talking to the folks at Indy and to the folks at Honda and Firestone and all the stakeholders about what they'd like to see. But when we started meeting with the teams and the other stakeholders they said they wanted that real estate to put sponsorship on. They said they'd like to see that area closed up. So we took it to the next step which we call the 66 and we're currently working on 66A and doing all the aerodynamic diligence on that in CFD to really optimize it.
"We also have an idea to reduce the amount of turbulence behind the car which we call a mushroom buster. It lifts up the bad air using the vortices off the end plates to allow the cars to race a little closer. We're working right now to perfect that design."
Refsdal explained Swift's process of designing a new car.
"We've recently acquired a new Cray minisupercomputer which has allowed us to greatly enhance our CFD skills," Refsdal says. "We haven't given up on the wind tunnel. The way we go about the process is we start with our aero guy and our chief industrial designer. They sit down and work together on a design that we believe is close to what we want to accomplish and then we take that to the next step which is computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and start to do the refinement and iterations there. Once we get to that completed step we then make a model and go to the wind tunnel.
"This is a process we've used since we did an aviation program called the Eclipse Concept jet. We built a four-seat personal jet for Eclipse Aviation and we did that in two hundred days from the time when we took a clean sheet of paper proposal to the time that we delivered it and flew it to Oskosh. We hold the record for having done that quicker than anybody else in the business. We took the contract in 2006 and flew it to Oshkosh at the end of July, '07.
"Eclipse Aviation had established this market in aviation known as very light jets (VLJs). They went to market with a product they called the 500 which was a six-place, twin-engine jet. They introduced it at a price point of $1.1 million which a few years ago was cheap for a jet.
"They wanted to do something new and different every year and they came to us and said they had found through their market studies and selling the 500 that if they could provide four-place, personally-operated aircraft they could sell 5,000 of them. They asked us to help them design the aircraft and said there might be an opportunity in the future to build them for us. So we took that project on.
"We used the wing of the original 500 and one of the engines but everything else was new. We designed and built the entire fuselage and vertical stabilizers and everything for the aircraft. We did the full assembly and avionics integration in that 200-day period.
"We also did a record experimental search certification for the FAA in 24 hours and got it certified so we could fly it into Oshkosh. The aviation world didn't know anything about it. They had no idea this was going on. It was kept very secret. It was only known by four of the top people at Eclipse Aviation. So when it was unveiled at Oshkosh it pretty much took that industry by storm."
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"We developed an unmanned vehicle that we call the 'Killer Bee'," Refsdal comments. "Northrop-Grumman now owns the IP on that and they call it 'The Bat'. It's a blended wing unmanned vehicle unlike anything else that's out there in the marketplace.
"We've also taken on some wind energy projects and done some interesting things there. We have that capability. We have five people who have a background in aerospace or aerodynamics and those people are supporting these kinds of projects with the engineering group. We use their skills as well as the mechanical engineers and motorsports people to do all of the projects that we take on."
Refsdal believes Swift is in a better position than its competitors to hold down the costs of its cars and parts.
"We've put together a very comprehensive business strategy and business case that we've already presented to Brian and Les," Refsdal says. "Right now we're just waiting for the RFQ to come out from the 'Iconic' committee to determine how much of that we're going to have to change based upon what they have now decided they'd like to see. We're staying very fluid and we're trying to stay open.
"A lot of things have changed in this industry in the past ten years. As race fans we at Swift would like to see nothing more than competition, but the economics don't currently support that. Given the price points the IRL wants these cars sold at I don't see they're in a position to do anything but get a spec chassis from one supplier. Certainly our business model is based on that.
"I think one of the series' concerns is they've been susceptible to the market fluctuations in currency and one of their goals is to remove that. So they've asked that anybody who's going to build these cars build them in Indianapolis.
"It's interesting to me that Lola and Dallara would make a proposal based on building a dedicated facility in Indianapolis because right now they are underutilized in their home facilities. So I think it's going to be a challenge for them to realistically meet the price objectives that the series is looking for. The IRL is looking for half what the car sold for before."
Swift's plan calls for Mark One Composites to operate the company's parts operation out of Indianapolis.
"One of the ways were going to satisfy the needs of being the only American company competing for the Indy project is we have partnered with Mark One Composites in Indianapolis," Refsdal comments. "Jeff Mowins owns that company. He currently does a lot of the repair work for the teams. He's been in the composite business for fourteen years. He has a very nice facility in Indianapolis and we're going to use him to make parts for us as well as stocking inventory. We'll base our parts distribution out of that facility if we are the successful winner of the Indy car contract.
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Swift has developed a more economic way of building wings with their subtle curves and shapes.
"We have come up with a lot more efficient way to build wings," Refsdal says. "Where in the past we would autoclave everything, these days we're doing press molding. We're building very complicated wings that are molded on presses. We have a proprietary process that we've developed. It keeps the weight down and the strength up. That's given us somewhat of an advantage from a cost standpoint and being able to increase cycle times and dramatically reduce the amount of labor and materials that go into producing some of these wings.
"We're using the same technology on our blended wing unmanned vehicle to mold those wings which are just as complicated if not more so than some of the wings we have on race cars these days. They're not just straight elements. Again, these don't require running through the autoclave process.
"We're looking at many things. We're doing programs for the military and some of the aerospace customers that use autoclave materials and we're considering that as a possibility. We're also looking at some nanotechnology that one of the engineers has been investigating for some time. There are some other materials out there that are being developed that could significantly increase strength and take weight out. Of course, when you do that the cost goes up pretty dramatically."
Swift has also generated a wide range of customers for its wind tunnel which is a big help to the company's economic viability.
"The customers we have these days are probably not the traditional motorsports customers that we started with," Refsdal remarks. "We've had wind tunnel companies, energy companies and other companies that are designing various products that have to hold up in storm conditions and hurricanes. We've had other racing teams in there, including motorcycle racing. We used to do quite a bit of automotive work with Ford and BMW. Those people now pretty much have their own facilities. We've also used the tunnel for the Eclipse concept jet development and we continue to do aero development on the unmanned vehicle."
Refsdal also discussed Swift's increasing use of computational fluid dynamics.
"The shift is definitely towards CFD and we're putting the focus on that," he observes. "But we still don't believe you can do proper aerodynamic development without a wind tunnel. Of course, we did all our Nippon development in the tunnel as well and used this process we call 'aero styling' which is where we do the intensive initial design and then we go into CFD and then into the wind tunnel where we collect all our data. You just don't have the computing power to collect all the data that you want to collect in CFD. But it's a better way to set up the problem. We're finding a pretty good correlation between what we see in CFD and the wind tunnel. But the wind tunnel is essential. We still find it's a great tool."
Swift would like to see room for aerodynamic development by the individual teams.
"There are interesting things you could do," Refsdal remarks. "Perhaps you could offer some limited development on wings to the different teams if they want to have some way to compete. Perhaps you could structure an arrangement wherein the teams develop their own front wing and the cars would take a slightly different look from one team to the next. You would have some distinction that way and the teams' technical folks would also have a way to use some of their skills to improve the performance of the cars and make it visible to the fans."
Refsdal says Swift is constantly searching for ways to reduce costs.
"We have a program in place called cost containment and it's all about how do you provide the products and services that traditionally have been very expensive for the racing industry. How do you do that more cost-effectively? As we're developing that technology in the way we build our race cars we're able to leverage that into some of our other commercial and aerospace programs and help those customers out.
"Inherently, advanced composites have been a very expensive process. There's a lot of labor in it and a lot of expensive materials so we're constantly evaluating the way we do things and looking for more efficient ways to accomplish the same thing."
Swift hopes to offer a simulator to the IndyCar teams and possibly the sanctioning body itself.
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"We are partnered with Crudent America which is a company that's been formed to sell and market these products here in the United States. We have a cooperative agreement that allows us to do all our car development at the same time as they do their marketing.
"We've offered that to the Indy folks too as an possibility to engage the fans by having those simulators at the track. If you wanted to you could have somebody virtually driving one of the simulators at a race and be interactively involved. They could compare their skills to the drivers out on the course.
But primarily Swift is interested in using them as a development tool. We're currently working with our Nippon chassis to better understand it and see how we're going to use this thing when we start to develop the next Indy car."
Swift has also been looking at ways to increase the fans' involvement with the drivers and cars at the races.
"We're also toying around with and have presented an idea we call 'Swift Lights'," Refsdal says. "It's a product another company is developing for us. It's a high intensity pixel deformable material that is used in some defence programs these days for the purposes of camouflage. We're looking at adapting that to put on the cars so you could change sponsorship information as the car is going around the track. You could also tell the fans what car is in first position or what the throttle or braking position is or the amount of fuel remaining so there is more interactivity going on between the fans and what the driver is actually doing.
"Our focus is to demonstrate to the folks at Indy that we are the logical choice for this contract, given the foundation that we have, our history in motorsports and the people that we have onboard and our manufacturing capabilities. We're trying to think outside the box not only in how we provide a very good chassis that meets the cost expectations to the series, but also about getting more fans back into open-wheel racing.
"For us, that's what it's all about. We are racers and we love racing. We want to see Indy car racing re-emerge as the premier form of racing here in the United States and we're willing to go the extra mile to support doing that.
"If it's right and the Indy series agrees to it and we can set it up, we've even thought about doing a mini series documentary and use the Indy development as the basis to do that so that before the car is introduced the fans can start tuning into all the various engineering and development work that goes into designing the car and getting it out to the customer."
Swift has also actively embraced social media to get its message out and try to reach the youth market.
"It is more entertainment today than it is engineering-intensive," Refsdal observes. "It is a spec series and we recognize that a lot of folks are interested in racing today because they are being entertained rather than having an obsession with high-performance cars like they did in my youth. So we're trying to use as much of the technology that's available to us to get the word out and get people actively involved. We have a competition going on right now on our Facebook page where we've put out a line drawing of the car and we're asking people for their ideas for the color schemes for what we present to the 'Iconic' board. We're trying to get them involved in the process.
"We're getting a lot of support from the racing community to be the next provider of the chassis. We're also using social networking to some degree to get more fan support. We have a Facebook site that's grown from just a few people to 1,700 people in a matter of weeks.
"We have an engineer here who's recently out of college. She has a very good engineering background but she's also very much into social media and is becoming quite the celebrity on Twitter and the various blog sites with a lot of young race fans out there. We feel like this is something we can bring to the series with the young, progressive people who communicate that way these days. We have to adapt to how things change."
Refsdal says everyone at Swift hopes Indy car racing can rebound over the next few years so the series can return ultimately to open competition among chassis builders.
"We figure if we can get the fans coming back and get that core interest going again, once the fans are back and the sponsorship comes back then we can do open competition. That's what we hope for.
"This chassis competition has certainly raised the passion," Refsdal adds. "People are getting excited about it and they like to have some arguments. The Internet is a great medium for people to exchange thoughts and ideas. That in itself is creating a lot of interest."
With five car builders pitching to build the 2012 Indy car and plenty of discussion on the web about the new formula it's clear that there's massive interest in re-creating Indy car racing. It's unfortunate that only one constructor will be a winner in this contest, but it's a delight to see so much passion and interest in the sport from so many people.
Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved
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