"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman
The Way It Is/ Finding the right alchemyby Gordon Kirby
As I wrote last week this year's revived Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal was a delight. If there was any doubt the race proved that big-time open-wheel racing can draw huge crowds and generate massive enthusiasm in North America. More than 300,000 people jammed Ile Notre Dame over three days of racing barely fifty miles north of the US border and everywhere you went people were talking about or celebrating the sport. After missing a year the Canadian GP rebounded in style and it's great not only for F1 but racing in general to have such a fine race solidly re-established. Long may it continue.
This year's race in Montreal was also a sobering experience because it struck such a sharp contrast with the struggles most American street and road racing promoters are facing these days. Promoters from Long Beach and St. Pete to Laguna Seca and Road America would kill for one day's worth of Montreal's crowd over three days. It's a sad commentary on the state of the sport in America that traditional road courses like Laguna Seca on the west coast, Elkhart Lake in the upper midwest and Lime Rock in the northeast are searching for a major category to attract big crowds.
Laguna and Elkhart have suffered greatly from the loss of their old CART/Champ Car weekends which started life back in the sixties as USRRC and Can-Am races. It seemed for a while that the ALMS could fill the gap created by CART/Champ Car's failure but the departure of factory teams from Audi, Porsche and Acura has left the ALMS in a weakened state, depending for much of its appeal on the thriving GT2 category.
© Gary Gold
Meanwhile, as NASCAR moves successfully onto new road racing ground, most IndyCar oval races are struggling and have been for some time. A long list of oval tracks have given up on Indy cars over the past ten years. Among them are Michigan, Fontana, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Charlotte, Atlanta, Dover, New Hampshire, Nazareth, etc. Each of Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Milwaukee are expected to be back on next year's IndyCar schedule but even with strong promotion--witness Texas two weeks ago--it's tough to pull much of a crowd. It was therefore good to see a nice crowd in Iowa last Sunday on Father's Day despite a forecast for heavy thunderstorms.
As everyone knows, part of the challenge in writing IndyCar's new rules for 2012 is getting the right combination of power, drag and downforce. To make for more passing there has to a substantial difference in speed between corners and straightaways with some acceleration and deceleration rather than the cars running around flat-out with little or no lifting.
It's a fact that IndyCar's current combination of cars and stars cannot hope to compete with NASCAR, particularly on ovals. For one thing NASCAR fills the track with 43 cars which generate ground-shaking thunder on starts and restarts. The spectacle of a NASCAR race is impossible to equal with today's restricted, underpowered Indy cars. Nor, by its very nature, can IndyCar equal the raw appeal of the multi-car accidents that frequently litter NASCAR races. There's much more than marketing and promotion to solving IndyCar's problems on ovals and little doubt that the 2012 formula is the last chance for IndyCar to get it right.
There are plenty of lessons IndyCar can learn from Formula One about the presentation of its cars, teams, pitlanes, tracks and victory circles. Whether you like it or not, F1 sets the global standard for all these things and over the past twenty years Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA have pushed F1 to new heights of presentation. All this helps in attracting crowds, media coverage and sponsorship.
© Gary Gold
Both Formula One and IndyCar are embroiled in debate these days about their new formula for 2013 and 2012 respectively. The FIA plan to launch a new 1.6 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine formula in 2013 (not a 1.5 liter as I erroneously reported two weeks ago in a note of correction) with a comprehensive package of energy recovery systems. The F1 engine will be restricted to around 600 bhp and 12,000 rpm courtesy a fuel flow limiting device and much-reduced onboard fuel tank capacity. IndyCar has announced a 2.4 liter twin turbo V6 engine formula and hopes to encourage the FIA's 'Global Racing Engine' to compete.
The 'GRE' will also be a 1.6 liter in-line four-cylinder turbo but unlike the stressed member F1 engine it will be an unstressed production-block engine running at much lower rpm and boost. The FIA says it is currently working flat-out to determine the specifics of the F1 engine formula and emphasizes that the 'GRE' is an entirely different engine unrelated to the 2012 F1 engine.
So far, the only manufacturer to publicly declare any interest in the 'GRE' is the Volkswagen Group with its Audi and Porsche divisions. But in Montreal the weekend before last Cosworth's F1 group manager Mark Gallagher said Cosworth would build a 'GRE' if the FIA commits to the concept.
"The proposition of a 'World Engine' is a very interesting one for Cosworth," Gallagher told me. "We have diversified our business into many other areas--automotive, energy, aerospace, defence--but under my business unit, which is Formula One, we want to get Cosworth back up into the forefront of international motor racing.
© Gary Gold
"At the moment we're looking at a return to Le Mans next year and we want to go GT and endurance racing. We've got products available for that. If a 'World Engine' came along it would give us a suite of engines that we could offer to different categories."
To close this week's column some discussion is required about the aesthetics of racing. Back in 1997 Montreal-based film director Stephen Low produced 'Superspeedway', a big-screen IMAX movie starring Mario Andretti and a selection of Mario's Indy cars. The movie featured superb in-car shots of Mario driving a Newman/Haas Lola and concluded with some wonderful stuff of Mario driving the first Indy car he raced back in 1964, a beautiful, front-engined Watson-Offy roadster. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Low and he enthused about how his father first got him interested in racing in 1965.
"My dad filmed Jimmy Clark winning the Indy 500," Low recalled. "It was a precursor of IMAX. He used a five camera rig and he filmed everything he could, including Clark drinking the milk. That's when I became really fascinated as a kid with racing.
"The first Can-Am race we went to was at St. Jovite and we went to Watkins Glen and Mosport. They were great moments for me. I wasn't particularly interested in going to a race but my dad dragged me up there. I remember I was walking the back paths through the trees and the cars came out. I couldn't see them but I could hear them and the sound of them coming and doing almost 200 mph on the backstraight--oh man, I'll never forget it!
"I couldn't believe it and I've been hooked ever since. Mind you, it's never quite gotten back to Can-Am for me--the noise and the huge American engines and the spectacular performance of those cars. But Formula One is still pretty interesting. The cars are attractive and their performance is impressive."
Low remembers how healthy CART was when he filmed 'Superspeedway'. "The war had started but there was no damage yet," he remarked. "At the time, my God, some people believed Indy car racing was going to overtake Formula One! It was so rich in its history and had great stars and all the engine manufacturers and a rich variety of tracks, which Formula One doesn't have.
© Gary Gold
Like most of us Low hopes IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard and his seven-man 'Iconic' committee will make the right choices for IndyCar's new formula for 2012. "I just hope they don't choose the wrong car," Low said. "It's got to have the heritage. It's got to look like those great Indy cars of the mid and late nineties. Just look at the Penskes or the Lolas of that era. They were beautiful cars. I don't know how they've made the current cars so strange and ugly.
"I hope they can find a way to allow the air and the physics to design the car," Low added. "You don't need to make it deliberately funky. I hope they encourage the best in aesthetics from the new Indy car because that's the most important part of it."
A key component of the sport's aesthetics is its aural appeal. The shriek or howl of an F1 car is one of its biggest attractions and there's no doubt that the sound and fury of a field of F1 cars or 43 NASCAR stock cars or a top fuel or funny car getting off the line is one of sport's the most attractive parts.
Many people in F1 are worried that a turbo four-cylinder won't produce the kind of exhaust note we're used to hearing from an F1 car and the same question exists for IndyCar. I'm among those who believe part of the current IndyCar formula's lack of public appeal lays in it's shrill but unattractive exhaust note. An appealing, ear-catching sound is essential to successful motor racing and it's another important detail of the new rules that both F1 and IndyCar must get right.
Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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