Ben Bowlby, the evil genius behind the radical DeltaWing race car, ought to be decked out in combat fatigues, with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. Or maybe dressed in a stiff Russian suit and one of those funky hats Lenin used to wear. He is, after all, the most dangerous revolutionary in the world of motorsports, the creator of a car that not only looks unlike anything ever raced on a track before but also threatens to render everything on the track today instantly obsolete.
It's a sweltering Friday afternoon at the Indiana-polis Motor Speedway, two days before the 2010 edition of the Indy 500, and a full-size model of Bowlby's weapon of mass destruction is on display in front of the famous Pagoda. With its needlelike nose, superwide rear track, and arresting vertical fin, the DeltaWing is a fantastically futuristic, love-it-or-hate-it vision that looks like it belongs on the Bonneville Salt Flats -- or in a sci-fi flick -- rather than 100 yards from Gasoline Alley, the most conservative bastion in racedom.
Out on the track, Indy Lights cars are racing in the Freedom 100, and on the stage in the infield, the roadies for ZZ Top are doing a sound check. But at the moment, a huge throng is swarming around the DeltaWing. As I walk up, I half expect to see Bowlby lead them in an armed insurrection against the reactionaries who run the IndyCar Series. But when I get close enough to make out his crisp, button-down shirt and indestructible smile, I realize that he looks less like a clean-shaven Fidel Castro and more like one of those robotically upbeat ushers hired to pacify the crowds at Disneyland.
On the wall behind him are artists' renderings of four other cars -- stylized versions of the winged wonders that have been racing at Indy for generations, what Bowlby dismissively refers to as "Formula 1 wannabes." These are the DeltaWing's rivals. Six weeks after the 500, the ruling class will select the IZOD IndyCar Series' chassis for 2012 and beyond. The Delta-Wing, if chosen, will trigger a revolution, and rev- olutions, Bowlby knows, succeed only with grassroots support. Which is why he's out here, braving the mob and the enervating heat, answering the same questions, over and over and over again: What the hell is it? How is it going to make it around a corner? Why does it look so freaking weird?