"We've been doing things the same way for thirty-five years," Bowlby explains patiently, his smile never wavering. "We're talking about a completely different idea -- a car that goes the same speed with half the weight, half the drag, half the power, and half the fuel consumption. It's more efficient, more relevant, cheaper for the teams to run, and more entertaining for the drivers to race. This racetrack is supposed to be a breeding ground for showcasing innovation. We're doing what the IndyCar brand was intended to do. To be honest, I think we're honoring the tradition of what made this race so great for so many years."
At first glance, Bowlby makes an odd spokesman for Indy 500 custom. He's a forty-three-year-old Brit who was born five months after the last front-engine roadster raced at the Speedway. He got his start in road racing in England in cars he designed and built himself. Later, he helped create the Lolas that raced in Formula 3000 and was the chief engineer of the Lolas that won consistently in CART after the split with the Indy Racing League. In 2003, he was hired as technical director of Chip Ganassi's motorsports empire, and he was the engineering wonk behind the team's three IRL championships. But Bowlby has also worked on Ganassi's NASCAR and Grand-Am programs, and he created the team's semisecret aero test track inside a mountain in Pennsylvania. It's this broad range of experience that makes him uniquely qualified to think outside the compact box that's long defined the modern race car.
Motor racing was invented to improve the breed. That's why the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909, and for decades, that's why manufacturers competed. But the game changed in a big way in the late 1960s and '70s. As major-league sponsors and academically trained engineers flowed into the sport, racing became exponentially more sophisticated and expensive. The immense aerodynamic power of wings unleashed speeds that were far too fast for existing racetracks. So ever since, sanctioning bodies have been compelled to write rules that slow cars down by stymieing innovation. The result is race cars that are inefficient by design, and the current Dallara-Honda looks fundamentally the same as the Offy-powered Eagles and McLarens that conquered Indy back in 1973.
This stunted development has had two peculiarly perverse effects on the quality of racing. First, giant wings make it virtually impossible for one car to run in another's wake without losing scads of downforce, which leads to the dreaded phenomenon known as "aero push" (aerodynamically induced understeer), which makes passing frustratingly difficult. Second, since cars are optimized to run within an excessively narrow aerodynamic envelope, they appear to be cornering on rails when in reality the driver is balanced on the edge of control. Contrast this with the action in a sprint car race, where even the backmarkers look like heroes.