Brian Barnhart's Dilemmas

INDIANAPOLIS, December 16, 2003—

Brian Barnhart has one of the most difficult jobs in racing. As the senior vice president for racing operations at the Indy Racing League, his prime directive is to enhance the excellent racing put on by the League's IndyCar and Menards/IRL Infiniti Pro Series with the least amount of histrionics, not the easiest thing to accomplish when there are monumental personalities involved.

Show me a Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, John Barnes, Tom Kelley, Morris Nunn, Eddie Cheever, yes show me an A.J. Foyt and I'll present you with a bunch of team owners who will do anything they can to get their way in competition. It's what makes them successful. As I see it, Brian Barnhart's job is to enforce competition rules in an effective, non-offensive manner that makes all these guys mentioned, and the balance of their peers happy with the way things are.

It's not easy, but Barnhart has sure managed to make it seem that way. Faced last year with a disputed 86th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, Barnhart and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George did the best they could with the results and named Helio Castroneves the winner for his second consecutive year. Paul Tracy still believes he won that race and nothing will ever change that belief, but Barnhart did his utmost to make sure his responses were as accurate and democratic as possible. No easy deal.

This year, he's been confronted with issues far deeper than that particular dispute. Yes, Barnhart has had to contend with the issue of flying cars along with ever-increasing speeds. He's had to figure out how to keep Dallara and Panoz G Force chassis from leaving the circuits and plunging into the spectator areas at the tracks where the IndyCar and Menards/IRL Infiniti Pro Series compete.

Keeping the public safe from cars and guarding the lives of racers has become his mantra over the 2003 season and into the misnamed "off season" testing time. After Mario Andretti's springtime aerobatics at Indy, Kenny Brack's horrendous end to the 16-race season at Texas and Tony Renna's as-yet-unexplained death 10 days later at the Brickyard, Barnhart and his cohorts had to act.

With the media beating a worn path to his door demanding changes and explanations, Barnhart still took his time and calmly worked to find the most equitable solution to the problems. He's been barraged by ideas from everyone in Indianapolis—and elsewhere—as he's worked to uncover the right way to go about making the correct changes.

Last week decisions were made, leaked initially by the Indianapolis Star newspaper and then carried across cyberspace and newsprint throughout the world. All this occurred without corroboration by the Indy Racing League and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For the most part, they were silent. Until today, when the League finally acknowledged the commencement of Barnhart's changes, endorsed by all engine, chassis makers and by Firestone, the sole tire provider.

As initially revealed, displacement of the IRL Indy cars will be reduced from the current 3.5 liters to an even 3 liters. When the IRL first began competing under its own set of rules, aspirated engine size was a vast 4 liters, but that was infancy and the League, about to commence a ninth year of racing, is really a teenager now, don't you think?

The changes will get underway with the start of practice for the 88th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May, "in an effort to reduce speeds and ensure safer and exciting racing," League officials pronounced. Keeping the rev limit to the current maximum of 10,300rpm, all Honda, Toyota and Chevrolet/Cosworth powerplants will use existing designs but will be internally modified in the lower end to bring size and power down.

The League expects this revision to reduce speeds at IMS "by nearly 10mph," Barnhart said. Smaller crankshafts should mean the 2003 MBNA pole position achieved by Helio Castroneves of 231.725mph will be safe for a while. "We have been gathering data and studying ways to slow the cars down without compromising the highly competitive racing we have in the IndyCar Series," Barnhart acknowledged.

"We believe these changes to the cars and engines will accomplish that goal. Our teams and drivers, as well as our engine suppliers Chevrolet, Honda and Toyota, our chassis manufacturers, Dallara and Panoz G Force—and our official tire supplier Firestone—have been extremely helpful and cooperative in assisting us as we make changes to the cars."

At this point Barnhart hasn't said what changes will be made to the chassis designs to keep cars on the ground, but it has been acknowledged, underground of course, that the current five degrees of rear wing angle will be retained. The low power and high downforce of the Indy Racing League cars have been their calling card to this point, but the tight racing that results is, to many, similar to restrictor plate races conducted by NASCAR's Winston Cup cars at Talladega and Daytona Beach.

For the first three races of the 2004 IndyCar Series season, engine displacements will remain the same. It takes time to get all those parts built and the cost to the three engine makers won't be penny ante.

To begin the process of slowing cars even as they remain powered by 3.5-liter engines, Barnhart and Co. decreed a three-inch by 12-inch slot cut into the airbox and engine cover behind the driver's head for the races at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Feb. 29), Phoenix International Raceway (Mar 21) and Twin Ring Motegi on April 17th.

That'll decrease positive airflow to the engine, reducing horsepower a bit along with overall speeds. This slot goes away when the smaller displacement engines are introduced at the start of practice for at the Brickyard. Which means there will be different airbox configurations to purchase.

There's more to this on the chassis side. In July of last year, League officials alerted all manufacturers that they should be prepared for the possibility of road courses in the near future. For 2004, both chassis makers will present cars with update kits that include road-course radiators and sidepods that increase drag, which Barnhart hopes will produce slower speeds.

If there's anything chassis and engine makers in any series do, though, they try to find a way to make cars go faster than they're supposed to. That's the basic challenge any racer is looking to fulfill. While speeds might slow for a bit, it's likely the builders and engineers will find ways to return velocity. It's the nature of the beast, folks.

And so as I applaud Brian Barnhart for his even-handed and well-considered starting solutions to the problems of flying cars, drivers and the resultant debris, I'm not sure it's all going to make a big difference in the whole scheme of things. Trying to stop progress in racing usually doesn't work. Barnhart is a good man and his plans are well thought and considerate of the costs, both human and mechanical to series equipment. If he saves one life in 2004 that might otherwise have been lost, it'll all be worth it.

—Anne Proffit

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