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?
“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.
“Racing is supposed to be an edge sport,” Bowlby says. “Chip and I were reminded of this while we were watching MotoGP. We could see the riders working the bikes through the corners, and we’d say to ourselves, ‘Wow! That guy is going seriously fast, and he’s on the absolute limit of control.’ From the grandstands, Indy cars look unspectacular. Even when a guy almost loses control, you can’t see it. Racing should be like riding a unicycle on a tightrope with no balancing stick or safety net. You should be stressed just watching it. We decided that there had to be a way to get back to that.”
In January 2009, Ganassi told Bowlby to start brainstorming a replacement for the unloved Dallara that had been the IndyCar standard since 2003. Bowlby’s brief wasn’t merely to conceptualize a car that reestablished the brand’s credibility as an extreme sport. It was also to come up with a car that was significantly cheaper than the existing chassis while being relevant enough — environmentally, technologically, and financially — to attract automobile manufacturers back to Indianapolis. The following month, Bowlby showed Ganassi a radio-controlled model of what’s arguably the most thought-provoking race car to appear in a century.
Bowlby ushers me into a vacant garage so he can explain his thinking without being badgered by the fans outside the Pagoda. Although the droning of the Indy Lights cars on the far side of the wall makes it hard to hear what he’s saying, it doesn’t take me long to realize that he himself is an obsessive racing fan who brings a profound passion to the sport. But he’s also an engineer, and engineers prize nothing more than efficiency. As shocking and bizarre as the DeltaWing looks, it’s actually the logical, even inevitable, product of Bowlby’s blue-sky quest for efficiency.
How do you improve acceleration? More weight over the driven wheels. So the DeltaWing is biased 72.5 percent to the rear, which also dramatically improved braking stability. With less weight at the nose, Bowlby used much narrower front tires. To improve cornering forces, he located them closer to the centerline of the car, which he claims will reduce the understeer that plagues all modern formula cars. The narrow nose reduced drag, but Bowlby realized that he could do even better by fairing in the tires and eliminating the front and rear wings. Then, to keep the car planted, he fashioned an underbody that generated the necessary downforce without most of the drag caused by conventional wings. The result is a car that, according to Bowlby, will lap the Speedway at 235 mph with an engine making a measly 300 hp.
The underbody also produced two other critical benefits. First, the DeltaWing should be able to run in traffic with only a limited loss in performance. Ergo, more passing. Second, the underbody can be “tuned” so that it’s less sensitive to yaw, which will allow drivers to dirt-track the car around corners. “Like a sprint car, it finds its peak performance at quite high slip angles,” Bowlby explains. “It should be very impressive for the spectators.”
Other than Ganassi, none of DeltaWing LLC’s investors have been publicly identified, except to say that they’re team owners. (Roger Penske and John Barnes are widely thought to be two of them.) Dan Partel, the founder of the European Formula Drivers Association and past president of Lola Cars USA, was hired to serve as CEO. Firestone developed tires for the car, and a full-scale model went through wind-tunnel testing earlier this year. To date, nearly $2 million has been spent on development, and Bowlby says it will take another $3.5 million to get a prototype on track. That’s an enormous amount of money to wager on an unproven and uniquely polarizing car. But Bowlby is undaunted. “It has incredible potential,” he shouts hoarsely as an Indy Lights car roars past, “and I think it must see the racetrack.”
Partel walks into the garage, wiping sweat off his forehead. Outside, the crowd surrounding the DeltaWing has gotten bigger, bolder, and boozier. “I think we’d better move the car,” he tells Bowlby. “It’s getting ugly out there.”
In six weeks, things would get uglier. A lot uglier.
The current Dallara Indy car debuted way back in 2003, when the economy was booming and the IRL raced only on ovals. Seven years later, the spec chassis — now the only game in town — is detested by team owners because parts are so expensive, by drivers because it’s so sluggish, by mechanics because it’s so difficult to work on, and by fans because it’s so homely.
In April, therefore, freshly minted IRL CEO Randy Bernard created the ICONIC (Innovative, Competitive, Open-Wheel, New, Industry-Relevant, Cost-Effective) Advisory Committee to choose a new IndyCar engine and chassis for 2012. Proposals were submitted by Dallara, Lola, DeltaWing, Swift (the premier American open-wheel chassis manufacturer), and BAT (a new company founded by three IndyCar stalwarts). The seven members of the committee evaluated pitches for three months before convening in July in front of a standing-room-only audience at the Indianapolis Museum of Art to unveil the car of the future:
Yesterday’s Dallara was being replaced by tomorrow’s…Dallara?
The initial reaction was anticlimax. (“All that to get the same thing?” one tweeter complained on the IndyCar website. “Barney Oldfield is the test driver,” tweeted another.) The DeltaWing had generated lovers and haters in roughly equal proportion, and to be honest, even supporters realized that it was probably too radical to be selected. But Lola and Swift were both proven commodities, and wasn’t it disenchantment with Dallara that had prompted the creation of the ICONIC committee in the first place? To see the Italian manufacturer rewarded again seemed like a slap in the face.
But as the committee members explained their thinking, it became clear that the 2012 chassis package represents an ingenious approach to controlling costs while promoting diversity. The per-unit price was minimized by giving Dallara the exclusive right to build and sell the rolling chassis, i.e., everything besides the drivetrain and the bodywork. But anybody will be able to design the “aero kits” that form the visible skin of the car as long as they meet as-yet-undetermined parameters and are offered for sale at no more than $70,000. It’s not clear who’s going to invest the millions of dollars necessary to develop this bodywork. But Dallara’s proposal at least creates the possibility that the cars will look different even though the chassis are identical.
Money was another driving factor in the decision-making process. The state of Indiana offered $5 million in incentives to persuade Dallara to build a factory-cum-R&D facility in the city of Speedway, and Dallara, in turn, agreed to offer huge discounts to local teams that buy new cars. The bottom line, according to the committee’s calculations, is that car-and-engine costs should be slashed in half.
You’d think that team owners would be jumping for joy. But, in fact, the major players were conspicuously absent from the official presentation, and their reaction since then has been strangely muted. In interviews days after the announcement, several committee members acknowledged that the Dallara concept was an imperfect solution. In retrospect, it’s obvious that they weren’t dealing with a multiple-choice question that came with one indisputably correct answer. Their challenge was to choose the best option on the table, and it had to be something that absolutely, positively could be implemented in 2012.
Bowlby, naturally, was gutted by the news. Partel bitterly derided the presentation as “a joke” and questioned the logic behind the committee’s decision. He was especially aggravated by the realization that some of the most compelling selling points in Dallara’s proposal seemed to have been lifted from the DeltaWing playbook. There’s no question that, even though it was rejected, the DeltaWing figured prominently in the deliberations. As committee member Gil de Ferran, an Indy 500 winner who’s now a team owner, puts it: “I think we’re better off today because we had the DeltaWing project to consider.”
Like most of his colleagues, de Ferran was intrigued by the concept but felt there were too many holes in the proposal. For example, the DeltaWing was designed around the Global Racing Engine — a proposed international formula for a small, direct-injected, turbocharged in-line four-cylinder. “The advocates of the world racing engine have a good case to make,” says committee member Neil Ressler, the retired Ford VP who previously served as chairman of the Jaguar F1 team. “But while I think it will come to pass, no [engine manufacturer] was in a position to commit to the series, and no one did.” So the committee voted to permit larger, turbocharged V-6s making up to 700 hp, which computer simulations suggest would allow the low-drag, lightweight DeltaWing to lap Indianapolis at an implausible 310 mph.
Timing, ultimately, was what sank the DeltaWing. “I agreed with a lot of the concepts behind it,” says committee member Tony Cotman, formerly Champ Car’s VP of operations and the IRL’s well-respected VP of competition. “If we had been talking about 2014, we may have gone in a totally different direction. But there were too many unknowns about the vehicle. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it surface again down the road. The contract with Dallara is for four years. So who knows what will happen in 2016?”
Partel hopes to have the DeltaWing up and running long before that. He’s putting together proposals for alternative engines and high-profile record attempts, and he’s thinking about shopping the car in Europe and Asia. “We have engines,” he says, referring to manufacturers who are developing Global Racing Engines. “We have teams. We have tires. We have fuels. We have chassis. With all those elements in place, I don’t think starting up an alternative series would be that difficult.”
History suggests that the task may be harder than Partel predicts. Then again, history hasn’t seen anything like the DeltaWing, which looks like open-wheel racing’s best chance to reconnect with fans at a time when the sport seems increasingly dull and irrelevant. Maybe the car is too radical for Indy. But it’s too promising to be filed and forgotten. “The genie is out of the bottle,” Bowlby says, still managing to sound upbeat. “Somehow, somewhere, someplace, we believe the DeltaWing will be raced.”
Let the revolution begin.