DeltaWing Gets a Second Chance to Fly

A year after visionary DeltaWing race car designer Ben Bowlby was jilted at the altar by the Indy Racing League, he’s found an ardent — and unlikely — new suitor in the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the enigmatic sanctioning body behind the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Next June, Bowlby’s streamliner — arguably the most radical race car since the dawn of racing — has been approved to run at Le Mans as the ACO’s Garage 56 entry, an initiative created to showcase green technology applicable to the world beyond motorsports. “It’s not every day that you get to run a revolutionary race car at Le Mans,” Bowlby says. “How cool is that?”

Bowlby is sitting in a fashionable restaurant in Indianapolis, wearing the beatific smile you might find on the face of a saint gazing at the Christ child in a Renaissance masterpiece. A year ago, he’d been gutted by the rejection of the unproven DeltaWing as the IRL’s new chassis for 2012 in favor of a conventional Dallara. So the ACO’s decision to embrace Bowlby’s vision comes as both validation and vindication.

“Le Mans is a huge deal,” Bowlby says. “Le Mans has stood the test of time as a relevant showcase for the automobile industry. It’s about speed. It’s about reliability. It’s about endurance. It’s about technology. The DeltaWing is utterly made for this race.”

Actually, the car was originally created for Indy-car racing. With funding from Chip Ganassi, Bowlby fashioned an unorthodox design around a needle nose and a supernarrow front track. The lightweight chassis and low-drag bodywork — shaped more like a land-speed-record streamliner than an open-wheel formula car — meant the car could theoretically turn competitive laps with a fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine making a measly 300 hp.

The IRL was unwilling to embrace this radical departure from convention. But with its small carbon footprint and suite of innovative technology, the DeltaWing was a perfect fit for the ACO’s new Garage 56 program, which will allow an uncommonly green machine to run as an unclassified entry at Le Mans without conforming to the rules governing the 55 “normal” competitors.

Although a full-size mock-up has already been tested in a wind tunnel, Bowlby estimates that it’ll take another $2.5 million to put a car on the racetrack. With the imprimatur of the ACO, he’s been able to put together a team — Project 56 — that includes four titans of American motorsports: Ganassi, 1967 Le Mans-winner Dan Gurney, American Le Mans Series founder Don Panoz, and ALMS team owner Duncan Dayton.

Dayton’s Highcroft Racing team will campaign the DeltaWing at Le Mans. But first the car must be built at the historic All American Racers shop in Southern California, where Gurney created the high-flying Eagle race cars of yore. Even before the IRL rejected the DeltaWing, the ever-curious Gurney had spoken to Bowlby about the possibility of building a street version of the car. So when Bowlby asked him to join the team, Gurney didn’t hesitate.

“This is a historic moment that doesn’t come around very often,” Gurney says. Depending on how the DeltaWing performs, the racing world may not be the same after its debut next June.