By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Last week's column ("Balance of Pain") set off a firestorm of comments and discussion. From team principals and racing management at the manufacturers to the sanctioning body itself, the column was front and center as a topic of conversation. "Balance of Performance," despite all efforts to the contrary, has been part of the racing business for decades. It may not have always been called those exact words, but the end goal was always the same - to make the competitors, for lack of a better word, competitive with each other.
In ancient times this meant, for example, NASCAR tech inspectors paying particular attention to any machine Smokey Yunick brought to the race track. Yunick, who was a tremendously gifted natural talent/curmudgeon, thrived on pursuing outlandish technical solutions with creativity, and he loved to mess with the powers that be in NASCAR. He pioneered the practice of having things glaringly wrong and out of specification on a car when presented for technical inspection, in the hopes of diverting attention away from the truly creative and rule-bending stuff that he didn't want the inspectors to find. The many stories of Yunick vs. NASCAR tech inspectors make up part of the most colorful lore in NASCAR history, and his cars were masterpieces of innovation.
But then again creativity wasn't just part of NASCAR lore, it's part of racing lore around the world. Alfred Neubauer, the famous team manager of the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team before and after WW II, was informed before a race that his cars were slightly overweight. On the suggestion of one of his drivers, he had the white paint stripped off of the cars (Germany's international racing colors at the time were white) and presented the cars in their gleaming, bare aluminum bodies for the race the next day. Thus the term "Silver Arrows" was born, and from that point forward Mercedes-Benz racing cars were always silver.
Creativity and ingenuity in racing go hand in hand. Who will ever forget the exploits of Jim Hall and his brilliantly conceived and executed Chaparrals? Or the fact that the True Believers at GM/Chevrolet Engineering were with Hall every step of the way, while even pioneering technical advancements of their own? (The Chaparral 2J was a concept developed and engineered within Chevrolet Engineering, for instance.) Or Colin Chapman, who was bristling with such creativity that his cars simply transformed the sport of F1?
And the myriad stories of Roger Penske's creativity in the pursuit of an "unfair advantage" over his competition are just as legendary in their own right. Like the time Penske sent his Trans-Am Camaros in for an acid-dipping bath in order to make the bodies as light as possible. Unfortunately, one of the bodies was left in a little too long and the metal on the roof was so "soft" and pliable to the touch, that it was, uh, a little embarrassing. What to do? Voila! Penske's Camaros showed up at the next race with full vinyl roofs, consistent with a street option at the time, but totally unexpected on a racing car. Or how about the time Penske and Ilmor Engineering exploited a loophole in the rulebook at the Indianapolis 500 in 1994, developing a pushrod Mercedes-Benz Indy V8 - the "500I" - in secret for his PC23 Indy cars. The engine made prodigious horsepower and utterly dominated the race that year.
Creativity, innovation and ingenuity are some of the most compelling reasons why motorsport has endured in popularity. And over the decades, many of those innovations resulted in fundamental improvements to our production cars. But as I've said repeatedly in this column, the accelerated advancement of technology in materials, aerodynamics, tires, engines, etc., simply swallowed the sport whole, and racing was forced to become a game of limits, restrictions and common specifications.
Today racing is a giant, spinning, "Balance of Performance" wheel driven by inertia and cold hard cash. Racing sanctioning bodies around the world make "accommodations" to manufacturers who want to compete, because by doing so the racing organizations are guaranteed staggering amounts of money in promotional and marketing initiatives. They also continually "adjust" the BoP numbers for the manufacturers who have been loyal competitors within a given series to maintain their interest, so as to keep everyone happy and on the same page. When it works, the competition is equalized but competitive. But when it doesn't, it's a bitter cup of joe. It's the way of the racing world and it's unlikely to change.
The heyday of the Can-Am Series was pretty much the last gasp of "run what you brung" racing around the world. Yes, the "Group 7" specifications had a few minimal requirements, but it was a broad, wide open canvas and basically every year was an unbridled display of advanced aero, bigger tires and even more horsepower. And then Roger Penske and Mark Donohue partnered with Porsche to up the ante with an onslaught of technology that simply overwhelmed every other competitor. Did the Porsche Turbo 917KL kill the series? No. Technology did.
And so here we are. IndyCar runs a managed "package" designed so that the cars qualify and race at a certain window of speed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. NASCAR has such a narrow "window" of specification that the "have" teams and their manufacturer partners spend millions upon millions for the slightest advantage that translates into a hundredth of a second, or less. There is no broad canvas in sight in FranceLand. The manufacturers running in the P1 class in the WEC spend F1 budget numbers to compete for the overall wins. The specs in the WEC at least encourage creativity and technical diversity, but ultimately the specs are governed by the whims and predilections of the French in the FIA and the ACO because, well, there's money to be collected after all. And F1 is subject to the whims and suspicions of Bernie and his Merry Pranksters. Take the money spent by the manufacturers in NASCAR and multiply it by the hundreds of millions of dollars in F1, all to exploit impossibly minute advantages in an even narrower window of opportunity.
Is there a solution to all of this? What, is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway going to open up the rulebook to encourage innovation, first and foremost? A rulebook that includes a dimensional box that the cars have to fit into and a 500cc engine size limit - or an alternative energy equivalent - with everything else "free"? Highly unlikely. Would F1 consider that kind of a bold approach? No. Would NASCAR consider a radical transformation of its own? Never. Will IMSA go out on its own and encourage a new top class that is basically a "run what you brung" GTX class, over and above the current GTLM class? It would be nice, but the only way that would happen is if the manufacturers got together and insisted upon it.
There are plenty instances of creativity and ingenuity throughout racing right now, but in this BoP Era there are no broad blank canvases available and there are no blue sky moon shots to savor. And it's really too bad, because I believe that's exactly what the sport needs for its long-term survival.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Editor's Note: Many of you have seen Peter's references over the years to the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation (HERF), which he launched in 2007. For those of you who weren't following AE at the time, you can read two of HERF's press releases here and here. And for even more details (including a link to Peter's announcement speech), check out the HERF entry on Wikipedia here. -WG
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Kent, England, March 16th, 1969. Graham Hill (No. 1 Team Lotus Ltd. Lotus 49-Cosworth) on his way to a second-place finish in the Race of Champions, a non-championship F1 race. Jackie Stewart (No. 7 Tyrrell Matra International Matra-Cosworth) won the race. Denny Hulme (No. 3 Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd. McLaren-Cosworth) finished third.
Publisher's Note: Like these Ford racing photos? Check out www.fordimages.com. Be forewarned, however, because you won't be able to go there and not order something. - PMD