Friday, November 25, 2011

The Real Car of Tomorrow?

Ah, late November and the 2011 racing season is on its last legs.

NASCAR’s on-track action has closed up shop, bathing in the glow of a thrilling championship battle that saw Tony Stewart run down Carl Edwards to claim the crown.

Formula 1 closes its season this weekend in Brazil, the championship having been claimed weeks ago by Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who dominated this year to the chagrin of his rivals at Ferrari and McLaren.

The IZOD IndyCar series is done as well, sadly entering its off-season while trying to recover from the tragic on-track demise of this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Dan Wheldon.

But even as the engines begin to fall silent around the world, everyone involved with motorsports begins to look to the future.

For 2012, one race car’s planned debut holds particular fascination: that of the Project 56 Group’s radical DeltaWing concept.

The DeltaWing seen in its initial IndyCar concept configuration.

An alliance of Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, Highcroft Racing, and DeltaWing Racing Cars, the Project 56 moniker refers to the special 56th starting spot allocated to the car in the 2012 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an event normally capped at 55 cars.

Of course, any discussion about the DeltaWing is likely to begin and end with its amazing appearance.

The DeltaWing's design should provide increased stability while powering through the notorious Le Mans turns.

In the 1950s, people expected that in the year 2000 we’d all be flying to work, colonies would be in place on Mars, and drivers would be racing in cars that look like the DeltaWing.

Well, at least that last item is on the verge of becoming a reality.

The DeltaWing was originally designed by stylist Ben Bowlby as a concept to be implemented into IndyCar Racing. But when IndyCar opted to go with a more conservative design for its car of the future, the Le Mans opportunity arose.

To compete at this legendary race, the DeltaWing will reply on a relatively tiny 1.6 liter, four-cylinder turbocharged engine generating roughly 300 horsepower. How can the car be competitive - reaching speeds over 200 mph - with such a diminutive powerplant? The focus will be on how well the unusual design of the vehicle performs. Almost three-quarters of the DeltaWing’s mass rides on the rear wheels. More than half of the braking force is behind the center of gravity, which is expected to improve vehicle dynamics and stability. Indicative of the revolutionary design, the front track of the DeltaWing is a compact, narrow 23.6 inches, while the rear spreads across 66.9 inches. And the weight of the whole package? An incredibly light 1,050 pounds – 350 pounds less than the Formula 1 minimum weight requirement.

Michelin has announced they will support the DeltaWing effort. Hopefully the deal does not include seat time for the big puffy guy standing next to the DeltaWing in its Le Mans configuration.

The DeltaWing certainly makes a stunning impression. It bears the hallmarks of a true car of tomorrow, unlike NASCAR’s still-unfortunate-looking stock car of that name, or even the more staid Dallara design that will race on the IndyCar tracks in 2012. To learn more about the DeltaWing, visit:

Sadly, race fans need to travel all the way back to the late 1960s if they want to find an era when the radical visual appeal of the DeltaWing was common in motorsports. In those heady days, aerodynamic appreciation and creative approaches meant the race cars looked as forward-thinking as the technical innovations found under the skin. And this great leap forward was taking place in every form of motorsports concurrently.

Let's take a look back at just a handful of vehicles that represent that era of innovation...

We start with two cars near and dear to my own heart, the Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth SuperBird. I spent years documenting the history of these amazing winged cars for my book Supercars: the Story of the Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth SuperBird.

It was a tale worth telling, as aerodynamicists left Chrysler’s missile operations in Alabama to descend on Detroit and launch NASCAR in to the future, much to the horror of NASCAR founder “Big Bill” France.

Above, Fred Lorenzen at Daytona International Speedway with one of the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytonas.

Pete Hamilton at the wheel of a Petty Enterprises Plymouth SuperBird. Hamilton drove Plymouth's winged variation to victory in the 1970 Daytona 500.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, Porsche was applying swoopy curves to race car foundations in a quest to conquer legendary races like the 24-hour challenge at Le Mans with its new 917. Here we see a fleet of freshly minted 917s in 1969; one year later, the manufacturer had successfully conquered Le Mans.

The most famous livery of the 917 was this Gulf blue, soothing on the surface but intimidating on the track.

Texan Jim Hall created imaginative Chaparral cars to compete in a variety of series, becoming famous in the late 1960s for his incredible technical designs and willingness to push the envelope of race car appearance through the employment of massive wings and ground effects.

One of Hall's design sketches. Note the date: 1966! Welcome to the future...

At Indianapolis, STP's Andy Granatelli was employing innovative design in his determined assault on the 500.

Perhaps the most famous of the Granatelli efforts, the number 40 turbine car. It whispered with a whoosh rather than a roar, but its design and appearance made a big noise at the Brickyard when it was unveiled.

Radical design is a necessity in the quest for the land speed record, and American Craig Breedlove's jet-powered Spirit of America looked like something emerging from the realm of science fiction.

Craig Breedlove traded the land speed record back and forth with his rival Art Arfons in a series of high stakes speed duels that took place through the 1960s on the famed Bonneville salt flats. The car seen here can be visited today at the beautiful Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I had the opportunity to visit Spirit of America on a trip to Illinois last year, 45 years after I first saw the car at the 1965 Chicago Auto Show in the old McCormick Place convention center.

Personally, I'm hoping that the DeltaWing is a big success, one that encourages a reemergence of out-of-the-box thinking and helps push some more wild visions onto the race tracks of the world. Time will tell...