The DeltaWing project has become one of the hottest topics in recent memory amongst IndyCar fans and media since their prototype was unveiled Feb. 10 at the Chicago Auto Show. But while most people have spent a lot of time commenting on the machine’s radical design, it appears that DeltaWing as a concept – an open-source entity that can be tweaked and improved upon by anyone from prestigious manufacturers to noodle-slurping college students – has taken a back seat.
Whether that’s fair or unfair is better left up to individual interpretation. But regardless of your stance on the DeltaWing, you have to admit that the list of potential innovations for it is pretty fantastic. It’s almost as jarring as the car itself, especially when you think about the fact that we’ve seen the same basic IndyCar design for decades now.
John Barnes, co-owner of Panther Racing and a principal in DeltaWing, is thoroughly convinced that the project can help propel the sport into a new era of prosperity. He talks about the concept (not just the car) with a zeal that makes you wonder if you’re talking to an IndyCar team owner or a mega-church evangelist that simply missed his calling. But beyond his enthusiasm, you realize that he is genuine in his belief that DeltaWing can ensure a bright future for open-wheel racing.
I spoke with Barnes on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the aftermath of the DeltaWing’s unveiling, the project’s open-source aspects, and other topics pertaining to the car and concept that could spark a revolution.
Thanks to Panther Racing director of public relations Mike Kitchel for his help in setting up the interview.
CE: My first question to you is about the fan reaction to the DeltaWing. What are your thoughts about that and did you anticipate the DeltaWing getting this amount of reaction as it has?
JB: Well, which question do you want me to answer first? Did I think there was gonna be as much reaction? I think this is only the beginning. I mean, it was the 35th most [searched entry on Google] in the world on the 10th of February.
CE: Really? I must admit that I did not see that.
JB: Yeah, and the [DeltaWing website] got 77,000 unique visitors within the first 48 hours.
CE: It’s definitely created a lot of buzz outside of the series, so if that was the plan, then it certainly was a success in that regard!
JB: That exactly was the plan. I’ve been seeing the Kelley Blue Book – you know what that is.
JB: You should see the one [story] they put on their website – a story that was put out worldwide about DeltaWing. We have created something that has relevance and we’ve created something that has got the world – you know, our audience is very small and I think it shows what can really come of this thing if it goes to fruition.
CE: But there’s been a definite negative vibe toward the DeltaWing. Obviously, it’s more than a car, it’s a concept. But do you think, in hindsight, DeltaWing should have pushed that aspect of it more to the fans – DeltaWing the group, the open-source concept – before they unveiled the car?
JB: Well, yes and no, but you know, how do you become partially pregnant? We had to wait until the unveiling and we have people that still don’t understand the open-source, open-book part of this opportunity. I understand your part of some fans reacting and saying that they don’t like it. But what’s really amazing is at first glance, those people don’t like it, but the second glance, they like it more, the third glance, they like it a lot more, and the fourth glance, they’re in love with it.
That’s what we’ve found across the board. It’s a radical change – the design is. There’s reason for it to be radically different from a performance standpoint, but the thing is, the design of the car and what it can give for performance and being able to race without having aerodynamic disruption from the car in front of you and being able to race closer together at incredible speeds, nothing else can do that. What people are going to learn is, they’re going to learn to love it because of the show it’s gonna put on…and once they adapt to it, they’re gonna say, “That’s really cool.”
I had a guy who called me a couple days ago and he said his first thoughts were that he didn’t really care for [the DeltaWing]. He’s got a 10-year-old kid and he looked over his shoulder at the computer and he said, “Daddy, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” So it’s what are you used to. My first year at Indianapolis was 1968, and in ’68, there was still a roadster car in the Indianapolis 500. I remember what people thought when about five years earlier, the first rear-engine cars came here. They thought, “Oh my God, who’s gonna drive that thing? That thing looks weird. It doesn’t look like even one of our cars. It doesn’t look like what we race here.”
The only thing constant in life is change and it needs to happen for our sport to continue to gain relevance in the world. We’re gonna have to become relevant in what we do.
CE: Your comment opens up to my next question. You mentioned your friend with the 10-year-old, but I have a seven-year-old cousin and I showed him the cars just for the heck of it. He liked the Swift, he liked the Dallara, but the one he was really digging was in fact the Delta Wing, which I found very intriguing because of all of this reaction and all of this hate toward it in the beginning…How important was it for this car to appeal to the younger generation and get new fans?
JB: I’m 58 years old and I grew up around IndyCar racing. I love IndyCar racing. I love the history of it, back from the Novis to the Lotus Fords to the roadsters and all that stuff. But the thing I understand is, those people in my generation are dying. They’re going away. So if we’re going to survive this thing, we have to figure out what the people want. We can’t sell to the people that are no longer here.
CE: I guess that goes into my next premise, which was put forth by a friend of mine: That DeltaWing could afford to have a design like this because the open-wheel traditionalists have dwindled due to varying factors such as the split and just plain dying off. I think you answered my question: Is this car meant for new fans or is it meant for the current age?
JB: It’s for people we don’t have. We boast huge numbers of race fans, but I think people who are actually hardcore fans of our industry, that number is getting smaller and smaller. I think if anyone in motorsports is going to survive, whether it’s AMA motorcycles or it’s NASCAR or it’s Formula One or IndyCar, off-road racing, ALMS, whatever it is – you gotta figure out what’s going to happen, what’s going to be relevant in two years. You look at what has changed in our lives in the last year and it took about three years before that to make that great a change. Now, instead of going three-year increments, we’re doing one-year [increments], which you think about over the next two! And, you know, I think that’s the real key thing. We have to start thinking down the road here about what is going to be attractive to those people.
CE: From what I’ve been reading, any manufacturer can make parts for the Delta Wing. In that case, should they find a way to markedly change the appearance of it with new parts, is it possible to see, I guess, for lack of a better phrase, a different “Delta Wing 2” in the future or just a modified original?
JB: There can be a “Delta Wing 1000.” The whole process behind this thing is very easy to understand. It is this: This car will be designed, developed and tested, then once that’s done, it’ll get the rubber stamp and every piece of that car will have a barcode and that’ll be the way that car shows up at the team’s doorstep. Then any change, whether it’s from open-sourcing or the teams themselves, has to go through a rigorous threshold – its relevance, the cost of the change, and the opportunity for other teams to have access to that change.
So let’s say Fred out here at Arizona State University looks at the program and he says, “Okay, I’m gonna design a new nose for this thing. This nose meets all the testing criteria, here’s all the parts and pieces for it, this is what it does.” And Joe’s Carbon Shop down the street will make that nose for the same cost as what the Delta Wing’s original parts cost. That would go then to the engineering group and some participation from the IRL and if it’s relevant, it’s cost-effective, and it does something we want it to do, we rubber-stamp it and that would go out to anyone that runs a team…This is an approved part now. If you want to change the car and buy this part, you can do that.
CE: When I first saw the Delta Wing, I had no idea what to make of it, and I was really torn about it. But the more I learned about it, the more I started realizing its potential. And this is one of the biggest potentials it has – to have students that may not have thought about IndyCar before see this car and say, “I can do this better.” And from what I’m hearing, all of these parts and costs will be put online so anyone can access it.
JB: Exactly. The day that this car is done and in production, all the parts and pieces will be put on the website. All the drawings, all the aerodynamic date, all of it will be put on the website.
CE: I think you mentioned around a million for two Delta Wings, correct?
JB: We’re looking at two Delta Wings with engines for $1.1 million with motors. Presently, one Dallara car with all the different kits to run the different courses, just the car, is $680,000.
CE: And with that said, there’s the obvious potential that this could help get more teams involved in the league.
CE: But on that regard, what would be a success for DeltaWing? Do you have a specific number of new teams in your head?
JB: I can’t say that. You and I have seen the world financially shrink in the last 24 months.
JB: Who knows who will even be around in 2012 to be able to participate? Hopefully, the world will be a nicer place to live and we’ll have a lot more money to spend on programs. But who knows what’s going to happen in that time.
CE: Another thing I’m noticing about this car is the technical aspects of it. I’ve never been a technical guy, but some of the stuff I’m hearing about – fuel flow technology, rear downforce for the handling, a sub-chassis for the brakes and the wheels – some of this is really intriguing stuff. How important will that be as a hook for getting new fans involved with Indy Racing?
JB: Not only fans, but think of corporations! Take our engine for example. We’re talking motor-wise, a non-stressed member engine – that’s really important – a non-stressed member engine that weighs 160 pounds and uses 300 horsepower. Any car manufacturer today has one of those in the show and all car manufacturers that we’ve talked to, every one of them have told us that it’s the only thing [they’ll] have in [their] cars by 2012.
You look at the relevance. Five years ago, there were one or two car companies that had torque steering differentials. Now all of them do. By 2012, it’ll be equipment that every car has on it. What [DeltaWing designer] Ben [Bowlby] has done is tremendous. With [team owner] Chip’s [Ganassi] guidance, he has taken a concept and said, “Okay, look into your crystal ball and tell me what’s coming down the road and let’s build a program around that, not what we currently have.” You look at what we have, it’s no different than what we ran back in 1974.
We have continued to ban technology and rightfully so. A lot of it was really expensive. But now, we have so much more technology at our fingertips today. My cell phone has more technology than one of my IndyCars do. I think with this opportunity and what he’s described here and put forward, it really makes sense. It’s grabbing technology that we have presently in our hands, knowing that it’s only going to expand by the time we get to 2012. And it’s relevant to everybody’s cars that we’re gonna be driving.
When I talk to the head of Chevrolet or the marketing manager of Cadillac or anybody and I tell them about this, their jaws drop. They say, “You’re going right down the road we’re going. Our corporation is doing this.”
CE: And if that’s the case, it’d give them better justification for entering the league.
JB: What drove manufacturers out of racing? What drove them out is that they didn’t have anything to sell. The only thing they were selling is the marketing. Now, they can sell their technology and engineering. That’s what makes the difference between one car manufacturer and another. You’re not racing to sell cars, you’re doing engineering and showcasing engineering that you do. That’s a whole different deal.
CE: Another question about the “aura” of the DeltaWing…When I look at it, I don’t see it as an open-wheel machine but as its own unique entity. I can’t quite define it and it will be hard to define until we see the final car come out. But what is your thought on that?
JB: Well, it is unique! The design is unique, the semi open-wheeled car is somewhat unique…You know, it’s all different but again, it’s for a purpose. It’s that way to reduce drag and reduce the ability for tires to interlock and to reduce all of the safety issues that we presently have. 90 percent of our crashes are caused because of one driver’s wheel interlocking with another [wheel]. Why do we have it that way? Just because [inaugural Indianapolis 500 winner] Ray Harroun’s car was that way?
CE: When you say that, I’m thinking about Bowlby’s quote about function and form on this car – that it wasn’t meant to look as it is, it was just a matter of function and addressing the issues like that interlocking wheel problem.
JB: You know, when I look at the designs that the other manufacturers have put forth, all they are – they’re stylist. It’s like some junior high kid sitting at his computer saying, “Well, that line looks cool if it goes from here to here.” It has no form or function. Another thing that’s really funny to me is you look at the signage space on some of these cars and designs that people come up with. I’m in business because people put money into buying signage and promotional rights to my team. Now, with all of these weird looking things jetting out from the center of the car, where are we gonna write things down? Where’s Target gonna put their name? Where’s the National Guard gonna put their name? That’s the one thing that Ben’s really taken to heart. He’s said, “Okay. We need more signage space for the car. We need more flat areas. We need to be able to sell.”
CE: Now, the first test is coming out in August, correct?
JB: That’s the plan, yes.
CE: How will that work with Brian Barnhart wanting an 18-20 month window as far as executing this project?
JB: I have no idea how that works. I have not spoken to Brian about any of that stuff, so I can’t tell you what their criteria is. But what I can tell you is that if you look at the [objectives] that the IRL posted on their website about what they want the car built around, all the information for that car was taken off of our presentation.
CE: How do you feel about that in particular?
JB: I think it’s great. Obviously, it means that some people have done their homework and seen what needs to happen for the future as we have.
CE: What are your thoughts on the other three manufacturers’ concepts such as Swift’s lighting system and Lola’s “two-in-one” body and IndyCar/Indy Lights chassis commonality? Do you see any of these going on the Delta Wing in the future?
JB: We broached that subject six months ago. We came up with that idea and said that you can use the entire Delta Wing car. Obviously, cost is within containment and instead of running a turbocharged engine with 300 horsepower, they can run one that makes 150.
CE: Comparing the concepts together, there’s a line between evolution and revolution with the Delta Wing being on the latter side. Considering the state of the economy right now and all the other things that are happening around the league, why is now the perfect time to go the revolutionary route in your opinion?
JB: I think we can’t afford to continue doing what we’re doing. Sooner or later, you have to stop and look: Is the sport sustainable when we’re spending money like we’re doing? There’s absolutely no way. Can we continue to not be relevant to the world and ever-changing technology? If you answer those two things like I think you will, then obviously, it’s time to make a change and it’s time to move forward.