IndyCar 2018 by Diego Rodriguez

IndyCar 2018 by Diego Rodriguez


IndyCar 2018 by Diego Rodriguez

By ,

Diego Rodriguez (BELOW) is a partner at IDEO – a global design company – as well as a founding professor at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University and an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School. And yes, he has a deep love of IndyCar.

To create a vibrant future for IndyCar in 2018 and beyond, our conversation needs to focus on much more than just the car. IndyCar is a very complex sport, with a range of important competing factors.

Wouldn’t it be great to have some simple guidelines to help cut through all the strategic tire smoke? Here are three design principles to serve that purpose. Let’s use these to forge a bright future for IndyCar:

1. The Business Model How might we ensure that IndyCar is a profitable (and therefore sustainable) venture for all involved?

2. The Technology Platform How might we structure the rulebook to create awesome races where the best driver and team wins?

3. The Human Experience How might we create an authentic, meaningful, world-class experience for fans, drivers, team members, technology suppliers, and commercial sponsors?

It’s about achieving a balance across these design principles: if IndyCar is to be remarkable and sustainable, all three need to be wound together and solved simultaneously.

The following provocations are informed by my abiding passion for the sport, and as such, I humbly hope they capture the spirit of what IndyCar can become.

The Business Model

Starting with a clean sheet of paper, IndyCar must design a new business model with profitability as a built-in, shock-proof feature. This business model should harmonize with the human experience and the technology platform to create something that can thrive for decades. Each of these elements can be optimized alone, but when balanced together they will make IndyCar soar.

Money isn’t the reason IndyCar is in business, but it’s a force that can’t be ignored. By acknowledging its power as a constraint, you can follow the money to build a better business. Embracing constraints leads to creative breakthroughs. Think Colin Chapman and his pursuit of lightness. In that spirit, here are some proposed business model constraints:

  1. A well-managed team should hit a 10 percent net margin
  2. Drivers should be paid, not paying
  3. Technology providers must see a clear upside to their participation
  4. Commercial sponsors see it as a crucial element of their marketing mix

It’s critical to use these constraints to guide the design of the human experience and technology platform for 2018. For example, an enlightened rulebook can keep technology costs down, as well as attract technology providers who want to showcase capabilities and train high potential future leaders. A compelling narrative structure will make it much easier for sponsors to justify their spending. And the dedication of team employees who see a healthy long-term career in IndyCar will make the series more remarkable over time.

IndyCar must think creatively about the capabilities, processes, and talent it needs to win. Might IndyCar create more value by vertically integrating into chassis production (by purchasing Dallara, for example)? In a post-TV world, should it produce its own media coverage? To stand on top of the podium in the marketplace in 2018, IndyCar’s organization needs to be tuned to match its intended strategy.

The Technology Platform

I’m using the phrase “Technology Platform” instead of “Car”, because it’s not just about the car. The 2018 car should be designed in combination with system factors such as the physics of track safety, a green supply chain, and even new approaches to intellectual property.

From that vantage point, here are six ways to shape the technology platform for 2018:

First, write a rulebook which values freedom and innovation. Embrace performance over “balance of performance” by establishing rules which demarcate the playing field, and then let the best team and driver win, even if they crush everything in their path. Balance this with my sixth point below.

Second, be the safest racing series in the world. With EarthPrix, Robert Clarke forwarded the idea of a standardized “safety capsule”, replete with a canopy, airbags, and crash-tested safety systems. This chassis module could be supplied to teams by IndyCar, ensuring that safety standards are always met and the business value created is captured by the series rather than an outside entity.

Third, surround that safety capsule with a car which looks, sounds, and drives like no other. Today only RACER subscribers can distinguish a Dallara DW12 from a McLaren MP4-29. Starting in 2018, a casual observer should be able to tell them apart in milliseconds. Achieve this via terroir – the French idea that grapes taste like the local soil, water, and air they grow in. IndyCar’s terroir is Indy, Long Beach, and Road America, so distill the essence of those hallowed tracks to create a car that feels uniquely American. Go with a distinctive visual paradigm (e.g., DeltaWing), but make it a massively overpowered, snorting, wicked, bull of a machine which only the AJ Foyt’s of the world can handle. Be bold. [ABOVE: Danny Ongais in the Parnelli at Brands Hatch, 1978.]

Fourth, become a carbon-neutral series, but not via expensive in-car technologies. Must the 2018 car represent the ne plus ultra of energy efficiency? No: F1’s foray into extreme energy scavenging has resulted in a field of hyper-complex yet ultimately underwhelming cars. On the other hand, the ALMS Michelin Green X Challenge demonstrated that by focusing on the environmental parameters of its entire supply chain, a series can strive for carbon neutrality yet still feature extroverted, exciting cars.

Fifth, limit aerodynamic complexity so that wind tunnels aren’t required to design a car—a lone team engineer should be able to use cheap CFD software to identify a prime performance window. Calibrate downforce to the bare minimum needed to keep cars on the ground at Indy. As fans, we want to see cars that squirm, with buckets of Gilles Villeneuve-style pedaling. Above all, invoke what I refer to as the David Hobbs Postulate: the magnitude of one’s attachments, not an arcane aero package, shall dictate one’s lap time.

Finally, supply a standard rolling chassis, but encourage radical hacking [LEFT, Jody Scheckter, Tyrrell P34, Nurburgring 1976]. Think F1 in the 1970s. Six wheels? Gnarly. Four wheel steering? Go for it! But at the end of the season, each team must publish its CAD database to the entire world under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license. Everyone can then employ those ideas for the next season. With this intellectual property mechanism, no team will possess an all-conquering advantage forever. Short-term competitive imbalances make for epic seasons; it’s the perpetual ones that kill a series.

The Human Experience

First things first: IndyCar’s real competition is the universe of experiences we access via the smartphone in our pocket. A TV broadcast of an oval race was once interesting, but today it can’t compare with the splendors of the internet. To compete, IndyCar needs to become world-class at storytelling. Not just compared to other racing series, but against all sports.

People benchmark their experiences across categories, not within them. When it comes to how stories of a race and season are told, IndyCar should endeavor to learn from best-in-class experiences beyond F1 and NASCAR. Look at everything from World Cup Soccer to an American Girl doll store to Disneyland. And examine non-traditional motorsports, too: the Race of Champions is far and away the most exciting and memorable motorsports event I’ve been a part of – with its fast pacing and constant action, there’s never a dull moment.

Who needs TV? Drop those suboptimal TV contracts in favor of reaching a worldwide audience via the web. The world shifted two years ago when Red Bull’s Felix Baumgartner did his 24-mile vertical commute before a live YouTube audience of eight million. Similarly, HBO will soon bypass your friendly local cable purveyor to bring you Daenerys Targaryen direct over the interwebs. Have you tried the WEC iPad app? It rocks. Plenty of people want to watch races, just on their terms, and certainly not on an obscure cable channel.

But what IndyCar really needs is a coherent storytelling narrative. The Indy 500 is incredibly valuable – arguably the Boardwalk of racing – but its position in the early part of the season makes little sense. Instead, in 2018 Indy should be positioned at the climax of a storytelling arc. Yes, I’m suggesting ending the season (and hopefully deciding the championship!) at Indy. Forget about the NFL, and bypass your perennial identity conflict with F1 by starting your season in the early Fall, going through the Winter (warm-weather races in Brazil and Dubai and Australia [BELOW, Surfers Paradise] and Texas and Florida and LA!), and finishing with a mega finale at Indianapolis. With this approach, you’ll have little overlap with F1, and you can crown your hero(ine) in high drama at your one race recognized by a worldwide audience.

Be Different

What this all boils down to is the courage to be different in ways that are meaningful to fans, drivers, and all the stakeholders in IndyCar. A fast, safe, and distinctive car, an exciting season narrative, and a web-centric media strategy together will do wonders to reignite interest. Underpinned with a profitable business model, IndyCar can be not only sustainable, but remarkable.

Use these three design principles to create an IndyCar that’s bold, brave, and awesome. Everyone loves a winning racer. Go win!

RACER would like you to send your thoughts and ideas to and we will compile them and send them on to IndyCar.