INSIGHT: How an IndyCar-bred concept drove IMSA'S resurgence

INSIGHT: How an IndyCar-bred concept drove IMSA'S resurgence

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: How an IndyCar-bred concept drove IMSA'S resurgence

By

Randy Bernard’s stint as the CEO of IndyCar lasted less than three years, a turbulent period for the Hulman-George family and American open-wheel racing as a whole as the industry began to extricate itself from Tony George’s 20-year reign of power.

Bernard, the former leader of the Professional Bull Riders tour, has moved on to bigger and better things since IndyCar politics forced him out of his role in late 2012 – he’s co-manager for his longtime friend, country music star Garth Brooks. But the Bernard era ultimately produced a concept or formula that is currently being used with great success – albeit not by IndyCar, but instead by the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

What Bernard – or more accurately, what the team of industry experts he assembled as the so-called ICONIC Committee (Innovative – Competitive – Open-Wheel – New – Industry Relevant – Cost Effective) conceived in mid-2010 was the idea of taking a basic spec chassis and allowing participating engine manufacturers to design their own bodywork, or aero kits, consisting of bespoke sidepods, engine cover, and front and rear wings.

“Aerodynamic bodywork is the key differentiating factor in racing car design, both visually and technically,” said ICONIC committee member Tony Purnell, the former head of Pi Electronics and the Jaguar F1 team. “Clothing the safety cell can be done with a fraction of the development cost compared to developing an entire vehicle.

“It’s a revolutionary strategy opening the door for many to rise to the challenge. We believe an industry-relevant approach will attract more manufacturers to the series. We want to challenge the auto and aerospace industry. This is an opportunity to test your technical prowess without breaking the piggy bank.”

Aero kits finally arrived in the IndyCar Series in 2015, a classic example of ‘be careful what you wish for’ as Chevrolet and Honda produced aerodynamic atrocities with semi-enclosed rear wheels that blurred the line between IndyCars and sports cars. The aero kits were a costly dead-end that failed to attract additional manufacturers to IndyCar, created no linkage or relevance to Honda and Chevrolet street cars, and most importantly, did nothing to grow the fan base or enhance the quality of on-track competition.

Maybe those semi-sports cars that masqueraded as IndyCars from 2015 to ’17 were what inspired IMSA to come up with the Daytona Prototype International (DPi) formula it introduced in 2017. Participating manufacturers could commit to an alliance with one of four approved LMP2 chassis builders (Dallara, Ligier, Multimatic, and Oreca), and create new bodywork with brand-specific styling cues. Additionally, while LMP2 mandated a common 4.2-liter Gibson V-8, the DPi formula required the use of production-based engines, with considerable freedom in this area.

These cars featured a higher level of technology and were far more visually appealing and popular among fans than the earlier generations of Daytona Prototypes they replaced. The DPi class immediately attracted entries from General Motors and its Cadillac brand, along with Honda Performance Development/Acura, Mazda, and Nissan. The promised diversity was delivered, with four, six, and eight-cylinder engines, and cars you could easily tell apart on track.

The six-year DPi formula was hugely important for IMSA, helping American sports car racing regain respectability as it emerged as a single entity from its own ‘split’. Perhaps most importantly, the success of DPi enhanced IMSA’s credibility on a worldwide basis, which brings us to where we are today: the evolution of DPi into LMDh (Le Mans Daytona hybrid), signifying a new era of cooperation and collaboration between IMSA and the FIA World Endurance Championship.

IndyCar’s manufacturer aero kit era was relatively short-lived, but the idea of bespoke bodywork laid over an off-the-shelf chassis has been a huge success in IMSA. Leland Hill/Motorsport Images

Not only has the next generation of IMSA prototypes already attracted WeatherTech Championship entries from Porsche/Multimatic, Acura/Oreca, Cadillac, and BMW (both partnered with Dallara), a common hybrid system will allow those manufacturers to compete with cars built to the WEC Hypercar formula by manufacturers Toyota, Peugeot, and Ferrari for overall victory in WEC races including the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The shared hybrid system also permits WEC Hypercars to enter IMSA events, with Hypercars and LMDh cars grouped together in a top class called GTP.

While Hypercar still encourages a cost-no-object, fully in-house design and development approach, LMDh is a far more cost-effective option thanks to its clever marriage of a (relatively) mass-produced center spine and manufacturer specific engine and bodywork.

That’s one of the reasons that Porsche chose to take the LMDh route of partnering with Multimatic, rather than handling the whole vehicle itself in the tradition of legendary prototype programs from 917 to 962.

“This project has many more stakeholders than any project before, because of the standardization,” says Volker Holzmeyer, CEO of Porsche Motorsport North America. “The hybrid system is coming from a partner; that’s a stakeholder, and it’s not like everything is controlled by Porsche. When you’re inventing a 911 RSR, it’s your project and you are in control of everything.

“The good news now is that LMDh is much more standardized, much more strictly homologated, which brings the cost from an LMP1 level down to…let’s call it an affordable level. We all know racing isn’t cheap at all, but standardization and homologation helps us to bring the cost together. That’s a great approach. IMSA and ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest, Le Mans organizers) have done this, and we are just partnering up.”

IndyCar had lofty goals when the ICONIC Committee came up with the aero kit concept, but the series has now reverted to single-spec bodywork (that is thankfully much more attractive) for its now 11-year-old chassis. In hindsight, given the way the racing industry (including NASCAR) has transitioned to a single- or limited-supplier model, the idea was ahead of its time.

“Initially it seemed like we were just choosing a car,” says ICONIC Committee member Tony Cotman. “Instead, we came up with a concept that seems to have addressed all of our stated goals while achieving the impossible – cost reduction.”

With DPi and now LMDh, IMSA took a concept proposed by IndyCar and turned it into an on-track success. Think about that the next time you hear a Garth Brooks song on the radio.

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 9 – ROAD AMERICA

More RACER