What major reveal at the Detroit auto show brought in GM Product Chief Mark Reuss, Detroit mogul Roger Penske, racing legend Mario Andretti, and racing superstar Josef Newgarden?
If you answered the new Dallara IndyCar, you’re right.
With a captive audience of some 5,000 auto journalists at Cobo Center, racing organizations have become savvy in using Detroit to do reveals of their own vehicles.
Last year NASCAR unveiled its new Camry racer as part of the Toyota Camry production car debut and this year Acura is showing its new prototype racer (run by Penske’s race team) ahead of this month’s 24 Hours of Daytona.
IndyCar used its press conference to debut its landmark, all-new aerodynamics package — the wings ’n’ things that suck open-wheel race cars to the ground, especially on road courses like the Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle. Italian manufacturer Dallara makes IndyCar’s chassis and aero kits.
But as the celebrities indicate, IndyCar’s high profile brings together a lot of interests, from Big Auto corporate marketing to Detroit’s Renaissance to the place of American racing in the sports marketplace. All those subjects came up on stage in a moderated, post-reveal discussion.
Begin with the new IndyCar introduced by the Hollywood-handsome Newgarden, who won the American open-wheel championship for Team Penske last year.
While most performance cars on the floor tout increased downforce — Chevy’s winged Corvette ZR1 monster boasts nearly 950 pounds, for example — for better cornering, the IndyCar series has experienced the issue of too much downforce. Festooned with aerofoils, last year’s design made a staggering 6,000 pounds of downforce — making the cars faster, but also making them difficult to follow closely so turbulent was their wake (the same reason Boeing 747s can’t follow each other closely on airport landings).
The turbulence makes passing — and therefore, the close-combat racing that drivers and fans alike crave — difficult, so the new IndyCar aero package is redesigned to make 20 percent less downforce.
“We think it’s going to be great. It’s going to mean more passing,” said Newgarden, standing next to a red IndyCar which is more aesthetically appealing without garish winglets crowding the car’s sleek, coke-bottle shape. “It’s going to mean better battles between drivers, and you won’t get that anywhere else in the open-wheel racing world.”
Think ultra-high tech, ultra-high downforce Formula One, which has become a parade with little passing.
“Too much turbulence is what drivers complain about,” said Andretti, still looking racy at 77. “They can’t get close to each other. You have to keep in mind the show itself.”
Every great sporting organization has to put on a show. It’s how they attract crowds, sponsorships, and big bucks.
It’s those crowds that interest GM’s Reuss whose Chevy brand is major sponsor — and engine provider — for the series.
“It’s a great fan base to reach,” he said of the IndyCar series, which saw its TV audience grow 3 percent last year. The Detroit Grand Prix’s doubleheader (called the Dual in Detroit) alone attracted 100,000 spectators and another 1.8 million on ABC’s broadcasts of the weekend event.
Reuss said racing also hones GM technology — especially in competition with arch-rival Honda, which also supplies engines for the series. Henio Arcangeli, Jr., Honda North America’s chief, joined Reuss on stage to tout the importance of the IndyCar series to his company’s marketing and technical strategies. Reuss, a licensed track driver, said the twin-turbo V-6 used by IndyCar trickles down in to the turbo-4 engines found in Chevy production cars like the Camaro and Equinox.
Like any other auto debut, the new IndyCar has to make a business case, and Penske said the new aero package will make racing more affordable — which, in turn, may attract more manufacturers and more competition to the series.
“We could sell out old car chassis, for example, and then a new team would just have to buy the new standard aero kits to outfit them,” said Penske. “Before, it was costly to engineer the aero.” The Captain puts the cost of a new chassis at $500,000. The once-size-fits-all aero kits are another $150,000.
“From a customer, competition, and driver perspective, the new IndyCar is going to be a home run,” he added.
Andretti is the only driver to have ever won the Indianapolis 500 (IndyCar’s marquee event), NASCAR’s Daytona 500, and the Formula One championship. As the car debut wound down, he noticed all the beaming faces on stage.
“If there is a negative in all this, it’s that I don’t have an (IndyCar) ride yet,” he laughed.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.