The DeltaWing Indy Race Car Is Not Only the Future: It’s Important!
Not only do they look like 5th generation fighter aircraft and hit speeds of over 230 mph, but they do it with small turbocharged 4-cylinder engines, similar to the ones in the Ford Focus. They get great mileage from 2nd generation biofuels and their fuselages (isn’t that the term for airplanes?) are built from bioplastics that are also recyclable.
On top of all that, these “DeltaWing” racers cost ½ as much as their slower, more inefficient predecessors.
For some long-time race fans, it’s been hard to adjust eyes that were used to seeing the same winged creations race since the middle 1970s.
But new fans were not encumbered with these preconceptions. Instead little kids wanted Hot WheelsTM versions of these cars that look like the ones they draw on their computers while not doing schoolwork. NASCAR fans found themselves drawn to the speed and the flat out novelty of these new cars. (Admittedly some were becoming hardcore Danica fans.) In addition, because the DeltaWing cars used “open architecture” small underfunded teams were suddenly competitive. This made for great stories on all forms of media which attracted fans of other sports who loved rooting for underdogs.
Even more surprising was another contingent of new fans. These people found the sport when they heard about these Green cars and how techie the Indy 500 had suddenly become. Recycled bioplastics, open source architecture, and low-impact 2nd generation biofuels getting up to 20 mpg at 200 mph? They tuned in and found something they didn’t know they liked. They could enjoy the speed, competition, drivers, and excitement without feeling guilty about Carbon Footprints. And, if these technologies were being developed at Indy, when would they be available in road cars? When would lightweight, very safe, and very efficient vehicles be ready for sale?
Now you’re probably asking, would this scenario ever happen or is it just the pipedream of some biofueled technofreak?
The DeltaWing Project
At the Chicago Auto Show in early February 2010, the concept race car pictured above was introduced as the DeltaWing Racer by a group of leading Indy racing teams. Working together as Deltawing Racing Cars LLC, the DeltaWing Racer is being promoted as a complete paradigm change in open-wheel racing. Their goal is stated as:
“Half the power, half the weight, half the drag, half the cost, half the fuel, but still the same high speed.”
In their presentation and press releases (www.deltawingracing.com) they use terms like: sustainability, environmentally responsible, responding to the rising cost of energy, and relevance to more than the racing audience.
The DeltaWing group also talks about realignment with the automobile industry and making Indy Car racing a showcase for American design and engineering excellence, much as it had been from its inception in 1911 until about the mid 1990s.
So, how much of this is hype and greenwashing and how much is reality? I’ve been looking at their website, reading articles and interviews of the principles involved and exchanging e-mails to try to get a handle on this. So here goes.
It Will Happen, and the BioFuel and BioProduct Community Should Be a Part of It
My personal opinion is that the 2012 switch to the DeltaWing, or something very close to it will happen. My other opinion is that after a slow start, this emphasis on energy efficiency and new bio-based technologies will be common to all forms of car racing, even NASCAR.
Here are my four reasons why DeltaWing will bring fans and success back to Indy car racing and offer an important technological and marketing platform for biofuels and bioproducts.
First, the team owners behind DeltaWing acknowledge that the sport is in financial trouble. Even before the economy collapsed in 2008 auto racing of all types, and especially Indy car were losing fans and sponsorship money. The Indianapolis 500 used to be the premiere motorsports event in the US. Stars like Clark Gable and Paul Newman made movies about it. (Now its NASCAR’s “Talladega Nights,” a great movie by the way.) But, helped along by warring sanctioning bodies, a lack of American drivers, and a stagnant vehicle design, Indy car racing became irrelevant to all but a very small, and aging, core audience.
The arrival of Danica Patrick in 2005 revived the sport somewhat and added a younger and more female audience, but without an Indianapolis 500 victory and Danica shifting her racing focus to NASCAR, “Danicamania” alone is not saving Indy.
Second, many of the key people in the sport saw that a new direction was needed to rebuild the popularity of Indy Car racing in North America. At a “green racing” seminar I attended in August 2008 in Detroit, people like 1986 Indy 500 champion and team owner Bobby Rahal stressed the importance of making racing “relevant” to the general public.
Instead of pursuing the NASCAR model which focuses on providing entertainment, Rahal and others said that the sport needed to go back to the roots of Indy car racing, which was serving as a testing ground for automotive technology, to reclaim their audience. Back to the Future as it were.
A key part of this re-integration with the automotive industry is the adoption of energy efficiency and environmental stewardship as primary goals. Currently, they are the salient technology and marketing directions of the automotive industry. Not only are improved fuel mileage technologies required to meet EPA regulations, but they are seen as important marketing drivers-witness hybrid vehicles. The DeltaWing group hopes this approach will make Indy car racing relevant and hence popular with people that currently dismiss it.
Third, and probably the most important aspect of the DeltaWing proposal, is the major reduction in costs. This reflects the reality that despite using a one-design car that is now seven years old and a relatively low-powered sole-source engine (to borrow that old advertising slogan) “Indy Car Racing Costs Too Much!” For example a one-year lease, that’s right a lease not a purchase, of the sole-source medium tech Honda engine is reported to cost about $1 million dollars. The DeltaWing proposal includes potentially stock-based 2.0L 4-cylinder turbocharged engines that would last a minimum of 4,000 miles between rebuilds. Since most Indy Car races are less than 300 miles and have less than 100 miles of practice and qualifying, one engine could last up to eight or nine races. That is half the current season of seventeen races. If a number of different automobile manufacturers offer engines (listening Ford, GM, and VW?) engine prices could really drop dramatically.
If their goal of “½ the price” is met, two important tasks would be accomplished. First, it would allow existing teams to keep competing with limited funding during the rebuilding phase. This will keep a good product on the track to bring in new fans and sponsors. Second, teams with quality crews and drivers that race in lower cost racing circuits will be able to move up. This will increase qualifying competition which will lead to a higher quality racing product.
Fourth, while the looks of the DeltaWing car displayed at Chicago are highly controversial, commenters on various sites have unfavorably compared it to Speed Racer’s car and the Batmobile, it reflects the reality that the next generation of Indy Car fans will be coming from the video gaming ranks. If gamers are able to race around in wild looking creations on their screens, they aren’t going to pay to see dull looking cars on race tracks. For historical comparison, when the rear-engined Lotus cars, which are the basis of the current cars, appeared at Indianapolis in 1963 similar comments were made.
What DeltaWing Means for the Biofuel and BioProduct Community
I think the DeltaWing could become a significant Technological and Marketing Platform for Biofuels and BioProducts.
Fuels and Engines
Because of the light weight and low drag of the DeltaWing design, considerably less power would be needed to achieve current speeds of over 200 mph. The engine design being considered is a turbocharged 4 cylinder engine in the 2.0L range that would produce 300+ hp and last for at least 4,000 miles. This is very close to the power range of existing production engines. For example; the 2010 Mazda Speed3 (list price $24,000) uses a 2.3L 4 cylinder engine that produces 263 hp and comes with a limited 36,000 mile/3 year warranty.
There is however, one extra trick being added to this engine concept: a fuel flow rate control regulator. The idea behind this is to promote increased engine thermal efficiency and fuel mileage. The race will go to not just the fastest driver, but also the racer getting the best fuel economy.
The challenge offered by this formula of using production based engine technologies like variable timing and sequential turbocharging used in eco-boost engines, in combination with high octane and high energy content biofuels such as biobutanol should be something both engine and biofuel scienctists and engineers should welcome.
The results of these efforts would not only be exceptional racing engines but more importantly, production Multi-Fuel engines that would deliver mileage and performance well in excess of what is currently expected no matter what fuel is used.
Now, before every American ethanol producer sends me a nasty e-mail, I well know the tragedy of Paul Dana’s death in 2006 at the Homestead, FL track and the bad-blood that arose between IRL (the Indy racing sanctioning body) and the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council (EPIC) that resulted in EPIC ending their contract with IRL in late 2008 and Indy Cars switching to Brazilian supplied bioethanol in 2009.
I only ask that 2nd and 3rd generation biofuel suppliers and technologists try to look forward to the breakthroughs offered by this clean-sheet approach and think of the potential the combination of new engines and new fuels offers for the future widespread use of homegrown, sustainable biofuels.
In an e-mail from Bill Lafontaine, Chief Marketing Officer of the DeltaWing Racing Cars, he describes the bioproducts that would be used in the crash protection structure of the car.
“We are working on a polypropylene core between carbon epoxy matrix skins replacing the conventional aluminum honeycomb core. The advantage is that we can reduce the amount of carbon very significantly and achieve not only equal energy absorption but also better anti intrusion and anti rupture in impact modes. The polypropylene is of course fully recyclable being a thermo-plastic and now the PP can be produced from bio-mass.”
The US Dept. of Energy has been talking about potential markets for bioproducts for a number of years without actually putting any money into market building projects. If the DeltaWing structure were to be based primarily on biobased polymers, this could be the type of breakthrough application that could launch the bioproducts industry.
If this low-carbon, light-weight monocoque body structure could be economically transferred to production truck and car construction it could provide the weight savings needed to achieve the EPA fuel economy standards of 2020 and beyond.
I guess what excites me about the DeltaWing is that some people looked at a problem and decided to really find a solution, no matter how radical it might appear, rather than deciding to just muddle through and hope for the best. There is so much muddling through and calls for only incremental changes in both government and business that it is a blast of good clean fresh air. I hope it blasts its way through the accumulated inertia and bureaucracy of automotive racing and starts a revolution in how we can make our dreams of a high performance, energy efficient, and sustainable biobased future a reality.