PERSPECTIVE | Racing on Belle Isle

After a three year absence, the sweet sound of racing cars has returned to Belle Isle in Detroit.   For the local car designers and CCS students,  this is a weekend of fun and inspiration.  For Detroit area businesses, it’s a weekend to make money.  And for the IndyCar Series, it’s round six in a season that has seen some dramatic changes — then again, maybe not dramatic enough…

As I roamed the paddock today, I snapped this picture of two Penske mechanics polishing wheels.  It wasn’t until later on that I realized what this photo represents — a microcosm of the event itself.  Everyone here — the auto companies, the IndyCar series and, of course, the City of Detroit — are hell-bent on showing everyone how great things are.   And to everyone’s credit, this is a world class event.  The island looks beautiful, the competition on the track is tight, and it certainly feels like things are on the upswing.  But there is the old adage that states, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  An adage that could be applied to this event…

IndyCar racing has been going through something of an identity crisis in recent years.  At one time, the series was bristling with creativity and variety — up to four different chassis and engines were competing on the track.  But slowly, the formula degenerated into little more than a spec series with one chassis and one engine.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the series has seemed obsessed with selling its brand as an open wheel version of NASCAR — a strategy that, quite frankly, I find creatively bankrupt.  The garishness of this marketing approach is very apparent if one steps into an IndyCar merchandise tent on Belle Isle.  The outlook in terms of machinery is far better; the series having trotted out a new Dallara chassis and turbocharged V6 engines from three different brands:  Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus.  On the surface, it appears that the series is returning to its roots.  The next step is to have more than one chassis, which will lead to even more competition between the manufacturers, and ultimately, rekindle the creative fire that defined Indy racing in the 80s and 90s.

As a car designer, I know full well that if you want to stand out in a crowd, the last thing you want to do is what everyone else is doing.  As much as IndyCar racing has embraced change with a new car and new engines, it still lacks the individualism that made it so strong in the past.  They’re on their way back to that individualism, but they need to keep looking inward (not outward) if they want to get there…

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