A Swift response to the Delta Wing

Posted by Iannucci | 2/22/2010 | , , | 9 comments »
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It would appear that "Delta Wing" is the new "Tony George" inasmuch as the mere mention of the two words seems to send IndyCar fans into a frothy fit of syllable-based bomb throwing. To keep stoking this fire of conversation, the Delta Wing has been sending members of it's group out for various interview hither and yon to sell their "concept" which many race fans have mistaken for an actual vehicle. Meanwhile other would-be suitors for the 2012 IndyCar chassis have been curiously silent, saying nothing but a few humble techincal words on PDFs containing their own designs while enduring the Delta Wing full frontal assault by team owners amounting to "Take this design or shove it!"

That is (Jack Arute voice) until now.

Many of you may not realize that our buddy Bill at pressdog.com was once a newspaper reporter, which in revelation may help explain the the name of his site. (See, you CAN learn something from a blog!) Today he decided to go more "press" with only minimal "dogging" in hunting down Swift chief scientist Mark Page. You might recall Swift as the kind folks who presented this as an idea.

Show THAT to some 10-year-olds and get back to us with your survey results. But before you do, give Mr Page's interview at pressdog a read, as there is much to be gained by anyone who cares even one whit about the future of this sport. It doesn't take long before you figure out two things about Page: he's quite excited to discuss designs relatign to the 2012 chassis, and he's very eager to work with the IRL whichever chassis solution they decide.

“Whatever the IRL decides about the 2012 car, we want to be involved”
See, I told you so.

There are a boatload of issues available for discussion relating to this single interview, but three in particular seem to stick out as issues that need to be resolved before Swift, Delta Wing, or anyone else for that matter are handed the keys to the future of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Rectangles and triangles

We started with the stated objectives from IRL. They chose to give objectives instead of specs, which gave us freedom to innovate...The car had to be a modernized IndyCar. To us, that was open-wheel, with a rear-engine, and four corners. Wings were optional.
We have heard and read many interviews with Delta Wing lead designer Ben Bowlby, and although there has been much discusses exactly none of them have involved asking the single question I would ask: Does it HAVE to be a tricycle? (I know it actually has four wheels, but those two up front are 24 inches apart, and I've read early designs actually involved a single front wheel. And it certainly doesn't have "four corners".)

Compare this in terms of a different automotive innovation. In the mid-1990s, a particular American auto manufacturer wanted to come up with a vehicle that would meet the changing needs of consumers, that would be able to be made at a lower cost than it's rivals, and that would have unique looks that were sure to turn heads. This resulted in...TA DA!

The Ponitac Aztek was disaster as an automobile because too many consumer couldn't get beyond the look of the thing, and it provides a wonderful lesson about the concept of "the concept". Despite all the money that might be saved by the concept of the Delta Wing, the fact is it stopped being a concept for most fans when the tarp came off the thing and the simulation videos were unleashed for us to actually SEE the concept. And that's exactly the point where the air went out of the balloon, because from then on it’s been nothing but "man parts" jokes in the comments of every story featuring a picture of the Delta Wing.

While much of this could be rectified if they could just change the car to have "four corners", if you listen to Ben Bowlby on a recent Trackside show and if you read some of the information at the Delta Wing site you’ll quickly notice that one thing that holds this adventure in engineering together is that eye-sore of a front end. The 24-inch track with the lack of wings that gives the whole design its man-parts-iness are extremely critical to this entire design.

In other words, the very things that make it not so much an IndyCar to many are the very essence of what make it a Delta Wing. Bowlby didn't explicitly say it but it sounds like he can’t expand the front wheelbase without making all of the science behind the whole concept go out the window. It would be most helpful to know if this is in fact true, because if the front track could be expanded a little and the rear reduced from 70 inches then we might be looking at something that looks a bit better.

Tony Johns at Pop Off Valve shows an idea.

I can only speak for myself, but as a fan I can take a 300 horsepower engine, I can take the lack of wings, and I could even someday embrace the giant freaking airplane wing on the model. I can take the any number of radical changes presented by the Delta Wing in the name of innovation, but I simply cannot see the relevance of watching a race involving three-wheeled vehicles.

The not-so-free market

The DeltaWing’s concept of “open source” gets a little more skepticism from Page and Swift.

“There are two ways to look at it,” he said. “One is that different part makers making the same parts, therefore additional competition encourages better pricing. That’s a very strong argument. The other one is that you let competitors go into the wind tunnel and develop their own special bits -- If that extends to the entire car -- the money proposition doesn’t come close to closing.”
As I mentioneed earlier, one of the selling points Delta Wing's Ben Bowlby made was that the engineering committee for Delta Wing would take design submissions from anyone, evaluate the product, put a price on the product, and make it available to everyone. Well, it could be that the "put a price on the product" part seems like the built-in protection for higher-budgeted teams like Penske or Ganassi.

Let's say The Captain develops some super unobtanium-based nosecone that costs like $200,000 to build. OK, that's a $200,000 part that anyone can buy, but how may teams are going to buy that part? I'm thinking two.

I can't tell for sure but it appears there are all kinds of places for tweaking the "concept" or the "open source" Delta Wing, especially in technology that extends beyond the surface of the car. I don't know how much the Delta Wing would standardize, but what about computer related parts that work internally? Or gearings? Or the part that's become the most highly designed on the current car - the shock absorbers?

Please note that I'm not saying the Delta Wing should be rejected on this facet. I understand this is what the vested parties in the parts buying game - that is, the owners - are relishing, and if it significantly helps them from bleeding money like a mortgage lender then it needs to be given huge consideration.

But open source does not mean equal source, and given that for the foreseeable future some teams will have significantly more funding than others it would be disingenuous to portray the Delta Wing as some sort of great leveler of the playing field. Ultimately what needs to be addressed is not only the cost of competition but also the competition itself. You know, the actual racing product that right now produces two teams that win nearly every race.

This is not to say that Swift or any other manufacturer have the perfect solution, but Swift has also propsed a "Mushroom buster" in their designs, which shows that they are at least thinking about how to make cars that can actually pass each other. IndyCar fans have seen enough "lock step" races recently to last several lifetimes.

On a side note, between "Push To Pass" and "Mushroom Busters" it appears the future of IndyCar racing is inextricably linked to Mario Kart.

For the love of the fans

I started re-reading IndyCar articles in RACER magazine. Then we all hit the internet to see what fans were saying on blogs. Also, we received a lot of positive feedback on the FN09 car. But the most important thing was to show our concepts publicly, long before everything was set in stone. Internet blogs and polls have provided tremendous feedback. We think this could be used a few more times in the car’s development. This lets the fans direct the design. Our notion is to generate feasible options, present them to the world, and in three days you have the answer.
At somepoint all of this scientific acheivment accomplished by the new chassis design has to translate beyond concepts and become actual ticket sales and TV ratings and maybe even merchandising arrangements. And at the end of every single one of those goals is a consumer who needs to be given something of value for their entertainment dollar.

This isn't being mentioned as a display of some massive enlightenment on my part, but rather to show how Mr Page gets this particular "concept" - the one that involves paying customers. Just as Dallara and Lola have submitted designs that have been made available to the general public, so to has Swift, and Page makes no excuses for saying that seeking feedback has "let the fans direct our design". He's no dummy, because Page knows that while the IRL principals need to meet certain thresholds of performance, safety, and cost, they also need to have something that looks appealing at first glance.

This is why it is absurd to insist we need to think about designs for a few days and only then decide whether or not they are appealing. First impressions are profound, and if the IndyCar series is ever going to grow it's base of popularity they need to have cars that on first glance don't look revolting to a significant portion of the public.

If a TV ad comes on with a car someone finds ridiculous then they won't be inclined to buy the product, and if another someone is channel surfing and finds a race with cars that they think look ridiculous they aren't going to "take a few days" to consider watching. The IRL can't afford to make a mistake here, because no amount of shoe-pounding about form over function or 10-year-olds is going to change those initial reactions.

The saving grace of this is that Delta Wing and Swift aren't mutually exclusive. While we can debate all we want about our favorite chassis "concept" submitted thusfar, there is still the chance that the Delta Wing is re-conceptualized to look more like a car and less like man-parts, and if those changes are made Page says Swift would be delighted to work with the platform. In that respect the Delta Wing COULD be the best of all possible worlds as a concept, because it allows for multiple manufacturers to compete in the series. And you probably noticed there aren't a lot of companies beating a path to participate in the IRL.

But now is the time for discussion and feedback, and hopefully ALL potential owners of the next iteration of IndyCar chassis will listen to the positives AND THE NEGATIVES of their current proposals. In Bill's words, "keep talking", because ultimately you are the one with the time and money that will help sustain and elevate this sport.

On a final note I highly urge you to leave feedback at the HVM Racing site on this subject, as well as vote in THIS POLL. I'm pretty sure it's being watch closely by officials at 16th and Georgetown. While decisions will probably not be based on this alone, it does give the league an idea of what YOU want to see in the next generation of IndyCar - and that ain't a bad thing at all.


  1. Anonymous // February 22, 2010 12:24 PM  

    Maybe next, somebody will point out that nothing gets built until an engine spec is defined.

    Delta's choice of a $140K engine was a requirement for their low gross weight. I'd argue that the ARE's expense is not necessary to suit the power requirements of the other chassis.

    I thought the Dallara #3 was a good concept rendering: if you extend the sidepods forward on their drawing, and delete part of the engine cowling, don't you wind up with essentially the same configuration as the Swift #32?

    Either one works for me, that gets the safety factor of wheel contact handled, and yields a race car quite distinctive from F1.

    Andy Bernstein

  2. JP // February 22, 2010 1:25 PM  

    If memory serves, the open source part of the philosophy also stated that the developer had to offer the enhanced part at market value to the standard part, so if Penske developed a $100k replacement to a part that is $10k on the spec vehicle they would have to sell it @ $10k and not $100k. That serves to limit just how much uber engineering goes on.

  3. Anonymous // February 22, 2010 2:32 PM  


    Yours is a good example of how the open source concept is an advantage. The negative is that suppliers cannot recoup the cost for design and prototyping, or for intellectual property.

    Fixed cost for the components earns the supplier a royalty, but somebody has to pay the freight for design work which does not come straight from Delta blueprints.

    Otherwise, it's spec cars from spec component designs, isn't it?

  4. pressdog // February 23, 2010 6:55 AM  

    Yes, yes. Well spoken. Agree agree. The Pontiac Aztek is the PERFECT illustration of function-led form that NOBODY WANTS TO BUY. Thanks for the festival of linkage.

  5. The SpeedGeek // February 23, 2010 7:47 AM  

    Actually, the flaw with the Aztek analogy is that the Aztek was possibly the most "focus grouped" car ever built by Detroit. They actually asked *too many* people what it should be. It's a fantastic illustration of how focus groups will lead you to stuff like good ergonomics and a nice, functional interior (both of which the Aztek had in spades, and bravo to GM for getting that right), but that stuff like great styling is best left to people who, you know, know how to style cars. Otherwise, you wind up with the Homer Simpson-mobile.

    I just think that the "styling" of the Delta Wing is a case of form completely taking a back seat to function. That's OK when you're selling stuff like power tools, beacuse nobody cares much about how one drill looks compared to another. However, when you're selling a product that is supposed to elicit a passionate response from the customer, then it's probably a good idea to make sure that a huge percentage of your potential customer base doesn't have a passionately negative response. It's a case where they could make a 10-20% concession in the "function" column (i.e. a little more drag, a little more power to offset that drag) and make a 50-60% gain in the "form" column (i.e. the car not looking like something from an adult toy shop anymore). Unfortunately, from what Bowlby's been saying through Cavin and other outlets, it doesn't sound like that's in the cards for the DW. Too bad.

  6. The SpeedGeek // February 23, 2010 8:40 AM  

    The part of the Aztek analogy that I do like, though, is that GM messed up their desired customer versus their actual customers. GM styled the Aztek so that it would appeal to Gen-Xers and the "young folks", what with their tattoos and their piercings and their baggy pants, and who like the X-treme sports and the rap music or whatever. Only problem was, those people, even if they did like it (it's not entirely clear if they did, though I doubt it) could not afford a brand new Pontiac Aztek. The people who could afford a brand new Pontiac Aztek (soccer moms, NASCAR dads, whatever other middle age-ish demo you might come up with) all thought the thing was hideous, and so they basically never sold any.

    Moral to the story: you can not chase a new demographic while completely ignoring your current demographic. If you do something that encourages your current fanbase to abandon you and your new fanbase never shows up, you go out of business. This is what IndyCar (and the group behind the Delta Wing) needs to keep in mind.

  7. Iannucci // February 23, 2010 8:44 AM  

    I compared the Aztek to the DeltaWing in terms of visceral reaction - not in terms of total design process.

    People can make arguments of the awesome functionality of either vehicle, but this is entertainment and not a science class. If the looks are repulsive to a significant portion of the public then it will fail as a product.

  8. The SpeedGeek // February 23, 2010 9:48 AM  

    Point taken. I guess I missed your original point a little bit.

    I think we're almost 100% together on the second thing there. I just think that there can be a balance between "sport-ertainment" and "science class". It doesn't have to be just one or the other. I think that you can keep the portion of the fanbase who are here for the entertainment aspect (the folks who are into rooting for favorite drivers, and folks who like close, photo-finish racing) while also making the cars more interesting to the "car guys" who are not interested in spec racing, all while not blowing costs out the roof. It's a delicate ballet to perform, but I think with the right brains in the room, it can be done.

    To clarify my point, which may have gotten lost in all that freaking text I wrote (and a point that you're making too, Jeff): I think the Delta Wing guys *should* make concessions on the appearance of the car. There's no reason whatsoever that the cars should be limited to 300-325 HP. If they increase the drag by 40% over the Chicago show car (by, say, widening the nose and putting the front wheels further apart), then 450 HP will do the same thing that 300 will for the Chicago car. 450 HP would actually be a de-tuned number for the Mazda ALMS engine. De-tuned = better fuel economy, better reliability and more time between rebuilds (this for an engine that can already do 12 and 24 hour races). I don't get why the DW guys are steadfastly saying "the car is going to be a triangle; no ifs, ands or buts". I think they're cutting their own throat in the court of fan opinion there.

  9. Unknown // February 25, 2010 8:23 PM  

    Well said. The goals of the Delta are laudable but the product is laughable. That design would be a sad end to Indycar.