DeltaWing IndyCar Concept (© Rod Hatfield)Click to enlarge picture

DeltaWing IndyCar Concept

Once upon a time, the Indianapolis 500 was the most popular race in the United States. By extension, IndyCar racing was America's most popular form of motorsport. That's not the case anymore. In the mid-1990s, while NASCAR was growing in popularity, open-wheel racing self-destructed by splitting up into the CART and the Indy Racing League (IRL) series. Open-wheel racing has since regrouped under the IRL banner, but the series could still use a boost.

In an effort to give it just that, the IRL challenged developers to come up with an all-new chassis design for the 2012 model year. The IRL gave some parameters involving safety and performance, but it also wanted to lower costs for team owners and employ smaller engines with better fuel economy to be more environmentally friendly.

See more pictures of the DeltaWing concept

Four companies responded to the challenge. Here at the 2010 Chicago Auto Show, DeltaWing LLC of Indianapolis unveiled its DeltaWing Indy Concept, a radical race car that combines elements of dragster and previous IndyCar designs with the look of a superhero-style crime cruiser. "We started with a clean-sheet approach for what our vision could be, for not only the next-generation IndyCar but what was the next-generation business model that really propels open-wheel into the future," Bill Lafontaine, DeltaWing's chief marketing officer, says of the new IRL prototype.

The DeltaWing Concept's stunning design lacks a front spoiler and replaces the rear spoiler with an airplane-type tail fin. The front track (the distance between the front wheels) is only 24 inches, while the rear track is stretched to 70 inches. All four wheels are skinnier than the current model's, and the fronts are far thinner. The design puts 72.5 percent of the weight on the rear wheels, which the company says makes for excellent rear traction coming out of corners for the specially developed Firestone Firehawk tires.

Designed for optimal aerodynamic efficiency, the DeltaWing Concept has a slippery 0.24 coefficient of drag. According to Lafontaine, the design would create much less disruptive air flowing over cars behind, allowing for more exciting passes.

DeltaWing also developed the car to meet the IRL's "green" requirements. To be built from carbon fiber, the car would weigh only 1,000 pounds with the driver, about half as much as the current cars. It would also use a smaller engine to achieve the same performance, likely a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, instead of the current 650-horsepower 3.5-liter V8. The company says the DeltaWing would get better than double the fuel mileage of the current cars. "As the whole automotive industry looks at efficiencies and green, motorsports needs to move in that direction," Lafontaine says.

Performance would not be affected. The company claims a top speed of 230-235 mph with the 2.0-liter engine. The chassis is designed to accept an engine from any manufacturer, though the prototype, due by August, will use an engine from AER Manufacturing.

Cost to racing teams is another important factor. Lafontaine says the DeltaWing would cost about $600,000, which is about half of the cost of the current cars. Making racing more affordable could lead to more teams getting involved, which would only enhance the competition.

In addition to DeltaWing, Dallara Automobili (maker of the current IndyCar chassis), Swift Engineering and Lola are submitting chassis proposals. Dallara and Swift have already shown renderings, but the DeltaWing is the first full-size mockup. Should the DeltaWing be picked, those companies and others could be tabbed to build the cars, because DeltaWing LLC sees itself as a technology developer, not a constructor.

The IRL plans to choose its next chassis sometime this summer. No matter what chassis is chosen, IRL racing should be greener, cheaper for race teams and more exciting for fans. That sounds just like the formula the IRL needs.