2012: A Summer of Intrigue

By Larry Edsall

Though they are nearly a year away, I’m already looking forward to two races next June. First, the 80th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, followed a few days later by the 90th Climb to the Clouds, the race up Pikes Peak.

Only the now century-old Indianapolis 500 has accumulated more motorsports history than Le Mans or Pikes Peak.

It used to be that one of the big attractions at Indy was automotive innovation. Not anymore. That title has shifted to Le Mans, which in recent years has encouraged such technologies as diesel engines and hybrid powertrains to be applied to world-class racing cars, enhancing their development for the road as well as the race track.

Personally, I find this willingness to allow innovation remarkable coming from Le Mans, which is, after all, run by a bureaucracy of Frenchmen. As a sports and motorsports writer, I’ve dealt with those French bureaucrats -- both at Le Mans and at the International Olympic Committee (which despite its international composition is, at heart, a French bureaucracy) -- and trying new things is something those bureaucrats -- in fact, all bureaucrats, regardless of nationality -- do only with the greatest reluctance.

And yet, next year Le Mans shifts innovation into an even higher gear with the new Garage 56, which expands the potential starting field to include the DeltaWing, a radical car, a V-winged rocket on wheels so innovative in aerodynamic design and small-displacement powertrain engineering that it fits into its own unique category.

In this case, Indy’s loss is Le Mans’ gain, because the original DeltaWing car was created as part of the competition to design the next-generation Indy-type racer.

When the various designs were revealed, I hoped the Indy Racing League wouldn’t settle on just one, but would re-open the race to multiple configurations, turning back the clock to those exciting days of roadster vs. rear-engine, turbines vs. Offys, wedges vs. wings, perhaps even to a driver lineup that included everyone from former USAC dirt trackers to the stars of Formula One and NASCAR.

I’d say “alas,” but actually this may end up being even more intriguing because Dan Gurney’s been brought back into the picture. Gurney helped create the rear-engine revolution at Indy, and later brought stock block engines back to the track. He also co-drove a Ford GT40 to victory at Le Mans, with none other than A.J. Foyt himself.

Now, Gurney’s All-American Racers will join designer Ben Bowlby and the Highcroft Racing team to build and race a revised DeltaWing (now with headlights and other alternations needed for round-the-clock racing) under the Project 56 banner.

The presence of the DeltaWing at Le Mans should be very interesting. However, if you want real variety on a starting grid, Pikes Peak is the place to be. There, , everything from street-legal sports cars to semi-tractors -- and classes of creations unique to hill climbing -- race up the road. And while that road is a mere 12.42 miles, the challenge is as daunting as 500 miles at Indy or 24 hours in France, because those 12.42 miles include 4720 feet -- nearly one mile! -- of elevation increase, and a decrease in oxygen for the powerplant and the driver, who has to stay alert through 156 twists and turns on a course where a mistake doesn’t put you into a SAFER barrier but literally off the mountain.

Actually, many drivers hang a wheel off the mountain on a routine basis. A few years ago, I asked rally racer and future Pikes Peak record-holder Rod Millen to take me through the course, him driving my rental car and me sitting shotgun, taking notes.

It was amazing to hear how Millen had memorized those 156 turns (he subdivided them into smaller groups), but a various times he’d note “I put a wheel off here.”

Finally, I asked him what he meant, putting a wheel off. So he showed me. Turns out the fastest way up the road was to occasionally put one of your four wheels out beyond the roadway into the literally thin air. Rod being Rod, when he demonstrated, he used the right-front wheel, meaning that for a fraction of a second, the front-seat passenger -- ME! -- also was hanging out over the cliff.

Millen established his record climb -- 10 minutes, 4.06 seconds -- back in 1994 when the road to the the summit was gravel. Since then, it’s been paved here and there. This year, when 60-year-old Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima became the first person to reach the summit in less than 10 minutes -- a remarkable time of 9:51.278 -- only three miles of gravel remained.

Before next year’s race, the city of Colorado Springs says it will complete paving the entire route. Yes, that will change the complexion of the event. Yes, old-timers and young traditionalists will lament the end of an era.

But covering the entire route with pavement just might uncover new interest in the race. Having a solid surface from start to finish could attract new entrants, from auto makers and racing teams to drivers whose only experience has been on paved surfaces.

Racing next June could be both innovative and very interesting.