DETROIT – Mario Andretti enthusiastically offered to drive it for former race team boss and motorsports legend Roger Penske.
Bobby Rahal said it shaped up as the type of open-wheel car he enjoyed piloting in his heyday.
The two iconic retired Indy car drivers threw their considerable clout behind INDYCAR’s new car with its universal aero kit, during last week’s official unveiling at the North American International Auto Show.
“I think this is a huge step in the right direction,” said Andretti, the four-time Indy car champion and 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner, of the sleek, sexy 2018 car, which has shown in testing to be a lively ride in the turns, considerably faster on the straights and a challenge for even the best drivers. “Generating less turbulence, you can actively follow a car closely and be competitive. … You can overtake in this car.”
Rahal, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and winner of the 1986 Indy 500 and three season championships of his own, was optimistic about what he considers a “driver’s car.”
“I think it looks great and I think it’s the type of car that we are going to see put some separation between drivers and teams,” said Rahal, whose team will field son Graham Rahal and 2017 Indy 500 champ Takuma Sato in RLL Hondas this season. “The car will be tougher to drive under braking and in the corners, but that’s the way it should be. We are in for a fun season.”
Andretti, the retired legend who still drives the Indy Racing Experience two-seater at select series races, boldly told Penske on stage, “I’m looking for a ride. I drove for you once.”
Penske shot back with a smile that he’d have a ride for Andretti the following day.
Though good banter from the racing heavyweights, Andretti really would, at 77, race again if the opportunity presented itself, so passionate he is about the sport of open-wheel racing.
“All the testing so far on the new car has been positive,” said Andretti, whose son Michael owns Andretti Autosport and whose grandson Marco is a Verizon IndyCar Series veteran entering his 13th season behind the wheel. “Obviously, (the new car) moves around quite a bit more overall, with its less downforce, but the comments I hear from drivers is that the car is coming alive … more power.”
The universal kit on the Dallara IR-12 chassis debuts this season following three years of competitive aero kit competition between Chevrolet and Honda. INDYCAR designed the new kit with improved aerodynamic and safety standards while also containing costs, but did so with a sleek, bold look reminiscent of favorite Indy car looks of the past.
“I think, for me, it’s a great compromise what they have done. They have built a proper open-wheel car. Finally, the wheels are not covered and that sort of thing. Finally, it doesn’t look like a sports car.
“I think something needed to be done, quite honestly, and I didn’t think they would go this far, but they did. It’s a good thing. Kudos to INDYCAR for really taking a big step forward. This car is beautiful; it’s going back to the pure open-wheel, single-seater.”
Rahal, 65, thinks the new car will not just improve the racing, but possibly attract a third engine manufacturer to compete with Chevrolet and Honda in the series.
“We’ve got two great manufacturers there now, but a third would add to the interest,” Rahal said. “The competitive drive gets greater the more competition you have. When we had Toyota, Ford and Honda, it was a pretty amazing time. I believe the same thing will happen this time around.”
Rahal believes good drivers will only get better in the new car, where most of the downforce will be generated from underneath the car with less turbulence from the rear.
“We have done some straight-line testing with it, and Graham said it accelerates like a Champ Car,” said Rahal. “It could be 20-25 miles faster down the straights at Elkhart (Lake), for example, so that’s going to be interesting. Your braking distances are going to increase as a result. That’s going to present more opportunity for passing, I think.
“In fact, there were races last year where the Chevy (aero) kit was clearly better than the Honda kit at places like Phoenix, Elkhart and others. I think now we are all even from the aero side. So, then it becomes an engine race and a team race, and I kind of like that.”
Will the new car suit his son’s style?
“We will find out,” said Rahal. “But I think so.”
Can the car help boost the popularity of the Verizon IndyCar Series?
“With digital space exploding, more women interested in the series, a younger demographic … all the signs are good,” said Rahal. “With the right TV package, we now have the car to go forward. There is every reason to be optimistic about INDYCAR.”