Published January 24, 2014
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There's a shiny, odd-shaped car turning laps — and heads — at Daytona International Speedway.
It's been dubbed the "chrome missile," and even though it's not the fastest Prototype entered in this weekend's Rolex 24 at Daytona, it certainly could wreak havoc in the first race of the newly formed United SportsCar Championship.
The DeltaWing is the freshest and funkiest car to hit the famed track in nearly 50 years.
"It's different," Action Express Racing driver Christian Fittipaldi said. "It almost looks like a three-wheeler. You look at it and say, 'Is a motorcycle going to be racing against us?'"
The technologically advanced car, which looks like a cross between a fighter jet and a concept car, is racing a full season in the Prototype series. No one expects much from the underpowered entry, which made its debut in 2012 with an open-cockpit version.
The car gained national attention at the 24 Hours of Le Mans later that season. Drivers Andy Meyrick and Katherine Legge grabbed more headlines by leading eight laps each at Road America last year. The uniquely designed car has been tweaked and tuned even more heading into the 2014 season.
It has raced just four hours continuously and a maximum of six hours over multiple stints. So the twice-around-the-clock endurance race at Daytona will be the ultimate test for the upstart team.
"It's a pitch into the unknown for us," team manager David Price said. "We're not a threat to anybody at the moment. ... But perhaps in time, everyone will want a DeltaWing."
Maybe, maybe not.
The car surely catches eyes, but it also causes many racing purists to cringe.
"In the beginning, it was a bit of a freak show really," Price said. "We're trying to grow out of that stage, but there's still an element of that. People still look at it as something you want to barge out of the way. But we're at the stage now where we're not an embarrassment to ourselves or anybody else. We can compete."
There is the problem.
Although few competitors have complained publicly, they surely would the second the car starts challenging for the podium.
"If we were to win this race, people would have issues with it," driver Alexander Rossi said.
And that's because the DeltaWing looks nothing like the other cars in its class.
The two front tires are just 4 inches apart and look like they came from motorcycles. The car, when empty, weighs a little more than 1,000 pounds — less than half of the other Prototypes. And it's powered by a turbocharged, 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine that is expected to top out at 195 mph on the straightaways.
"It's still a massive, 'What the hell is that?'" Rossi said. "There's a big draw to it, which is really exciting to be able to drive for a team and car that attracts such attention. Everyone's biggest question is what does it feel like? It feels like a normal race car, which is quite amazing to be honest.
"It is a radical design, but at the end of the day, it is a normal race car."
The car was about a second a lap behind the top qualifiers, and the team's biggest advantage was stripped late last week. IMSA officials reduced the size of the car's refueling hole, slowing down the team's ability to fill a considerably smaller fuel cell and keeping it on pit road as long as competitors.
"For some reason, they didn't want us to get any perceived advantage in the pit lane, so they slowed us down," Price said. "It's disappointing because we're not a threat on track speed wise, and the only way we could remain competitive in a long race like this is to maximize what we could in the pit lane. But that's gone now."
The DeltaWing was originally designed five years ago in hopes of becoming the new-generation IndyCar. It kept the open-wheel aesthetics, but the wheels were framed with fenders to improve safety.
But the Indy Racing League stuck with a version of its traditional design, and the DeltaWing, with billionaire Don Panoz coming on board financially in 2010, turned its efforts to sports-car racing. After a handful of events, it was fitted with a closed cockpit last year and pointed toward the 2014 United SportsCar Championship.
"I'm pleased it's found a home," said Chip Ganassi Racing driver Marino Franchitti, who tested the car in its early stages. "It's good to see the concept developing and going forward. Sports cars have always been about innovation, and that's what the DeltaWing is. I'm not a big fan of balancing performance. I think the best way is to write a set of rules and let people build a car as fast as they can in that."