Swift is Flying High by Anne Profitt Yes, there were grins in Swiftville last Sunday night after Swifts finished 1-2 at Elkhart Lake. Such a relief to see solid proof that the American-designed and built Swift is a front runner in the ...
Swift is Flying High by Anne Profitt
Yes, there were grins in Swiftville last Sunday night after Swifts finished 1-2 at Elkhart Lake. Such a relief to see solid proof that the American-designed and built Swift is a front runner in the most competitive racing series on the planet.
Championship racing cars look like racing cars, but they are virtually solid data. Data, the zillion numbers you acquire in the telemetry at the track and the wind tunnel, shapes the car more than the dreams in a designer's head. So, beginning with two cars, as Swift did in 1997, means you start with a small data base. In more ways than one, Swift has always been coming from behind.
Sure, Michael Andretti drove the first Swift 007i in 1997 to victory in its first race at Homestead. But the rest of Swift's first season in CART was a character-builder, beginning with Fittipaldi's bone shattering crash at their second race in Surfers Paradise.
Andretti finished eighth in the season standings in 1997, his lowest ranking since returning from Formula One in 1994. Fittipaldi, who missed six races while his bones healed, was 15th for the year, posting six points-paying finishes.
The early Swifts were a mechanic's nightmare; you had to take apart the rear suspension to change the gear ratios. "It was reliable, but time-intensive," says Alex Cross, Swift Engineering executive vice president, with a touch of diplomacy. That was one problem.
When Andretti took the next-generation Swift .009c to victory again at the season opener near Miami, `98 looked like a fresh start. But Newman-Haas struggled with the car, and the Goodyears weren't helping much. Della Penna came on board, buying a car for Richie Hearn that helped data acquisition, but not enough.
Swift has built 22 chassis so far for 1999 -- for Newman-Haas, Patrick Racing, Gordon Racing and Della Penna Motorsports. So the data acquisition is much better. But there was trouble from the start. Newman-Haas changed to Firestone tires. And Della Penna and Gordon Racing were running Toyotas, which meant designing a different engine cradle.
"We were unable to predict the effect of running Firestones on our car. Tires change every week, you know?" Cross says. "At the start of the season, our car was close to its last notch of adjustment, aerodynamically. We had to change our fundamental aerodynamic characteristics to get within the performance envelope where the Firestone tires worked best. We're not proud of the fact that we didn't have what we wanted at the beginning, but we're very proud of the fact that we got it fixed. Not everybody does."
It took 2 1/2 months, but they got the car right. But not without cost. Patrick Racing's Adrian Fernandez chose to drive a '97 Reynard with updates at Twin Ring Motegi, and won. He turned around one week later and drove a Swift .010c to fourth place at Long Beach, then went back to Reynard, which he still drives. Teammate PJ Jones has stuck with the Swift, and got an exciting second at Nazareth in early May. Things were definitely looking up.
Robby Gordon at Team Gordon, too, went with the Reynard for the first part of the season, but went back to Swift. He's driven his Toyota-powered car in the points for the last two races at Cleveland and Road America. John Della Penna never came back.
"I understand John's problem," Cross allows. "Single-car teams don't have the capacity of a Newman-Haas or a Patrick. When we threw a lot of parts at them during that 75-day period, those were bumps in the road for the larger teams and, for Robby and John, it went from bumps to potholes and sinkholes.
Swift CEO Gary Holmes says, "You see the results of your efforts immediately. Either you're drenched in champagne or you're not. It's either gratification or disappointment."
So it's a quick gulp of champagne and back to the CAD-CAM screen. Because Montoya's Reynard was running the quickest laps in the race last week, Penske is acting like there's something to get excited about in their Penske chassis, Lola's very fast in the hands of Helio Castro Neves, and Dan Gurney's Eagle is handling so much better than it was last year . . .