IRL: Falcon Cars Michael Kranefuss interview

An interview with Michael Kranefuss CONCORD, N.C. -- Michael Kranefuss has had a vast and varied career in major league motorsports. He has been the head of Ford's worldwide racing, directing race- and championship-winning programs in...

An interview with Michael Kranefuss

CONCORD, N.C. -- Michael Kranefuss has had a vast and varied career in major league motorsports. He has been the head of Ford's worldwide racing, directing race- and championship-winning programs in Formula 1, CART, World Rally and international sports cars, and owner of NASCAR Winston Cup and Busch Grand National teams. At the age of 64, he and partner Ken Anderson have taken on the challenge of building and supplying their Falcon Cars to the Indy Racing League starting with the 2003 season. Falcon Cars was one of three chassis manufacturers chosen by the IRL in late May for the 2003-05 specifications. In this interview, Kranefuss discusses the motivations and progress of Falcon Cars.

Q: What attracted you to go into the business of building cars for the Indy Racing League?

MK: It wasn't like I made a conscious decision to become a race car manufacturer. Through my discussions with Ken earlier this year, and after my 25th attempt at retiring had failed, I became more and more curious about the rules that guided the IRL activities and the philosophy behind it. I have spent my whole life in racing and have done about everything anyone can do in this sport. Subsequently, I have seen a lot of good things happening; but I have seen even more stupid things, being repeated over and over, especially in the area of rules making, to become a cynic.

NASCAR has done most things right, just look at their success. They stuck to their three major principles: close competition (i.e. entertainment), safety for drivers and spectators and cost containment. Although, one could certainly argue about cost containment these days, or, rather, the lack of it.

The IRL rules are written with the intention to build an organization in which all major players should be able to succeed. The organizers will be successful because the entertainment value is great--to attract TV networks, etc., on the basis of strict value should not ever become a problem and, subsequently, there will be spectators in numbers; the team owners should eventually reach a situation where the marketing/business value of their enterprises exceed the expenditures necessary to compete; the drivers will have long-term job security; and the league should be prosperous and happy, simply because they have created something that is light years ahead of anything else out there. Sounds almost too idealistic, but the basics are in place. Already, there is no racing series in the world that provides week in, week out, the level of close racing that we see in the IRL. This is the first time in my life to watch the competition in a major series where money isn't the only factor that determines where you race on the track. If smaller teams can run with the big guys on a regular basis and even win, you've got something big!

As I've said earlier, the basics are in place and I know the IRL is strong enough to continue to enforce their plan. I truly believe the IRL has the most forward looking and thinking rules there are in racing today, period. Specifically, the tire rules that regulate testing and the chassis and engine specifications that virtually eliminate costly developments that make absolutely no sense, except to guarantee the well-financed teams a spot up front. Certainly the spectators or television viewers don't care if the cars are a tenth faster this year than they were last. They should be even more restrictive. But, even the best rules need constant attention, adjustments and enforcement if the intention is to make it work in the long run. Because it is human nature, certainly in racing, to find loopholes that are not in the interest of the IRL and what it stands for.

The IRL's approach and the rules that guide the sport of open wheel oval racing in this country, more than anything else, for me, was the major motivation to become involved. To become a contributor to the IRL, an organization that is still young, is a challenge that I enjoy because I can support and identify with, wholeheartedly, the direction they're going, because it is good for the sport of racing--and I am still very much a fan. Frankly, I am amazed that the media and some fans don't see it that way, or for that matter, why the IRL has not done a better job promoting their way of doing business and what they are trying to accomplish. The discussion should not be about which is the purest form of racing, even though there's nothing wrong with being a purist; the focus should be on, 'What is best for the sport of automobile racing?' For it to succeed in today's environment, clearly the financial well being of everybody involved is dictated by the entertainment value of the product.

Q: Why did you and Ken decide to become partners?

MK: Ken approached me with the design of the 2003 IRL Indy Car, almost complete, and a plan how to put everything together to do the job. Kenny was extensively involved in the conception and writing of the technical part of the rules for the IRL back 1996. He is certainly responsible for most of what you see today in an IRL race car. He did away with a lot of nonsense that used to make the cost of race cars and the running of them in CART stupidly and unnecessarily expensive. Kenny's been in F1, CART, the IRL and has designed complete race cars that were very successful on the track. So, with respect to Ken's capabilities, etc., there is a great record as far as the design and engineering part is concerned. On top of that, Ken's got a lot of experience in the manufacturing of race cars and components, he knows the right people, has tons of contacts and has certainly been able to get everything together for us to produce race cars. If anybody wants to do what we're doing, Ken's the complete package. It really makes sense for the both of us to be partners and I'm looking forward to a long lasting relationship.

Q: The Indy Racing League selected Falcon Cars as one of the three chassis manufacturers for next season in late May, leaving only six months to put a car on the track and nine months to be ready to race. Will you be ready to win the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway next March 2?

MK: That's what we're shooting for--and not just Homestead. Ken is probably the most pragmatic guy that I've ever met in racing. Not only did he have a complete design ready, but also a plan of how to put everything into motion with regards to the machine tools, computers, software and, most importantly, people. June 1 we started with a lot of enthusiasm and an empty shop, no equipment, and with the exception of Kenny's son Jason and my son Philip and (office manager) Deborah (Armstrong) in the office, there was nobody else. Almost six months later, exactly November 22 of this year we will be introducing the 'Falcon Indy 01-A' to the teams, the IRL and selected media. Obviously, without the design and a complete plan and that includes the people, all Kenny's contributions, we wouldn't have been able to be the first manufacturer to have the new generation IRL Indy Car ready. But, what really made it possible for us to start from scratch and have the car on wheels in less than six months was the availability of technology that nobody could have afforded only five years ago. Powerful computers, amazingly capable software, the right machine tools and all the other equipment allowed us to virtually rewrite the handbook of 'How to build race cars,' if there ever was such a thing. We have created a new way of designing, engineering, developing and manufacturing race cars that is unique to the industry and showcases American technology to an extended previously unknown. In fact, there are still quite a few, otherwise very patriotic Americans in the IRL firmly believing that successful race cars have to come from Europe. We are going to prove them wrong!

Q: What have been the challenges of building a new organization?

MK: Obviously, anytime you start a project of this magnitude and under these time constraints you are challenged to the max. But the stress involved was never negative. So far, it was never a single big item that gave us problems. Little things, like all of a sudden we realized we needed twice the amount of electrical power in the building than we had available, and the lead times involved in getting the equipment, etc, gave us more headaches than designing the right pieces.

Q: Are there advantages to starting with a clean sheet of paper?

MK: Not really. If you have a previous design, etc., the new design will, sort of, evolve. There will be a lot of carry-over parts and components. The workload is quite a bit less. Our advantage was that we could start with a clean sheet of paper with regard to the processes that we wanted to implement. The actual workload is substantially greater. The real advantage, however, is going to be realized by the teams. As a result of the technology applied and the processes in place, Falcon Cars will have, by far, the shortest turn-around time from the design board to the race track. Another huge advantage for us is that we have everything in-house. From designing to processing composites (Autoclaves, etc.), we control the whole bit in one facility.

Q: What has been the response from IRL car owners, your customers, toward buying Falcon Cars?

MK: I could be quite cynical here. I believe that any team owner who's got his wits together should look at all three manufacturers before making a decision on which car to buy. I know that between Texas and Homestead next year are about six months time and I am sure we will see a lot more people at our place than we have seen so far. Actually, we are talking to quite a number of teams and I know everybody wants to see what we've got to offer. However, I also know that a lot of teams have committed to one manufacturer already without even talking to us. I am having a hard time understanding that kind of decision making but,

I guess it comes with being the new kid on the block. However, Kenny's credentials are impeccable and I have usually delivered what I've promised. As I've said before, I am sure we will see a different reaction once people see what we have built.

Q: Why should teams buy Falcon Cars?

MK: At a minimum, we will be very competitive. It is our goal to be the best and I believe we've got a pretty good chance. Falcon Cars will be the first introducing their new car. Any team that commits to us will have the opportunity to test the new package, car and engine, at least four weeks earlier than teams that go with the competition. Considering that everything is new next year, quite a decisive advantage, I would think. In terms of technical support and customer service, I know we are going to be second to none. Add the overall quality of our product; I think there are plenty of reasons for going with Falcon Cars.

Q: How many cars can you supply and fully support in 2003?

MK: Our business plan to break even is modest. We don't have to sell a lot of cars to survive. From a capacity point of view, we should be able to produce and support about thirty cars before Homestead. Should we exceed our capacity, we have a back-up plan that allows us to accept more orders.

Q: What are the goals for Falcon Cars in 2003?

MK: It takes the right team to do this, but our goal is to win the Indy 500 and the IRL championship, of course. So does everybody else.

-fc-

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