The 2013 American Le Mans Series ended last month with a spectacular show at Petit Le Mans in Atlanta. It was a fun race, peppered with close battles from the start and in every class. But the most interesting car on the track wasn’t even competing. Flat black and alarming, it looked like a die-cast toy. It looked like it was about to flip over. It looked something like an awesome Batmobile.
It was the Nissan DeltaWing, and it traveled a long way to cross the finish lane at 5th overall.
Page one takes place in 2009, when the Indy Racing League was seeking a new, more efficient design for their spec platform. They put the word out and received several cool proposed prototypes. A more traditionally-themed Dallara platform won the contract, but the most strikingly original design there was undoubtedly the Ben Bowlby’s DeltaWing.
The look was unique, with a wide rear track and a narrow front track, mimicking the triangular Greek “delta” character. The front tires, too, are narrow, only 4” wide, to reduce rolling resistance. In fact, the whole car was designed around an efficiency mindset to make the car run faster on less power.
And it was certainly less power. The 1.6 liter Nissan straight 4 is turbocharged to 300 hp, but that’s it. Yet that seems to be enough to do the trick. It reaches 60 in 3.3 seconds and keeps going all the way up to 195 mph. Its aerodynamic stamp is small enough that it can just slip through the air.
But why such a small mill? Call it a green initiative if you must, but we’re calling it smart racing. Not every pit stop calls for new tires. If you can spread out your pitting, even further than you traditionally might, you’ll obviously save time. This is why the top P1 cars in Le Mans are usually diesels, they don’t require as many “splash and dash” fuel-only pit stops. The DeltaWing is the same way.
Fortunately, after their rejection by the Indy board, the DeltaWing team didn’t give up. Instead, they widened the cab, put some headlights on the rear fenders, and signed up for the new experimental class at Le Mans, even though it would be the only car in that class. The DeltaWing was well into that storied race when a prototype bumped it from the track and it crashed. Since the driver was unable to get it back to the pits under its own power, it was slapped with a DNF.
But Team DeltaWing, now with full Nissan sponsorship, carried on, racing in the American Le Mans Series Championship under Highcroft Racing. It was still an exhibition car, but the series proved an excellent laboratory. At qualifying for Petit le Mans, for example, a GT Porsche knocked it off the track in a very similar incident to the Le Mans crash, but with more damage.
The team rebuilt the DeltaWing before the race started and it was able to participate. In fact, if it had been competing, it would have taken 5th overall. Not too shabby.
The ALMS is in limbo right now due to some tangled purchasing by NASCAR’s Grand Am series. But we hope that whatever happens, the DeltaWing will remain. It’s just too awesome to let slip between the pages of automotive history.