Around the same time, a committee was set to select a new Indy car for 2012. Ganassi agreed to fund development of a prototype for submission. Under Indy rules, a vehicle with three wheels isn’t even considered a car. But Bowlby discovered that two small front wheels placed side by side would corner nearly as well as one bigger one. This still allowed him to minimize drag by shaping the car around a narrow nose. Tiny tires also initiated a cascade of design changes that progressively reduced the weight of the car. Smaller wheels meant smaller brakes and suspension components, which meant a smaller engine, which meant a smaller gearbox, which meant a smaller chassis, and so on. When Bowlby ran the numbers, he figured that his car could lap at competitive speeds with a puny four-cylinder engine. He’d set out to design a car that would show off the skill of its driver. He ended up engineering the most efficient racecar ever.
When the Indy committee selected an utterly conventional car, Ganassi axed Bowlby’s program. A year later, Bowlby left the company to pursue the DeltaWing full time. Not because he expected to make a fortune; he just wanted to see it through. “I lost a lot of sleep over the project,” he says. “My wife would come out to the garage and find me driving that little RC car around, making sure it was doing what I said it would do. But my reputation was on the line. I needed to show people that I wasn’t a flake with a stupid idea.”
When Bowlby began looking for other venues for his car, Le Mans seemed like a natural home. Since the first 24-hour race around the Circuit de la Sarthe in 1923, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the entity that organizes the race, has promoted new technology. For years, Le Mans awarded a prize for an index of thermal efficiency according to a formula involving speed, weight and fuel consumption. More recently, the ACO created what it called the Garage 56 program for an inventive, environmentally friendly vehicle that would compete on an exhibition basis outside the rules governing the 55 conventional entries. So last June, Bowlby pitched his concept, and the ACO selected it over several hybrid-electric entries. The DeltaWing was in business.
Two hours into DeltaWing’s debut at Le Mans, Michael Krumm brakes hard while downshifting for the left-hand corner known as Indianapolis. But the gearbox doesn’t shift cleanly, and the car snaps sideways as the rear wheels momentarily lock up. Krumm quickly steers into the skid to corral the car and then safely carves through the corner. But over the radio, he explains that the gearbox is getting worse.
This is bad news. From the beginning of the car’s development, the gearbox, a remarkably small unit designed specifically for the DeltaWing, has been a problem. Krumm pulls into the pit for a quick fix, then heads back onto the track. But the gearbox is still acting up, so he stops again.
Mechanics swarm the vehicle. The crew discovers that a solenoid actuating the pneumatic shifter has died. It was probably a faulty part, not the result of overheating—but just to be safe, Zack Eakin, a member of the design team, fires up a Sawzall and carves off a piece of carbon-fiber bodywork, letting in more air to provide additional cooling. Thirty minutes pass before the repair is complete, but Bowlby seems unperturbed. The solenoid came from a third-party vendor. “It wasn’t a DeltaWing issue,” he says blithely.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.