Innovating the Delta Wing Way


The Delta Wing.  It looks like a rocket, but it's a car.  It also represents a fundamental, albeit still potential, paradigm shift in our conception of what a racing car can be.  I love the way it looks, and am even more excited about what it represents.

For students of the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life, the key question isn't "will it win?", but "how did it come to be?".  Hopefully someday someone will write a book on the story of the Delta Wing.  For now there's Wikipedia and this good Popular Mechanics article for those of you interested in the backstory on this amazing car.

Because I don't know enough yet about the how on this one, let's focus on the what.  If the Delta Wing were a movie and you were the director, here are the characters you'd ask central casting to deliver to your set to weave a compelling tale of daring innovation:

The Ace Technologist: Ben Bowlby is the technical mastermind behind the Delta Wing and the leader of a spectacularly talented and experienced design team.  I admire the elegance of his design vision, and the way in which he went back to first principles in order to reach for a new outcome.  The Delta Wing effectively performs as well as cars having double the horsepower.  That kind of elegant efficiency is what we need in the world today.  Efficiency is sexy, a notion that some wayward manufacturers would do well to rediscover.

The Visionary Entrepreneurs: two business-savvy racers were instrumental in making the Delta Wing happen.  Chip Ganassi provided financial backing for the first prototype of the Delta Wing, which was not accepted by the racing series it was designed for (see The Enlightened Incubator entry below).  Duncan Dayton then took the ball and ran with it, recasting the Delta Wing as a Le Mans competitor, and practising some magic to build a coalition capable of developing, building, testing, and ultimately running a competitive new racecar design — quite a task.  Dayton epitomizes the truest sense of entrepreneurship: making things happen by making the smartest use of the resources you have at hand.  Dr. Don Panoz, an entrepreneur's entrepreneur, and Scott Atherton also played pivotal roles in the genesis of the Delta Wing.  And last but not least, kudos to Nissan for having the guts to engage with this endeavor as a motor supplier and sponsor.  Their commitment to innovating makes me want that GT-R even more.

A Team of Artists Who Ship: The Delta Wing is built by the heroes at All American Racers (AAR).  AAR is hallowed ground in the racing world, as place where heroes like  Dan Gurney and Phil Remington still walk the halls.  Over its long history, AAR has proven to be one of the most innovative institutions based on US soil.  I don't know about you, but the idea that the master maker Phil Remington had a hand in the creation of the Delta Wing, well, it sends shivers down my spine. 

The Enlightened Incubator: you can't run a race car without a sanctioning body to hold the race.  At the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans race, there are 55 positions available for race cars to compete.  Early on in the Delta Wing venture, Duncan Dayton and company secured the 56th place on the grid from the sanctioning body for Le Mans, the Automobile Clube de l'Quest.  While the Delta Wing won't be contesting the Le Mans race for points, it will be an integral part of the racing field, and will live out of the "56th garage" at the Le Mans circuit.  This idea of the 56th garage being available represents highly enlightened thinking when it comes to the art and science of innovation.  I've written before here on the vital importance of designating a place for the people in your organization to fail.  And while I hope the Delta Wing has a successful race at Le Mans, no matter what happens they will have learned a substantial amount, and the cause of innovation will be served.  Next year's car will be that much better due to the enlightened incubation of Garage 56.

Professionals to Get the Job Done: at the track, the Delta Wing will be run by the storied Highcroft Racing team.  Though most of the focus in racing is on the driver, it is actually one of the ultimate team sports, especially in the kind of endurance racing the Delta Wing is designed for.  Ideas are one thing, executing against them is quite another.  It takes a village. 

A Brave Protagonist: and then there's the human in the hot seat, Marino Franchitti.  Race drivers are only as good as their last race — it's an incredibly competitive sport, and there's a line of drivers out the door waiting to take over your spot.  That's why I admire Marino Franchitti's willingness to take on the reputational and career risk of driving not just a new car, but a new paradigm.  Unfortunately, the world of racing does not operate by the rule of Silicon Valley, and failures are not celebrated as points of learning.  On the other hand, someone had to pilot the Wright Flyer, and now Orville's name is one for the ages.  Hats off to Marino, and here's to him showing us how fast this thing can really go, WFO.  He has guts.

One Sexy Beast: from an aesthetic standpoint, I think the Delta Wing rocks.  It looks wicked – why be beautiful when you could be interesting?  Of course, I've been accused of having a rather unmainstream view of car aesthetics (here, here, and here, for example), but I call 'em like I see 'em.  This thing grabs your attention, and keeps it.  I believe a whole generation of 8-year-old kids are going to fall in love with automobiles because of the Delta Wing.  And here's a suggestion to the fine folks at Polyphony and Nissan: create a digital version of the Delta Wing and let the rest of us drive it virutally in Gran Turismo 5.  It'll do wonders for the Nissan brand, and it will create a pull effect on the conservative world of racing: we really want to see you professionals race the cars we love driving online. 

To sum it up, if you're going to shift a paradigm, you could do worse than to try and do it with a really sexy beast like this one, but you'd better have the entire innovation ecosystem in place, too.  Enjoy the photos and videos below.