By Gordon Kirby
For more than twenty years, Swift Engineering has been one of America's top open-wheel race car manufacturers, building race-winning cars in everything from Formula Ford to Champ Cars. Founded in 1983, Swift made its early reputation in Formula Ford 1600 with beautiful little cars which pushed the state-of-the-art to higher levels both in engineering and aesthetics.
Swift produced its first Atlantic car in 1987, and has gone on to become the most successful chassis manufacturer in the formula's 33-year history with a record of 175 wins, 16 more than Ralt. The San Clemente, California-based company became the exclusive chassis supplier to the Toyota Atlantic series in 1999 and based on its record was selected to build the car for this year's new Yokohama Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda.
Over the years, Swift has built more than 500 racing cars, including almost 200 Atlantic cars, yet some people in the racing business doubted Swift's ability to produce a large fleet of identically fast, reliable cars in less than eight months. But pre-season testing and the Long Beach season-opener proved the naysayers wrong. Twenty eight of the new Swift 016.a chassis lined up for the start in Long Beach with all but three of them covered in qualifying by less than three seconds. And at the end of their inaugural race 21 of the new Atlantics were running and there was not a single chassis failure of any kind all weekend.
Not only that, but the new Swift looks good, much better than the old Toyota Atlantic car, and also stood up well in the handful of accidents at Long Beach. The strength of the cars also was confirmed when one of them crashed end-over-end during testing a few weeks before Long Beach with very little damage.
In all then, it was an outstanding debut as the rejuvenated Atlantic series takes center stage as the great hope for the future of American open-wheel racing. During the Long Beach weekend, Bobby Rahal made a quiet point to me and to many others. "If the future of Champ Car is Atlantic," Rahal remarked, "then Champ Car is in pretty good shape."
Alex Cross is Swift's Vice President and was one of the founders of the company with David Bruns, Paul White and R.K. Smith. Cross has been with Swift full-time since 1991 and is a former Formula Ford driver and inveterate enthusiast who is delighted to see Atlantic re-emerge as a key international racing category.
"What's really encouraging to me is we have all those new, young drivers," Cross grinned. "We have a lot of 18- to 20-year-olds, and they're good! This is what it's supposed to be about. It's marvelous to see. We've got a German, an Austrian, some Brazilians, a couple of Frenchmen, a few Canadians, as well as some talented young Americans. This is what Formula Two used to be 30 years ago, and what Formula Atlantic was like in the days of Gilles Villeneuve.
We have to thank Champ Car and Kevin Kalkhoven and the motor racing press for getting behind this thing, as well as Cosworth and ourselves. This is how we're going to rekindle the flame.
Clearly, the efforts that a lot of people went through, the cost-effective nature of the program and all the elements that people have worked on for years on the ladder system program, all this was put in one pot and it was attractive to a lot of people. There's a lot of other series around the world these young drivers could choose but they've chosen to do this series."
Casper van der Schoot is Swift's program manager for the Atlantic car. Van der Schoot was Helio Castroneves race engineer at Penske before joining Swift, and he says Swift originally expected to build no more than 20 new Atlantic cars.
"When the plans for the new car were revealed in San Jose at the end of July last year, based on the number of contenders in the championship last year and in previous years, we were thinking we would build maybe 14, no more than 20 cars for the new season," van der Schoot commented.
"Given that it was almost August, it was going to be a very short time to design and build those cars. But it only took a couple of days before we had received 24 orders which made us realize that our initial plans wouldn't work. (Director of marketing, sales and corporate communications) Kristen (Helsel) did a great job in selling even more cars than that and we realized we needed to commit to making 40 cars, which is a far cry from making 14 or 20."
As a result, Swift had to take a fresh look at how they were going to design and build so many cars in less than eight months.
"Historically, Swift has built cars in small batches of two, three or maybe five at the most, and we had to come up with a way of building all 40 cars at once," van der Schoot said. "This meant we had to take a different approach with how we had to assemble the cars. So we had an outside facility where we staged and assembled the 40 cars. It allowed us to build batches of 40 or 50, and sometimes 60 sets of a particular part. Other parts, like the composite parts for example, were still built primarily in serial fashion like we're used to because of the limitations on the number of tooling that you have."
Part of the design brief from Champ Car was to make the new Atlantic car simpler and less expensive.
"Because of the need to take cost out of this car it was necessary for us to design and manufacture in smarter ways," van der Schoot said. "So we made use of materials that we had not used in the past for the Atlantic car. We also used manufacturing methods that we developed in-house specifically for this project so that we could utilize a broad range of manufacturing methods to build different components for this car."
Chris Norris is Swift's chief designer. Norris reports that he and his design team made every effort to make sure the 016.a is strong, safe, and suitable for tall drivers, not just jockey-sized folk!
"One of the primary specs was the need to accommodate bigger drivers than the 014.a could accommodate," Norris commented. "So a lot of the way the car evolved was driven by the fact that we had to find another three-and-a-half inches of leg room - no easy job. The first thing we had to do was move the front wheels forward which was a direction we didn't want to go because of weight distribution.
We were trying to put weight onto the front wheels and moving the front wheels forward was exactly opposite to the direction we wanted to go. But at the end of the day, we ended up with a weight distribution that was an improvement over the 014 and yet still accomplished the goal of fitting a bigger driver."
Norris is particularly proud of the effort that's gone into making the 016.a as safe as possible.
"We designed the tub to meet FIA regulations rather than just Champ Car regulations," Norris observed. "That meant we designed a larger tub with a larger cockpit opening than was required by Champ Car. We felt that was a good way to go. We're very happy with that.
Part of the brief from Champ Car included several FIA-spec structural integrity tests on the monocoque. These included side push tests in three locations along with the roll hoop test, the nose push-off test and the double impact nose crash test. We hadn't been asked for that when we did the 08 or the 014, so again, it was a step up from what we had done in the past. We went through the design process, we ran some tests at one of the universities on this new material we were using, and when we went to Arizona and tested the car. It passed the first time with flying colors."
Norris says Swift has improved the quality of its carbon fiber work in the 016.a.
"It's a different carbon fiber than we've used in the past," Norris reported. "It's 12K material as opposed to 3K material. We also changed resin systems for a couple of reasons, one of which is, it's a tougher resin system. Like all things, there are plusses and minuses to various approaches, but it seems like we've made a good choice."
The majority of these components are built in-house. "Like most of our cars, an enormous amount of the car is made here at Swift," Cross noted proudly.
Cross is equally proud of the finished product.
"On balance we ended up with a car that was both faster and bigger, and less expensive as well, which is a fairly tall order," Cross remarked. "We designed smarter and manufactured smarter, and we decided we wanted to invest in the process because this category is the future of open-wheel motor racing in the United States."
The aerodynamic package of the 016.a is based on the old 014.a.
"The 014 was a very efficient, well-developed platform, so it set the course for the aerodynamic package," van der Schoot said. "Essentially what we did was we took the wind tunnel model of the 014 and it was probably early September that we had the first shape defined for the 016. The 014 model evolved into the 016. We increased the size of the monocoque and determined what the effects were on the aerodynamics. Then we started playing with wing sizes and underwings.
But in essence, the aero package is very similar to the 014. It's been sized-up by about 20 percent. The underwing is a little bit wider, which adds downforce also. But overall, the 016 is aerodynamically a more efficient car than the 014."
Another thing Cross is proud of is the effort put in by Swift's workforce to get the cars built and ready to race in a very short space of time.
"We literally had 226 days from the day we got the go-ahead to the day we had to deliver the 40 cars," Cross said. "I've told people that I don't think anybody in the history of motor racing has done this. We had to deliver cars to everybody who wanted one in time for the open-test before Long Beach. Champ Car wanted to have all the cars tested at the same time so nobody had an advantage. That meant we had to make one big delivery and that worked out famously. But it resulted in people here at Swift working double-time and triple-time for the last two months of the program."
Added van der Schoot: "Prior to delivery, the lights didn't go out here for two-and-a-half months. There were always people here working."
Swift hired about 25 additional staff to handle the project.
"We ended up with about 103 people and that was about 25 more than our base," Cross explained. "It was about a third more staff than we started with and that continues because we have a brisk demand for parts, which is good for us. We're also still selling cars."
Cross tipped his hat to everyone involved in bringing the new Atlantic series to life.
"Not only did we put out maximum effort but the people at Champ Car and the people at Cosworth all acted pretty much as one unit," Cross commented. "This would not have been possible without them. Egos were left at the door because everybody knew this was going to be an extraordinarily hard thing to do.
I was really amazed at the level of cooperation and the level of commitment that Champ Car put behind it. For the first time, you really felt like Champ Car viewed Atlantic as a fundamental part of their system and they truly wanted this to work. The $2 million prize was certainly emblematic of that but the spirit in which they worked us was very, very important. Without that effort and spirit, it would not have happened."
Cross says the effectiveness and reliability of the new Swift is a testament to the company's virtual design capabilities.
"This car is not only a logical extension of the 014, but it's also the outgrowth of what we call Swift thinking," Cross observed. "That is the ability to think the problem through initially, design it virtually, and sell the first car you make. I think we're getting quite good at doing that. This car has had fewer problems and fewer development issues and niggling things to sort out than any car we've ever made. I think that's because we think it through to begin with, model it, and use the full power of our virtual design resources and our experience to do it properly, and probably more quickly, than most people can.
The cars have had remarkably few problems. I've been astounded. We knew a lot about these cars, and certainly Cosworth and Yokohama have had a lot of experience with cars of this size and type, but still, it's all-new. The same thing can be said of the transmission. It's a revised version of the SG3 but this is a transmission that Chris designed in conjunction with Hewland who's another supplier who has done a marvelous job for us."
Like many open-wheel racing businesses in the United States, Swift has been through some tough times in recent years. From 1997-'99 the company built Champ Cars for Newman/Haas Racing and a few other teams, but despite winning in its debut with Michael Andretti at Homestead in '97 and scoring three more wins over the next two years with Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi, Swift's Champ Car program floundered in the face of a revived effort from Lola and a lack of resources to push forward. So the new Atlantic car has helped revitalize Swift just as much as it's brought new enthusiasm to the sport as a whole.
"It's really a renewal and continuation of one of our fundamental core businesses," Cross commented. "This is a very bright spot for us commercially. Because of all the hard work that everybody has put in, this is a successful racing car program, and we're very proud of that because there aren't many of those in this day and age.
This business has gone through a lot of bumpy, rough patches through the years, and for us this is certainly one of the real positive accomplishments of racing car design and manufacturing. This is a good deal for us, it's a good deal for Champ Car, it's a good deal for the suppliers, and for the drivers and the teams and the owners. As Rahal said, if this is what Champ Car's going to look like, then Champ Car's looking pretty good for the future."
Our congratulations to Swift Engineering for a job well done. They've helped provide a healthy dose of enthusiasm and hope for everyone in the sport. Here's hoping that the excitement surrounding the new Champ Car Atlantic Championship is a harbinger of better things to come for everyone in American open-wheel racing.