Élan Technologies produces the DP02 chassis for the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Powered by Mazda, a key developmental step on the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) ladder to the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.
The car and its Mazda engine and Cooper Tires are the technical foundation of the official IMSA Development Series, providing a competitive platform for drivers to hone their skills and learn the techniques of handling a high-downforce prototype chassis. Élan has produced more than 50 chassis for the series, extending its lineage of speed, reliability and cost effectiveness.
Dan Skill, the general manager of Élan Technologies, discussed the company’s history with the chassis, its design and development, influence on the company’s other products and more in this interview.
This is a busy week for Élan, which is based near Road Atlanta in Braselton, Ga., site of the 17th annual Petit Le Mans TUDOR United SportsCar Championship event Oct. 1-4. The final two rounds of the 2014 Prototype Lites Powered by Mazda series will take place Oct. 2-3 during the event.
Q: Talk about the progression of the DP02 project since Élan first started building the cars in 2005. What have been the most significant challenges and surprises in engineering and evolution?
Dan Skill: The first Prototype Lites racing season was in 2006. As adopted, the car has remained largely unchanged partly because it is a spec series and partly because the original design was executed so well. Yes, there have been mods along the way; carbon tunnels replaced flat fiberglass floors, wheel louvers were added, and other minor tweaks were made to the original design. Many of the mods came from customers’ ideas. However, the essence of the original design is still very much intact, which we feel validates the original design. We believe this provides a superior racing experience for the money.
Q: Drivers talk about how much fun the DP02 is to drive, while teams talk about the ease of working on the car. Was that the original design goal, and how hard was it to achieve that? How much of that was reached through the original design and how much through continued refinement?
DS: The original design goal was a rich and safe driving experience for a wide range of drivers. As originally intended, the car has been a good development vehicle for drivers looking for that next stepping stone in sports car racing.
We always like hearing how much our customers enjoy the car. It reflects how well our design and manufacturing processes work.
The basis of good design, whether a race car or any product, is a thorough understanding of what the customer seeks to accomplish.
Once that vetting is complete, the design commences. Our design process is not unlike that followed by aerospace engineers when designing a new plane. Both are high-performance machines with advanced systems operating in harsh and high-stress environments with assemblies and sub-assemblies that must inter-relate flawlessly to satisfy the customer’s needs and keep the pilot safe. The physics are much the same, including loads, strength-to-weight ratios, horsepower-to-weight ratios, lift, drag, airflow, lateral G-forces, angle of attack and more. It’s very much like designing a small high-performance airplane, even to the point of relying on Daniel Bernoulli’s principles regarding wings, airflow and low pressure zones affecting lift.
When it all comes together, when properly designed and built, you have a machine that performs at the highest levels. If our customers are enjoying the experience, then we did our job. And, from everything I hear, and you too, apparently, our customers love driving this car. That, and the fact that it’s a very safe machine, is all that matters.
The challenge is to keep the experience relevant, fun and exciting. Over time, change is inevitable, and competition drives advancement and change. It’s the same for racing. As racing changes, we must change, and our car must change. This is about the continued refinement you mentioned. No matter how good the original design, time marches on. We cannot remain static.
The DP02 IMSA Prototype Lites car has been running in the series for, I believe, nine years. We’ve seen many technological advancements, and we have advanced, as well. For example, we recently worked with our distributor, Carl Haas Auto, and IMSA to offer paddle shift as an option within the series. Most of the competitors in this IMSA Lites series have adopted the new system and are seeing good results.
Q: What has Élan learned from the DP02 that can apply to its other current chassis or future projects?
DS: Generally, our policy is to not discuss future projects. We listen to our customers and have integrated some of their ideas in our future thinking.
The DP02 is a hand-built race car and not mass-produced. We currently are completing chassis No. 52. One of the lessons we would take into any new project would be improved design technologies that are more common today. These do not affect the performance of the car but improve the “behind the scenes” issues faced by race teams and mechanics. We recognize body fitment can be more labor intensive than necessary. As with any hand-assembled product, especially one this complex, tolerance stack can be a challenge.
A solution we foresee is to refresh the look of the car to give it some updated lines while improving the user-friendliness for mechanics. Redesigning the body panels solves some issues for teams, updates the look for fans and young, aspiring drivers, and might make it a bit more slippery aerodynamically.
Q: What about the DP02 project challenged Élan the most, and what about the series makes it a good showcase for Élan’s technology and products?
DS: Our biggest challenge came when Mazda became a series sponsor. The Mazda sponsorship is a good thing, but it happened very quickly and we found ourselves in a bit of a thrash to move from the Duratec 2.3L to the MZR 2.0L engine. We had to react quickly and were faced with the development of a new engine, specifying and ordering parts, taking delivery and then building roughly 30 engines. It was a challenge.
Again, in motorsports we adapt to changing conditions and can’t afford to waste time. I think running a race team through the early years of our company – many of those employees are still with us – influences our culture to this day. We are solution finders who will do whatever it takes to get the job done.
Regarding the series and why it is a good showcase for our products, the drivers who have won the IMSA Lites Championship and moved on to higher levels of racing can better tell you why this is a good showcase for our technology. Ask those champions who now drive PC or P2 cars about their experiences. To this day, they still enjoy getting in our cars.
Beyond the drivers, IMSA takes us to the best tracks in North America. On the right tracks where downforce in the corners can be a real advantage, we shine. The DP02 is capable of running lap times within mere seconds of cars that cost two to three times as much as ours. Drivers exiting their first DP02 drive are amazed at the amount of downforce this car generates, the cornering abilities, and their feel for every nuance of the road. Drivers at the highest levels tell me how much fun they have driving our cars. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard, “This car is the best kept secret in motorsports.”
Q: What’s the future for this car? Any refinements or updates for this chassis in 2015 and beyond?
DS: We are always interested in improving our products. Products must evolve. According to our customers, Élan’s DP02 is a very good car, “a real race car” to quote one new customer. So, mechanically it is a solid platform. However, every product has opportunities for improvement. As we discussed, we would like to improve the body fit and look of the car. However, this is a spec series, so IMSA must agree.
Q: What aspect or feature of this car has created the most pride for Élan?
DS: We have a lot to be proud of, but I think you might be surprised to learn what we’re most proud of with the DP02. First and foremost, our DP02 cars have helped develop great drivers. Other cars we have built, and we have built hundreds, have won their classes at LeMans, the Indianapolis 500, and have won major races and championships at the best tracks, with the best drivers, around the world. Élan has supported several race series throughout its history, and being selected as the chassis supplier is reason to be proud. But in the end, we are most proud of our outstanding safety record. It eclipses all of our technology and accomplishments.
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