Dallara DW12 reaches 200th race

Over his 16-year Hall of Fame career that ran from 1976 through 1992, Rick Mears captured four Indianapolis 500 wins and three CART IndyCar championships. Emerson Fittipaldi, who won the 1989 CART title and a pair of Indy 500s in 1989 and 1993, become an IndyCar legend in his own right over 13 years.

The entirety of Mears’ IndyCar career spanned 203 races, and for Fittipaldi, the number is similar at 195.

Sandwiched between them on the list of all-time IndyCar starts is the most enduring chassis in professional motor racing history, the Dallara DW12, which made its debut 12 years ago at the season-opening event in St. Petersburg (pictured above).


With the start of the new IndyCar season this weekend at St. Petersburg, Dallara’s DW12 celebrates an anniversary of sorts as it moves from its 199th race start, which took place last September at Laguna Seca, to cross a previously unimaginable threshold of 200 races for the same chassis model, and the start of the 13th season of service in a top-tier championship.

Race 200, which will enter the history books during the 100-lap Firestone Grand Prix, was never imagined for the DW12.

The first prototype of the IR12 chassis, as it was originally known, was completed in June of 2011. The following month, a testing program was launched stateside by IndyCar, Dallara, and the Bryan Herta Autosport team with Dan Wheldon – fresh from his Indy 500 win for BHA – which wasn’t a full-time entrant in IndyCar at the time.

At Mid-Ohio on August 15, the Briton and his team began the development process with the IR12 and continued testing at a variety of other tracks before mass production began at Dallara’s base in Italy. By September, three new IR12s were sent to Speedway, Indiana, for IndyCar’s engine suppliers – Chevrolet, Honda, and Lotus – to begin building their first test mules and start manufacturer tests. A sad turn in October when Wheldon died in a huge crash at the Las Vegas IndyCar season finale – the farewell for the Dallara IR07 – would shape the IR12’s future.

The late Dan Wheldon was tasked with the car’s early testing. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

With Wheldon’s loss, company founder Gianpaolo Dallara made a decree the day after the race: The IR12 chassis would be renamed the DW12, using Wheldon’s initials as a permanent tribute with the model he developed.

Steadfast production saw 15 DW12s delivered to teams by December 15, and 18 more were dispatched to the U.S. in January of 2012. Through February and March, a total of 60 orders for DW12s were fulfilled among IndyCar’s 15 teams as many were prepared as spare cars and speedway specials reserved for use at the Indianapolis 500. Although no replacement date was mentioned, those within IndyCar said at the time that the DW12 would be used for five years – seven at the most – before it was retired.

An impressive array of 26 DW12s were on the grid for the opening round, won by Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves. Penske also won the DW12’s 50th race with Will Power. Race 100 went to Andretti Global with Alexander Rossi. Its 150th race was taken by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou, and who knows which team and driver will have the honor of clinching the DW12’s 200th victory.

Just as no professional racing chassis has been used into its teens, there’s also no model that has undergone as many significant transformations over its lifetime as DW12.

It was launched in 2012 with spec bodywork featuring an overhead air intake for the 2.2-liter turbocharged engines, and manufacturers were allowed to use single or dual turbos. Chevrolet and Lotus chose twin-turbo layouts with the two smaller turbos placed on both sides of the engine while Honda, in a throwback to the CART IndyCar Series days, chose a single-turbo layout with the larger turbo placed behind the motor in the bellhousing.

The back of the DW12’s original engine cover featured a triangular opening for the Honda to vent hot air out of its turbo housing. The single- or twin-turbo option turned out to be a nightmare to equalize. Big crashes in 2012 brought updates to the DW12’s tub with heavy Zylon anti-intrusion panels bonded onto both sides of the cockpit after high-speed impacts punched the walls inward on Sebastien Bourdais at Sonoma and Justin Wilson at Fontana, leading to rib, hip, hand, or spine injuries.

The strengthening modifications were necessary, and with those additions, the DW12 got heavier.

By 2014, IndyCar mandated all motors must use two turbos, which remains in place today. Manufacturer aero kits were introduced in 2015, and like the turbo situation, an immediate inequity was revealed as Chevy’s various bodywork packages it created in-house mollywhopped Honda’s wild designs devised by Wirth Research.

Individual aerokits for Honda (left) and Chevrolet (right) were introduced in 2015. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

Carnage, with flying winglets and end plates landing in spectator areas at St. Petersburg to open the aero kit era in 2015 – which led to a lawsuit by one fan who was struck by falling bodywork – was swiftly met with rule changes that stripped some of the aero insanity off of the noses. James Hinchcliffe’s sickening crash at Indianapolis led to a change to the front suspension mounting system to prevent future spearings like the one that nearly killed the Canadian.

By 2016, with Chevy in full command, IndyCar intervened, announced it would be freezing aero kit development after allowing Honda to introduce some updates to make its cars more competitive, and said the aero kit era would meet its end after 2017.

Creation of the Universal Aero Kit 18 leading into 2018 took the ungainly DW12 and made it into something that was, for the first time, quite pleasing to the eye as the overhead air intake was ditched in favor of a low-slung engine cover and sidepods that brought a more traditional look back to the series.

By 2020, the UAK18 had a new component to incorporate with the aeroscreen safety device, and in motion today, the upcoming move to hybridization – with the energy recovery system placed in the same location where Honda’s single-turbo once lived – is the most radical change to the DW12 so far. Once IndyCar goes hybrid, the DW12 is expected to have a minimum weight that’s nearly 200 pounds higher than where it started in 2012. With drivers and full tanks of fuel installed, the hybrid DW12s will roll off the grid at Mid-Ohio north of 2000 pounds.

2018’s universal aerokit was acclaimed for its aesthetics. Scott R LePage/Motorsport Images

Only two drivers have been there for every era and all 199 races.

Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon claimed his 2013, 2015, 2018, and 2020 titles in the DW12 and has never missed a race. The same is true for Graham Rahal, who was just 23 years old and single when he strapped into the DW12 and raced at St. Petersburg in 2012. He’ll charge under the green flag today as a 35-year-old married father of two.

“What a great chassis,” Dixon told RACER, followed by a lengthy laugh. “I think I get to some of these longevity records because of my age. But it’s kind of crazy to do 200, right? What do you say, really?”

Rahal didn’t laugh when asked to opine on reaching 200 races with the DW12, but he did run through a lot of thoughts on how the car has evolved over the years.

“In general, it’s been a good chassis,” he said. “It’s worn a lot of different capes over the years since the original shapes and sizes and the way that things have changed. But you know, I think it’s done a good job for us. It’s put on some weight. It’s gotten prettier from when the first car came out, too. It’s become a pretty racy old girl. It feels pretty decent. But would I like to see another chassis? For sure.

“I was thinking the other day that it’d be a very strange career for a guy like myself to have a 20-plus years in and to have only driven two or three different chassis is in my time.”

The DW12 was generally despised when it came online. It was 185 pounds heavier than the 1380-pound minimum weight – a completely unrealistic number IndyCar asked Dallara to achieve – and far too much of that weight was at the back of the car, which created excessive understeer followed by snap oversteer.

The low-power engine formula IndyCar called for was meant to maintain the same speeds at Indianapolis and everywhere else while working in concert with the featherweight chassis and unfathomable low-drag aerodynamics which, like the minimum weight, was an ask by IndyCar that was rooted in fantasy. It was slow, handled like a pig, and was downright ugly.

Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal have contested all 200 of the DW12’s races. Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

After one of his first tests in the DW12, Will Power said, “I can’t believe I’m going to drive the ******* thing for probably the rest of my career.” Prophetic words from the two-time IndyCar champion.

In most cases, a bad racecar remains a bad racecar. And that’s where the unloved DW12 in its original form has been like an IndyCar miracle; you still can’t get Power, or Dixon, or Rahal, or most drivers to profess their love for the car, but all who were there in the beginning are stunned by how far the chassis has come since 2012.

“You know, I think it’s been a pretty successful car from where it began and the struggles that it had in its early days,” Rahal said. “Remember the weight distribution? The struggles on the ovals? All of those things, to where it is today? My hope is that whatever the next car is, they learn from the lessons of this car, make it a lot lighter, and keep improving it.”

For Castroneves, the longevity of the DW12 and all of its changes stand out from the many memories he’s made in the car.

“It’s kind of like Frankenstein, right?” he said. “Because it’s been having parts added all over the place every couple of years. Who would have thought this is going to be that long? It was a little difficult to adapt to that car, but once I understood what I needed to do, it fit well. And we were able to win the first race right away.

“I remember it was a memorable race for several reasons. You know, we lost our friend Dan Wheldon, then we’re racing in St. Pete with the chassis that he was helped to develop, and boom, we won, and I stopped and climbed the fence where his name was on the street sign to give him love. I was honored to be driving that car to make that history with Dan.”

The DW12’s first champion wasn’t the car’s biggest fan, but he overlooked its initial shortcomings and used the model to earn his lone IndyCar title.

“This is the chassis of my career, really,” said Hunter-Reay. “I recall graduating, if you will, from the IR07 chassis, which was a IRL classic chassis, and then moving into this DW12 and just thinking this is a huge opportunity with a with a new car, a clean slate, and it giving us at Andretti a chance to really do well. It’s crazy to think it’s the longest-tenured chassis, ever.”

One question IndyCar fans on a semi-regular basis is whether any of the original batch of 60 DW12s from the inaugural season are in use today. The answer is yes, and while some teams prefer to keep the age of the DW12s private, Andretti Global confirmed Kyle Kirkwood’s Indy 500 chassis – DW12-045 – is still going strong. Andretti also turned DW12-035 into its hybrid engine testing car for Honda, which has logged countless miles since it was new.

Today, IndyCar likes to push back on the notion that the DW12 is 12 years old. It often refers to the raft of updates applied since its introduction as evolutions that make for an all-new model, but that doesn’t change the fact that the core chassis, while heavily modified, is the same design that was penned by Dallara in 2010-2011.

Kyle Kirkwood is starting the 2024 season with one of the original DW12s. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

Even so, Bryan Herta can’t believe how different the DW12 he once knew as a one-day-old car in testing has become in 2024.

“Have you looked at how many common components that are on today’s car versus that car that started back when it was new?” he asked. “I don’t know the answer, but I bet it’s most of the car. None of the original bodywork would fit on the car. So much of what’s beneath the bodywork today is different. The floor is different. Like, it might be easier to count the things that are still the same. It’s evolved like no other car that I can think of from when it was brand-new.”

In Bourdais’ 2012 crash at Sonoma where the back of Josef Newgarden’s car – the attenuator and transmission – fired into the side of the tub, the cockpit of his Dragon Racing DW12 nearly broke away from the rear bulkhead. In Wilson’s similar Fontana impact, the side of the cockpit folded in to the point where the inner wall damaged his hand on the steering wheel, in addition to the back injuries that put him in the hospital.

Although those incidents – and a few more that followed – were bad, the fixes that were applied and the more aggressive approach to improve driver safety in the DW12 can be hailed as another important development arc over the last dozen years.

“I think the racing product we always talk about with this car is amazing, and that’s a big part of it,” Dixon said. “Despite how old it is, it does race incredibly well. But I think the other big part, too, is the safety. We’ve had some really important changes throughout the years. Look at the aeroscreen to the side intrusion to some of the crash structures that have been developed, and the head-surround in the cockpit has evolved a lot, too.

“This car has gone through a lot during its time. But it’s crazy to think that 200 milestone is at St. Pete. That’s a damn lot of races, man.”

For many drivers, the DW12 is the only IndyCar chassis they’ve ever known. As the 2011 Indy Lights champion, Newgarden’s graduation to IndyCar in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing coincided with the DW12’s debut, and while he’s come close to doing all 199 races in the same model, he missed one event – Baltimore in his rookie season – after breaking his finger in that Sonoma crash with Bourdais.

It’s a similar story for Power, who’s at 198 after his St. Petersburg crash prior to qualifying in 2016. Among the active drivers in 2024, the next-closest is Alexander Rossi with 131, and after that, it’s Ed Carpenter at 88 and Colton Herta at 82.

“It’s hard to deny that 200 races is not impressive,” the junior Herta said with an extra dose of snark. “Maybe that’s not the right word, but that’s the word I’m gonna go with. But look, everybody up and down the grid wants a new car. But it’s it has to be it has to be better than the DW12, which has provided amazing racing through the years. This car has withstood the sands of time, and it’s still an extremely fast race car.”

The final word on the Dallara DW12 at 200 races goes to one of its fathers – or maybe uncles would be a more accurate description – after he helped rear the car in its infancy.

“I think it’s been a great car for the series,” Bryan Herta said. “It’s served us well, but it’s probably time to put her to bed, though. We’re at this inflection point with the hybrid system coming and really healthy grids with lots of teams and cars. I think it’d be great to do something new. I think the fans would be excited.

“I’d love to see a new car coming sooner than later, and something that could incorporate all of these great innovations that have come to life on the DW12. I think if you started with a clean sheet of paper and designed something with all that included, you could probably come up with something even sexier and more inspiring.”

IndyCar has recently started suggesting a new chassis, or yet another revision to the DW12, could be possible in 2027. As the series has known for quite some time, it’s overdue for a new car, and the timing of a change could present an interesting opportunity that nobody envisioned back in 2012.

With Dan Wheldon’s eldest son, 15-year-old Sebastian, getting his start this year on the USF Championship’s open-wheel ladder, he could, conceivably, be ready for IndyCar by 2028 or 2029. While we don’t know if the model will still be in action, the idea of Dan and Susie’s son racing in a DW12 for one season before it’s retired sounds like a lovely way to say farewell to the car.

Story originally appeared on Racer