IT WAS SOMEWHERE AFTER my third or fourth minute of staring at Porsche's awesome 1973 917/30, at this year's Rennsport Reunion, that I wandered down a mental rabbit hole. Eyes blurring on that sea of bodywork, I started thinking of today's memorable race cars and how many I'd want to see honored in 20 years at Goodwood or Monterey.
Porsche's psychopathic 919 Hybrid and its 1000- turbo-electric horsepower topped the list. Throw in most of the LMP1 cars from the last decade. Grab Acura and Porsche LMP2s from 2008, a smattering of Formula 1 cars from 2005—the final season for ear-melting V-10s—a few glorious GT1 cars from Aston Martin and Corvette, the Panoz DP01 Champ car from 2007.
And from there, my grid narrowed.
It was among the expansive list of recent castoffs—nasally turbo F1 cars and spec Dallara Indy cars—where I had a realization: Most of the modern designs I love are virtual. The most inspiring new race cars don't actually exist.
Take my favorite racing engine, the laser-propulsion system in Chevy's Chaparral 2X Vision Gran Turismo. The SRT Tomahawk VGT's "variable-fin quad-stage pneumatic power unit" sounds like the best hybrid system in the world. Each is currently just a nonsensical collection of words, but I want someone to figure out what they are, then try to bring them to life.
And that's the rub. Both the Chevy and the SRT were designed for video games, PR moves for GM and Chrysler. Cars like them are winning the inspiration war. Armed with sophisticated rendering software, digital artists have become racing's trailblazers, today's Colin Chapmans. Their work is far from tangible, but it's one of the only places left where restrictive technical regulations don't apply. Half of what they come up with is plain silly—a refreshing change from the lame, cost-capped cars that jeopardize the sport's future.
Credit legendary Formula 1 designer Adrian Newey for igniting the trend in 2010. Bored with F1's restrictive tech regulations, the Briton was given a clean canvas by his employers at Red Bull, who asked for a futuristic race car free of limitations. Newey's brilliant mind birthed the 1483-hp, 280-mph Red Bull X1. It looked like an alien bred with a four-wheeled jet fighter, and it made a damning statement: Go ahead, auto industry, spend yourselves into oblivion building conformist F1 and stock cars. In the meantime, Forza this and Gran Turismo that will be kicking your ass with unbridled creativity.
It wasn't long before car companies from around the world followed suit, commissioning their own virtual designs. And that's where my worrying sets in: Newey didn't pen the X1 to start a revolution; the damn thing was his version of a wake-up call for more open rulebooks. It was a plea to restore real-world creativity, and so far, the message has been ignored.
The timing is critical. The quality of wheel-to-wheel competition has risen to an all-time high, but motor racing continues to lose popularity to major-league sports. With apathy blanketing the sport like kudzu, primal, unhinged cars could be the only hope for salvation. Leave it to artists—the ones who haven't been painted into a corner by technical artifice—to show what's missing. Their work has exposed racing's creative mediocrity, and it serves as a less than subtle reminder that race cars are meant to polarize. They're to be loved, like an unforgettable song that sticks in your head for decades, or even hated, but never liked. They should pull emotions from you in ways that are deeply personal and often hard to explain. Beyond visions of wins, if a car doesn't provoke its audience, the designers or the regulations they work from have failed you.
Porsche's 917/30 was the Chaparral 2X of its day; there was nothing like it at the time. There's been almost nothing since, save the trendsetters trapped inside Xboxes and PlayStations. I pray they find a way out.
Marshall Pruett is a contributing editor at R&T and a former race engineer. He's the Marshall Pruett of his day.