If you have a question about open-wheel racing, send it to MillersMailbag@Racer.com. We can’t guarantee your letter will be published, but Robin will always reply.
Q: Am I the only one who sees the current overall situation with decreasing interest in auto racing (and specifically NASCAR) as an OPPORTUNITY for IndyCar? NASCAR rose to prominence in the U.S. when foolish owners and execs created the “great schism” and sent American open-wheel racing spiraling into obscurity. Seems now NASCAR is teetering on that same fate ” decreasing attendance, boring racing, manufactured drama (i.e. The Chase, green-white-checker, etc.) and scandals galore.
If IndyCar plays its cards right, this could be the dawning of a new age. The key is not to rock the boat too much. The cars are sturdy and the racing is fantastic. Organize a good ladder system for young Yanks, keep a schedule balanced with the three disciplines (oval, road, street), crank up the boost pressure to 1000+ ponies, strip off the downforce and watch the show! Think about the excitement of 250mph down the front straight and having to outbrake the leader into Turn 1 at Indy on the last lap?. ??
Scott B., Gainesville, FL
RM: Ah, if it were only that simple but you make a good point. The Texas NASCAR race was unwatchable, another 3-hour bore-fest on a 1.5-mile oval where the big drama is hot dog wrappers stuck on the nose or a pit speeding penalty. There is no comparison to IndyCar and NASCAR in terms of on-track product but the cruel reality is that about five million people still tuned in to watch last Sunday. NASCAR may be in a slow dive but when it comes to TV numbers, it’s still a monster compared to IndyCar. And I don’t see more power or innovation making that much of a difference to IndyCar’s TV figures.
Q: I know Andretti is looking at four- or even a five-car team for next year and Carlos Munoz full-heartedly deserves the job, but did Viso do enough during the year to stay? And with TK going to Ganassi, my prediction is that people will be surprised that he will not have much of a change in success from his KV years.
Everyone, for some reason, thinks that it is impossible to win if you’re not a Ganassi or Andretti or Penske driver but maybe in the next 10 years Sam Schmidt or Dale Coyne might pick up a superstar, get some money, run a three-car team and become a big dog. Yes it helps to have all that money behind you but most races are complete toss-ups and there are so many variables to lose a race (Will Power has seemed to run into all of them) and 75 percent of winning is strategy. Even if you have the best strategist, you’re going to make a mistake and lose some races. That’s where the little team drivers with examples like underrated Justin Wilson come in, but still it is simple to say that the big race teams have the best drivers and that is why they win so much.
Carrington, Ostrander, Ohio
RM: Viso didn’t have a bad year and I imagine if he had $6 million he’d still have a ride with Andretti, but it sounds like he may be going sports car racing. As for your theory, it’s true that Ganassi and Penske usually win the championship and Andretti is back up front as well but Coyne, Schmidt, A.J. Foyt and Ganassi’s B team all made it to Victory Lane in 2013 so things are about as level as can be expected.
Q: That comment in your column about Scott Dixon going incognito at the Chili Bowl caught my eye. Any chance that Dixon and/or some other IndyCar drivers would give it a whirl this year? Hope so! It would help make the off-season a little cooler for all us fans of the series. Tell ’em that even if they don’t run well, it’s just great PR for the series to have them come out. In some ways, getting beat is OK because it humanizes them to fans. I’ll bet Will Power can turn a good wheel in a midget too!
RM: I think Dixon and Power would both jump at the chance to run the Chili Bowl but Ganassi and Penske won’t let them do it. And it would be good PR for a series that’s lost touch with the American grass-roots fan. IndyCar needs to have a booth at the Chili Bowl all week with different drivers signing autographs and passing out IndyCar hats and T-shirts.
Q: Something I just don’t understand: IndyCar has so many problems with money, sponsors, TV ratings, etc. F1, on the other hand, seems to be oozing millions of dollars, the races are extremely expensive to attend and yet everyone wants to go. My question is, why? What’s the appeal? Their racing is nowhere near as good as IndyCar. Their drivers aren’t nearly as good with fans. What is the appeal? What am I missing? Why is IndyCar so far behind them?
John Sinclair, Palm Bay, FL
RM: Formula 1 is the pinnacle of technology in motorsports and that still has a big appeal worldwide. On top of that, countries support drivers and teams and Bernie’s global TV audience is enormous. I think most people watch F1 for the sight, the sounds, mastery like Schumacher’s or Vettel’s, and the technology.
Q: I’m excited to hear that [engineer] Bill Pappas is moving to RLLR. I like Dale’s squad of underdogs and his practice of taking a check from anyone has resulted in a jump-start to many careers, including PT’s. What I never liked was the fact that too often we were treated to watching interchangeable no-talent, but rich Speraficos driving around like moving chicanes. That changed when he actually gave Justin Wilson a contract, and was rewarded with a W.
It is too bad his squad will be dealt the blow of losing a great engineer, but now there are no excuses for Graham, who hopefully will be able to show the talent that had him net second place in his third Champ Car outing, and a win in his first IndyCar race. Now it is time to put the pedal to the metal and show everyone he can be the man.
Any chance RLLR will take Justin as well, and have Bill Pappas fill a Mike Hull-sort of role as a director of engineering for the whole team?
Trevor Bohay, Kamloops, B.C., Canada
RM: Pappas is one of the best and I think he’ll do wonders for Rahal’s confidence and performance (the kid was a fixture in the Fast 6 just a couple years ago before he lost his confidence). As for Coyne, we were all thrilled when Justin pulled into Victory Lane at Watkins Glen in 2009 but instead of building on that, he let Wilson get away. But that’s Dale, possibly the only owner who’s made a profit the last 20 years. I was hoping Wilson would join RLL but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
Q: So JWil’s engineer Bill Pappas is moving to RLL to be Graham’s engineer. Great hire from Graham’s perspective, but where does that leave Justin Wilson? Does he leave Coyne after that move? For a driver who was fourth in the standings going into the last race, I don’t understand this. It seems Dale Coyne should have done anything and everything to keep him, if Justin is staying.?
RM: Mike Cannon is going to be Justin’s engineer for Coyne and, as I explained in the question above, Dale let Wilson get away after he and Pappas got him a win so he doesn’t get into bidding wars. And I think Bill simply wanted to get back to Indianapolis instead of commuting ” plus I think he welcomes a new challenge.
Q: Say it ain’t so! Mike King has resigned. From what’s been said online, sounds like the IMS Radio crew isn’t paid all that much. Any clue yet who will be the TV or radio IndyCar voice????
And, is Dragon Racing done? Will anyone buy their leftovers and get a car/lease for 2014????
Greg, Belleville, NJ
RM: I wanted to have a celebration party after I heard the news but Lucas Oil Stadium was booked so I guess I’ll grieve in private. ?Paul Page, Bob Jenkins and Mark James are the three names I’ve heard so far.
Dragon is done with IndyCar full time but I think Jay Penske still wants to compete at Indianapolis, maybe in both races. The rumor was that Roger Penske bought Jay’s cars but he told me that’s not true, so I imagine somebody will step up.
Q: While I was watching a replay of the 2013 Fontana race I heard one of the commentators use the term “pilot” instead of “driver” and that made me wonder, would IndyCar be more successful if they marketed it less as “cars and drivers” but more as “fighter jets and pilots for the road”?
RM: Maybe if they were running 240mph like CART did at Fontana back in the late ’90s but any kind of marketing ” using drivers or pilots ” would be welcome.
Q: Given Kimi Raikkonen’s stature and Lotus’ standing, I was surprised to hear he hadn’t been paid all year. I was curious if getting paid is an issue for drivers in IndyCar, given how many teams run on shoestring budgets? I’m also curious to how they are paid ” salary, per race? And do they still get paid if they miss races due to injury? I can’t imagine A.J., Mario, or Uncle Bobby driving even one race with payment in arrears.
Steve, Aurora, Colo.
RM: Oh yeah, it’s been an issue for as long as there have been drivers and owners, though thankfully not too prevalent in IndyCar. I know a driver that was promised half of the purse if he qualified at Indianapolis and he never got a penny, and I know of another driver who didn’t get paid all season but didn’t want to take legal action because he thought it might hurt his reputation in the IndyCar paddock. Some get retainers and a percentage, some just get a flat fee and some get a percentage only. I doubt if anybody ever stiffed A.J. for fear of a bloody nose and the other two you mentioned were quite clever about being paid for their services.
Q: Just wondering if there is any chance to have an IndyCar race at COTA? Does having F1 race there prevent such an event? It’s really an incredible facility and a shame if IndyCar could never race there.
Aaron Gumbinger, Walnut Creek, CA
RM: I think there’s an excellent chance it will be on the 2015 schedule.
Q: Formula 1 was going to run at New Jersey but that is turning out not to work at all. I know New Jersey has spent money on repaving the roads and building brand-new garages, so why doesn’t IndyCar step in and snatch up that venue with so much potential? It seems like it is a similar situation with how IndyCar got Long Beach from Formula 1 a long time ago.
On a side note, next year I can finally get my bronze badge, so I am going to be at Indy next May as much as possible. Can’t wait to see the cars go 230mph.
Hunter Smith, Plainfield, IND
RM: I’m sure Mark Miles and Derrick Walker will talk to those Jersey promoters but the whole thing sounds kind of shaky to me, so I imagine that Austin will be priority No. 1 for IndyCar. Long Beach was different because it was already established when CART took over in 1984. Enjoy your month of May.
Q: I love the idea of an IMS road course race as much I love the Daytona road course track (or just the “roval” track) because they look like stadium tracks where you can see a lot more of the race instead just 24 cars passing by and than stand still waiting 85 seconds to see them passing by again. ?Shouldn’t that concept receive more attention when it comes to “how to bring more people into racetracks?” I mean, I know oval racing is falling and they are “stadium format” already but I’m talking about building some new and excellent road courses inside several ovals. They all could be faster with great turns. They are giants! Also, you see Lucas Oil Off Road series, TORC, GRC and all those Motocross and Supercross getting so big attendance with their stadium format. Its inspiring, don’t you think???
Giu Canbera, Sao Paulo, Brazil
RM: Well there are not many vantage points at IMS to see the whole road course so fans will depend on the big screens just like they do for the Indy 500. I imagine your theory would fly provided all these ovals thought they could draw big crowds at a road race but, as history shows us, that’s not likely no matter how bitchin’ the circuit becomes.
Q: I saw the news that Chime bought Zak Brown’s JMI. I recall Zak being one of the names being thrown around for a position with the Hulman clan, although, if I’m not mistaken, he moved to England to strengthen their European presence and the rumors of him getting hired on at 16th and Georgetown died down or were outright dismissed. Any chance this buyout might free up Zak and open that door again?
I read that one of my all-time favorite underdog F1 Teams, Super Aguri, is getting into Formula E. On that note, things seem to be clicking along in the development of Formula E ” their calendar is filling out and they are getting a bunch of teams signed up like Andretti Autosport and Dragon Racing. I think a Formula E race at Indy as part of the month of May would be pretty cool, too. Since the Speedway has been an integral part of the history of the development of those crazy horseless carriages, it seems fitting for electric racing development to be a part of the history, too. I’m probably in the minority, but I would love to see Formula E at the Speedway in May.
Travis R., Noblesville, IN
RM: I think Zak took a long look at the IMS/IndyCar job and turned it down for a reason. There’s a good story about Formula E in the new RACER magazine by Marshall Pruett and a May race to coincide with IndyCar’s road course debut might be a good fit.
Q: My thought is: I don’t think the IndyCar series is going anywhere as long as it’s owned by the Hulman/George group. It’s obvious to me that they don’t really care about anything other than the Indy 500. I really believe someone with skin in the game as far as the series is concerned could really help turn this series around. What do you think?
DJ, Anderson, IN
RM: I think the family does care about the IndyCar Series but you have to remember it no longer controls its own board of directors, so they’re not actually calling the shots anymore. I think the best plan would be to have Roger Penske step down as a competitor and run everything but that’s not going to happen. Mark Miles is a smart guy with some decent ideas (just like Randy Bernard) but he may have more support from the board to try and make them work.
Q: Getting ready for a long off-season. Any rumblings about increasing the horsepower for 2014 from Chevy or Honda? Aside from Honda going to twin turbos, does Chevy have anything up their sleeve? Also, has anyone heard from Audi? Are they still interested in getting involved as a third engine manufacturer?
Dan Loken, Louisville, KY
RM: Had dinner with Will Power last week and he said it’s getting closer to 700hp on the road courses and starting to feel more like a Champ Car’s power, so that’s a good sign. Nothing from Audi to my knowledge.
Q: What’s PT up to these days? Any chance Vasser makes amends for the GEICO incident by offering him a proper farewell tour????
DP in CA
RM: Haven’t spoken to him lately but he was helping with his son’s racing career last time we talked. I feel bad we never really honored Tracy with any kind of ceremony or celebration and I don’t even think the media (myself included) gave him a proper sendoff in print. He certainly deserves one.
Q: I continue to be somewhat mystified by the tire rules in open-wheel racing, which are basically identical in F1 & IndyCar road and street races. Don’t misunderstand me ” I understand the rules well perfectly, I just don’t understand how it affects the on-track product. If the collection of options and primes that all teams receive are identical, and each team gets the identical number of tires per event, and each team is mandated to run each tire for at least one racing lap per event, isn’t the net effect on the racing zero?
I understand that occasionally the prime is a better choice for the race than the option, but that’s a rarity and really, all the teams have that figured out by the time the green flies anyway. So I reiterate: why have that rule in place? When I say “limit the amount of option tires a team gets to a total of 25 sets for entire season” I obviously mean limit the amount of option tires a team gets to a total of 25 sets PER CAR for an entire season. Also, I said “allow each team unlimited sets of prime tires per weekend,” but what I should have said was to allow each team a REASONABLE allotment of prime tires per car per weekend.
If I dug through the rules I’m sure I could come up with a number, but really…five sets of the primes through practice, three through qualifying, and three through the race (I can’t think of a road/street race in recent history that called for more than three stints)….that’s what, 11 sets? That should be enough, but let’s be generous and write the rule to say that each team receives an allotment of 12 sets of prime tires per car per race weekend and an allotment of 25 sets of option tires per car per season, to be used as the team sees fit. THAT would impact the racing.
Doug Bowles, St. Albert, Alberta
RM: I have to say that the way it’s laid out now does make for quite a lot of drama in qualifying (a fast guy tries to save a set for the Fast 6 by taking a chance on scuffed reds) and the race (a red set for the last segment can make or break your day depending on how they react) and I don’t think I’d change a thing.
Q: In the Mailbag of October 2, you listed some of the top chief mechanics of all time, but I didn’t see Clint Brawner’s name. Do you think he’s not deserving or was it an oversight? What is your take on his career?
Gerry Courtney, San Francisco, CA
RM: My take is that I’m an idiot if I didn’t mention Brawner and my excuse is that I just turned 64. He and Bignotti were the two best of their day and maybe ever. Clint was such a great character, and a hoarder of all parts, and he helped launch the careers of A.J., Jim McGee and Mario and had great success with Jimmy Bryan.
Q: I’m a die-hard F1 fan and was a die-hard Champ Car fan. I have only recently started to watch IndyCar, for the first time since the merger. I must say that I’m shocked by the amount of aluminum visible in the stands. I’ve been to the F1 Canadian Grand Prix in 2011, and 2013. In 2012 I went to Silverstone. All three of those races I was squished shoulder to shoulder in the stands. From 2003-’07 I went to the Portland Champ Car race and the stands were also packed. To see the stands so empty really saddens me. It makes me wonder, where have all the fans that where there gone?
Where I live I often see people wearing F1 hats and shirts, and I still sometimes see people wearing Champ Car hats and shirts. But I have only on one occasion see someone wearing an IndyCar shirt. I’ve started conversations with those who wear F1 gear or Champ Car gear. I often ask if they follow IndyCar, and almost always they say no, and that IndyCar doesn’t interest them. But, they rarely are able to say why.
Here’s a couple theories, It’s the cars and lack of innovation with them. One of my favorite subjects to talk with F1 fans are what updates and innovations the teams are bringing. Even in Champ Car I was able to discuss innovation with other Champ Car fans, because there were some areas that the teams were able to play with, even if it was to a lesser extent to that of F1. In IndyCar, that’s not possible and it removes a huge conversation topic among fans.
Another theory is; on race weekends, I often invite friends over to watch F1 races in the attempt to make them F1 fans, and I have succeeded in that. Many of my friends are almost as big F1 fans as I am. I then tried inviting them to IndyCar races, and they didn’t get interested at all. I don’t understand why because one of those races was Brazil, which was an awesome race. But there is something missing in IndyCar, and I can’t put my finger on it, maybe you can shed some light on it?
With that being said, the fans that followed CART and Champ Car are still around and are following F1 or sports cars, but aren’t following IndyCar. I realize that some are, me being one of them, but there are a lot who aren’t and the low attendance levels reflect that. What do you think Indy Car needs to do to bring the old crowd back?
RM: That’s the question we’ve been asking for the better part of 15 years. Indy died overnight in 1996 with the Indy Racing League and while CART maintained good crowds through the late ’90s, the open-wheel fans finally said enough at the turn of the century when the Indy 500 was still a joke. They were pissed off and many never came back. I have no idea how to make them care again but, obviously, just having great racing the past two years hasn’t made a difference.
Q: We hear so much about the small size of the crowds at IndyCar oval races. But isn’t that universal? I saw where Talladega sold only 50,000 tickets for the most recent NASCAR race, yet not one peep from the national media talking about all those fans posing as empty seats. It seems the real problem for IndyCar is generating more interest in the product, which might be helped by hiring someone who actually knows a little bit about marketing. It sucks to see what I believe is unquestionably the best racing series in the world dogged by news about low attendance.
PJ in Johnston, Iowa
RM: I’ve read stories about Bristol being half full, Daytona closing the backstretch grandstand, Texas using advertisements to cover up empty seats and Charlotte looking like a ghost town but here’s my take: drawing 50,000-80,000 instead of 120,000-160,000 is still a damn good crowd. And if 30,000 people show up at Iowa, that’s a damn good turnout for IndyCar. As for marketing, IndyCar has none at the moment but it also needs big sponsors making commercials and that’s not happening either.
Q: What makes an IndyCar test a test? If sometime this spring Lewis Hamilton or Kimi Raikkonen called one of the majors like Ganassi, Penske or Andretti, and said they were visiting America and would like to take a few unofficial laps in an Indy car, would it be possible, or would it be considered testing? After the season, if Danica made a call to Andretti and said she would love to take a few laps in the DW12 that she never got to drive, would that be testing? What if she said Dale Jr. wanted to do the same? To me, testing is driver or car evaluation, not public relations or professional interests.
And a Rahall question: Will Rahal use the National Guard sponsorship to field a third car, or to replace one of their current sponsors. If it’s a replacement, what sponsor are they losing?
John in Charleston
RM: Ayrton Senna tested Emerson Fittipaldi’s car once at Firebird Raceway in Phoenix and CART wisely accepted that as great PR, which would be IndyCar’s take as well if Little E or Kimi wanted to make some laps.
I would imagine RLLR would expand to two cars with Guard sponsorship.
Q: In the October 30 issue of the Mailbag you said, ?Maybe blow up the rules and open things up to anything with four wheels and an engine.? While I would like to see this happen, I think it’s a dream at best. However, a spec series is just that, a spec series, read ?Boring?? What if IndyCar relaxed the rulebook? Allow teams to experiment and try new things by tweaking the existing regulations.
A team might propose an idea to IndyCar before a race and let them decide whether or not a team could race with their new idea. If the idea proves to be a good one after the race, IndyCar could present that idea to the rest of the teams so they could use it next race. If the idea was too good after the race, IndyCar could say ?Uh uh.. don’t do that again?. (Remember Jeff Gordon’s Beast at the All-Star Race a bunch of years back?)
I do think relaxing the rules and letting teams try things would sway the competition a bit, but it might create an exciting draw. Handing the other teams the idea that worked would eliminate any advantage and bring things back in line for the next go ?round, all while building IndyCar’s competition and, most importantly, it’s draw. If an idea was too good or too expensive, IndyCar could squelch it before it would give any team an unfair advantage.
Bill Phypers, Brewster, NY
RM: That’s the plea from Penske and Ganassi, to allow some innovation and modification, so I guess the questions remain: What if that separates things like the old CART days and we no longer have 10 winners in 19 races? Is that good or bad? Does it help or hurt the TV audience? Does it sell more tickets?
Q: I just want to say that members of my family and I saw a fantastic sporting event at Fontana. Reasonable prices, nice tailgate parties, and great racing made for one of the best experiences we have had for years. Yeah, the crowds were not the same as in the good old days, but all sports have experienced this. Capturing today’s young people involves competing with infinite choices of entertainment. IndyCar is holding its own.
I do think that minor tweaking over the next few years regarding horsepower and car design will help, but I think that IndyCar is heading in the right direction. I know that with DVRs and great TV coverage, it is easy to stay home. But I encourage all casual fans in California to go and see the races at Long Beach and Fontana. TV never completely captures it.
John P, Glendora, CA
RM: Glad it was a good time and I heard from several people who decided to ?give IndyCar racing another chance? that they were happy with Fontana’s prices and the racing. When there are 90,000 permanent seats and it’s one-third full (at best), it looks pretty desolate but I know the people who did show up were satisfied customers.
Q: I was watching an old film of the 1991 Canadian GP and they asked Nigel Mansell what he thought of the (then proposed) change of rules in CART to go from turbo engines to 3.5-liter normally aspirated engines. And do you know what his exact words were? “If you go that route, I think it will be the biggest sad mistake the series will ever make.” ?Pretty amazing how accurate that prediction was. Maybe they should hire Mansell to run Indy Car, since he seems to know what he’s talking about.??
Dave Zipf, Newark, DE
RM: Yes Mansell was right, but don’t forget that while CART considered abandoning turbos, it never did and that it was the IRL that adapted that formula in 1997.
Q: I was a Raul Boesel fan. Can you remind me when this was: There was an Indy 500 during the CART era when, if I remember correctly, Boesel (I think he was driving for Dick Simon) basically had the race in hand until some penny-ante penalty was called on him and he got robbed. What year was that? I’d like to look up that race.
What did you think of Boesel as a driver? Where do you think he ranked vs. his contemporaries? And what is Raul doing nowadays?
Dean Abramson, Raymond, ME
RM: It was 1993 and Boesel had qualified third for Simon and was leading when he got a questionable penalty for pitting and working on his car (USAC claimed the pits were closed but I recall he was already on pit road). It cost him a shot at victory and he finished fourth. I liked ?Stay Cool Raul? and he was a good, solid racer. Last time I heard, he was chasing women in Brazil. That was his favorite sport.
Q: Now that the IndyCar season is behind us, we can finally focus on something far more important: midget racing! With that said, who do you like for the Turkey Night Grand Prix? And, it’s never too early to start thinking about the Chili Bowl. Who will come out on top this year in Tulsa? Along those same lines, do you have any good stories to share with Mailbag readers from either of these events?
Jay Matheny, Mayfield, KY
RM: I predict a helluva battle between Chris Bell, Rico Abreu, Kyle Larson and Bryan Clauson on Turkey Night at Perris and Kevin & Sammy Swindell will rule in Tulsa. First time I towed my midget to Ascot Park for Turkey Night, there were 105 entries: no last chance race, just qualifying or go home. And Ronnie Shuman was unbeatable, winning four in a row.