Welcome to the Robin Miller Mailbag as presented by Honda Racing / HPD. You can follow the Santa Clarita, Calif.-based company at http://hpd.honda.com/ and on social media at @HondaRacing_HPD and https://www.facebook.com/HondaRacingHPD . Your questions for Robin should continue to be sent to email@example.com We cannot guarantee we’ll publish all your questions and answers, but Robin will reply to you.
And if you have a question about the technology side of racing, remember that Marshall Pruett tackles them in his Tech Mailbags each week. Please send tech questions to PruettsTechMailbag@Racer.com.
Q: Your mid-season report card looked about spot on, especially the teams at the bottom end. RLLR has been pretty lackluster, and it makes me wonder if the problem isn’t the guy behind the wheel. Graham has had plenty of opportunities now to prove what he’s got. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the problem is with his driving. Whenever he’s in a fast car, he’s lightning. It seems though that poor machinery follows him around from team to team.
I’ve never been in an engineering meeting with the guy, and for all I know he may give great feedback in terms of what he wants out of the car, but it seems he has trouble developing the car in the right direction over the long term. Each team he goes to, he’s quick in the beginning of the relationship, very positive, but slowly tapers off and eventually loses his way completely. I’ve never heard one person complain about having “no feeling” in the car as much as Graham. You’re a big fan of his so I would assume you’ve talked to plenty of people he’s worked with. What do engineers say about him?
Is he too sensitive about how the car handles? Is lack of ability to develop a car part of his downfall? What’s the deal?
On another note, I sure hope Newgarden can get some more luck in the second half of the season. If that kid had a nickel for every time he was taken out by a title contender….
RM: Good question Trey. I think Graham knows what he wants and certainly had a comfort zone at Newman/Haas when he was a fixture near the front in 2009 and at the end of 2011 with Ganassi. It’s got to be confidence because I heard him tell a reporter recently he wasn’t that good a qualifier. Well he damn sure could pull out a fast lap a couple years back so I don’t know what to think except starting 17th (his average this season) is indicative of the problem. I realize he’s got a new engineer for the fourth straight year but it’s taking a lot longer to gel than anyone expected. Having said that, his starts and restarts are among the best and he’s had a couple decent runs ruined by somebody else’s mistake in 2014. But this is a results business and he’s only got two podiums in two years for RLL. They had a good test at Iowa recently and his street setup seems decent so hopefully the second half of the season will be good.
As for your other point, how could Chip not be pursuing Josef?
Q: I enjoyed and even agreed with your mid season report card so what grades would you give the individual eight rounds of races so far?
Gerry Courtney, San Francisco, CA
RM: Indianapolis scores the only A, the last six laps being as good as it gets. Long Beach, Indy GP and Detroit opener were Bs and everything else was a C.
Q: It seems like every year lately we have a good month of May momentum is gained then we race at Detroit and then comes Texas and it’s like the air is sucked out of the room. So many people arguing about that race and honestly, as a person that used to go to Kentucky Speedway, SMI is not a fan of IndyCar. I don’t want to see Texas dropped but for sure want to see it moved toward the tail end of the schedule.
I have been a huge Indy car fan since the early ’90s and still love it today. I try to go to three events a year – this year it’s GP of Indy, Mid-Ohio, and I am making my first trek to Iowa with my son. I used to go to Richmond and loved it so Iowa was high on my want list. But going to its website now the France family has bought it, it already seems like IndyCar is moving to the back burner and I worry for that event.
I wish IndyCar could afford to buy tracks and then we could control the promotion of the event. We need so much more excitement for the other events outside of Indy 500. If they could bottle 30 percent of the event they create for Indy and place it on other events I think we could at least start it moving in the right direction. I love that my kids love IndyCar; it’s a sport that I feel the drivers are great examples to look up to. No drug scandals weekly or shootings or the nonsense seen in a lot of other sports.
My last observation is value: I went to Pocono last year, loved the track and event wanted to support Brandon for his love of IndyCar but one race on Sunday just does not do it to me. I go to Mid-Ohio every year and enjoy the value – three to four races on race day – same with GP of Indy. At least at Richmond they ran a Silver Crown race as well before the Indy Cars.
RM: There was a reason that Milwaukee followed Indy every year and was packed but that formula got blown up in The Split and I think it needs to be reinstated. The Hulman/George family already has enough debt from IndyCar without buying tracks but I think the Iowa promoter will try his best to keep IndyCar front and center because it usually draws a nice crowd. And I think your son will enjoy the race. I liked Pocono’s prices and promotion for IndyCar but, you are right, people need and want more than just one race nowadays.
Q: I think it is time for IndyCar to look elsewhere rather racing at Texas Motor Speedway. The crowds are down, the racing is boring. I heard that Gossage is still making money, but to the TV audience, it sure doesn’t look good. There was a storm in the Nashville area and the power was out for a while during the race and I missed the first half, but I really didn’t miss much…case in point. When IndyCar was racing at Nashville, there were at least 25 to 30 thousand, which filled up the stands. The new owner wants racing to return and with a local driver from Hendersonville, Newgarden, I think it would be a good marriage. What are the chances of maybe adding on Nashville?
Michael Yarber, Murfreesboro, TN
RM: Texas needs to be a one-day show or dropped altogether because, for whatever reason, attendance continues to plummet. To be honest, I think Nashville was closer to 15,000 people but the grandstand was always packed. I guess if Firestone pushed for a return it could happen but it’s not on IndyCar’s radar at the moment.
Q: I know you’ve probably been asked this many times but is there a reason why IndyCar isn’t racing at the Circuit of The Americas? Is it because they don’t want to make Eddie Gossage angry twice a year?
RM: Don’t think you’ll ever see three races in Texas but I’d certainly give Austin a try if there was any interest. Maybe open or close the season down there. A double-header with the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship would give it a chance to be successful. But Gossage doesn’t carry a big stick anymore so IndyCar can’t worry about appeasing him.
Q: I thought it was pretty cool seeing Graham Rahal at Bristol. Do you think there is a possibility of a race there in the future? The NASCAR trucks returned to Gateway this weekend. What do you think the chance of an IndyCar return there?
RM: Rahal ran some laps in a Ford Mustang the other day in Thunder Valley and was impressed to the point of suggesting that maybe IndyCar test at Bristol to see if there could be any future. I think the St. Louis promoter would like to have Indy cars back but don’t think IndyCar is interested.
Q: If IndyCar races at Bristol, I’m there and bringing friends. Get it done Graham.
Matt Converset, Decatur, IN
RM: I don’t know how many cars would still be running after an hour but it damn sure would be entertaining while it lasted.
Q: The show is most important. Formula 1 is learning the hard way that the show matters: quiet electric cars are turning people off. I don’t understand why IndyCar doesn’t get it either. I like solid racing; I’m a race fan, but to attend a race I also want a show: loud engines, big horsepower, standing starts, intimidating stuff. Titanium plates would be a terrific addition – a great visual in person and on television. I loved that in F1 in the early 1990s; that would look great on IndyCar, too.
IndyCar should be like the carnival coming to town, and the carnival these days should be centered on road and street courses. Indy, Pocono, Iowa, Milwaukee are about the only oval tracks left these cars should be racing on. Michigan, California, and most certainly Texas don’t belong on the schedule. Those tracks aren’t about skill, they’re about a cavalier attitude toward living. Therefore, the show stinks. (P.S. Bend Miles’ ear and get the show back to Denver.)
Steve, Aurora, Colo.
RM: You speak for many Steve but the HP keeps creeping up and standing starts are in use at various places with aero kits on the way for 2015. Ovals should always have a place but, sadly, the viable ones are becoming extinct and that’s why the schedule is weighted toward road racing.
Q: Have you heard any information on the 2015 aero kits? Will Honda and Chevy at any point during this season unveil a rolling kit or rendering? Finally, unrelated to IndyCar, but Jay Penske/Dragon Racing left IndyCar for Formula E. His team has been quiet since announcing their intention to run in the series. Any news on that front? I know that Andretti Autosport already has their first driver and may use current IndyCar drivers for the second seat.
John from Chardon, Ohio
RM: They tested the new “floors” of the 2015 cars last week at Pocono but the aero kits won’t be introduced until the fall. Haven’t heard a sound from Jay or Formula E (pardon the pun) and I really can’t get too enthused about it. We’ve got too many series already.
Q: Your compatriot over at the Indianapolis Star is reporting that “there are no immediate plans to change the apron or the warm-up lanes” at IMS? Huh?! I thought it was written in stone when IMS made the announcement this past winter that the apron would be added in time for the 2014 Brickyard 400 and 2015 Indy 500. Please tell me he’s confused!
Steve, Eden Prairie, MN
RM: The original plan was to start putting the apron back in following last month’s Indy 500 but that’s been put on hold. There had also been talk of using it for NASCAR but not for IndyCar, which makes no sense, but now it sounds like it’s still being considered for both, down the road.
Q: News from a magazine in my dentist’s office…..the top five U.S. companies with the largest annual advertising budgets, in order, 1) AT&T – $1.59 billion, 2) Verizon – $1.43 billion, 3) Chevrolet – $958 billion, 4) McDonald’s – $957 billion and 5) GEICO – $921 billion. Certainly, IndyCar has teamed up with a potential gold mine. What do you hear or see as far as any future Verizon plans to promote IndyCar?
Also, if the season is going to be shortened, then you need to run almost every weekend. These lulls are killing. Start the season earlier, even if on foreign soil, but get the product out there. Out of sight, out of mind. Have to think a big part of the tin-tops’ success is that you can see them nearly every weekend, on both Saturday and Sunday. You sure can’t complain about IndyCar “diluting” their product.
RM: The Verizon commercials I’ve seen are slick and a lot more are on the way so hopefully they’ll inundate the airwaves on prime time programs. But, make no mistake, having Verizon may be IndyCar’s only chance to get national marketing and they’re just getting started. Not sure we’ll have any mechanics left after this next six-races-in-four weekend siege but every other week would be a perfect schedule.
Q: I’m sitting in a hotel room in Burlington, Ontario and what do I see on the TV but James Hinchcliffe in a Honda commercial. It got me thinking about the last time I saw an IndyCar driver in the U.S. on a commercial. The last I could remember was in 2012 when Marco dryly sold a fake classroom of kids on the virtues of corn ethanol which played during the Iowa Corn 250.
I thought back to a conversation I had a few years ago before the Firestone 550, which runs less than 30 miles from where I live. I overheard a conversation between two gentlemen who were looking forward to watching the NASCAR truck race the night prior to the 550, because, as one gentleman put it, “at least I know who some of those guys are.” I questioned him on any of the IndyCar guys he might have heard of and he responded with “that Andretti kid” “that dancer Hee-Lee-o” and “that Wheldon guy.” In order words, the marginally successful third generation of a legendary racing family, a former winner of the Mirror Ball and a driver who had died eight months prior were all these racing fans could come up with.
I get that IndyCar drivers may not be the most marketable on four wheels, but I find it hard to believe that the guys at 16th and Georgetown can’t find one guy who can’t sell a few Chevrolets, Hondas, or even Verizon data plans. I understand entirely that a few commercials may not point the needle straight upward with fans, but you can’t tell me that any of the companies with a vested interest in IndyCar throwing one of these guys in front of a camera pushing a Camaro, Corvette or Accord and showing them thundering through the Turn 1 section at Sonoma or pushing hard onto Shoreline Drive is a bad thing. Well, maybe you can, but I won’t buy it.
RM: Novo Nordisk did a national spot with Charlie Kimball and Shell used Castroneves last year but Honda and Target were the ones who really carried the national banner back in the CART days. General Motors is too busy recalling cars to spend any money on marketing IndyCar and I think Honda and Target are watching their pennies these days so it’s kinda up to Verizon and I think you’ll be impressed with their efforts.
Q: Can RACER get an IndyCar roundtable to try to find out why younger drivers can’t get into the series? Yes we know you need to bring sponsors but larger teams like Target and Ganassi can do it like Andretti does. We need more of these 20-something racers before they give up and go to NASCAR to attract new, younger fans. I dislike NASCAR but look at how they do it; it’s seamless. Take RCR as an example. Also, I keep hearing about IndyCar needing to get back on the cutting edge and needing to innovate; what does this mean and how? What direction does IndyCar see itself going?
Joseph N. Lawson
RM: Well there are some young drivers like Hawksworth, Huertas and Aleshin but the only American (Sage Karam) got one race. For whatever reasons, The Captain and Ganassi don’t seem to rate young Americans anymore so, unless you’re Kimball with a good sponsor or you have a partner like Dennis Reinbold to help like Karam, you won’t be driving for one of those teams. Andretti made it a priority to find steady work for Ryan Hunter-Reay and was rewarded with a championship and now an Indy 500 win. But how or why Josef Newgarden hasn’t been snatched up by Ganassi or Penske baffles me.
A lot of fans want a return to open competition instead of spec cars and beastly horsepower to try and bring back Indy’s drawing power for practice and qualifying. Probably not going to happen but Derrick Walker & Company are hoping aero kits and the gradual increase in horsepower may get a new track record at IMS by 2016.
Q: I religiously watch the GP2 series. I read that it cost $2.4 million to run a season. I read that Indy Lights is about half that amount, maybe less. Yet if you look at the top 3 in the 2013 championship in both series only one person (Carlos Munoz) moved up. Champs of both series are sitting on the sidelines. Do you think the new changes in Indy Lights might prevent this issue? Do you foresee more IndyCar teams buying into the new Lights program?
RM: Jack Hawksworth won a couple Lights races in 2013 and moved up, Josef Newgarden used the Lights’ title money to land with Sarah Fisher and 2013 Lights champ Sage Karam at least got to run Indy with his bonus money. But the problem is that IndyCar needs to guarantee its Lights champion a season (like Champ Car did with Simon Pagenaud after he won the Atlantic title) because it’s a dead end without that or scoring a big sponsor. Dan Andersen is offering incentives to change the culture and draw people to Lights but it remains a pricey proposition. Michael Andretti supports all the feeder series and it would nice to see Penske and Ganassi follow suit but they obviously choose not to for some reason.
Q: Do you really think Jacques Villenueve will actually come back to IndyCar on a full-time basis next year? I think it has been fun to watch Montoya back in the saddle of an open-wheel car after so many years. But Villenueve? I know he did very well (14th at the 500), but full time?
Enjoyed your midseason report. I couldn’t agree with you more on your assessments of Jack Hawksworth and Mikhail Aleshin. The new kids on the block are having exceptional rookie seasons (not always with points though).
Thanks again for the Dan Gurney video series. It would be great, if it’s possible, to have a DVD of the full interview in the back of Dan’s autobiography for Christmas.
RM: I would never rule anything out with Villeneuve but not really sure he wants to spend that much time in the USA. Good idea on Gurney DVD, I’ll run it by Paul Pfanner of RACER.
Q: I’ll start by saying I was a big CART then Champ Car fan. I was lucky enough to witness a few of each series and it was an awesome show of speed and power. For the past 15-18 years my interest has shifted more to ALMS, Grand-Am, and now the TUDOR sports car series. I have for the past nine years been lucky enough to go to the Rolex 24 and Petit Le Mans and love them both. At Road Atlanta you find a location to camp or sit and you watch what’s in front of you combined with a TV, while at Daytona you do the same or you can sit high in the stands and see a majority of the track.
My question comes for the fan experience. Many sports cars old fans hate the “roval” of Daytona but it gives great sightlines. Why would IMS put seats in their infield to make it impossible to see around the track? Would it not help to race on infield course inside ovals so the fans could watch most of the road course? I remember reading about Talladega having an infield course as well as many other large tracks.
Andrew in SC
RM: If I understand your question correctly, you wonder why IMS built seats for the infield track? They only added a couple grandstands and the spectator mounds but it matters not because there’s no chance you could ever see all the way around the Speedway – too many permanent grandstands and buildings. And not many people want to go to a road course inside an oval. IMS is an anomaly. At least, it was last May.
Q: IndyCar can’t even do double-file rolling restarts and F1 is going to do standing restarts? F1 is feeling pressure to improve the show. IndyCar needs to step up their game if they feel single-file restarts should be the normal and not the exception. I fully concede that there are exceptions, but it shouldn’t be the case everywhere. My other rant is the lack of standing starts in IndyCar. They need to make it happen.
Ryan in West Michigan
RM: Actually, IndyCar did a real good job with double-file restarts but the drivers managed to get rid of them (against the fans’ protests) and it’s too bad because it certainly added to the entertainment value. There will be two more standing starts this season (one each at Houston and Toronto) and I know Long Beach certainly enjoyed theirs. They should be mandatory at all street circuits.
Q: With Marco Andretti’s throwback-retro paint scheme resembling Michael Andretti’s Indy car from the ’80s when he was sponsored by Kraco, do you think it’s possible that, in the future, Michael will have someone in his team have a paint job similar to the infamous Kmart/Texaco Havoline Special from the early ’90s when he drove with Newman/Haas? That would be one of many epic things to see. Especially now that I can hardly wait to be at the Pocono race in July. I’m so excited!
Aaron, Media, PA
RM: I imagine it could happen if Texaco wanted to sponsor a throwback paint design but I would think Snapple has something to say about what schemes are used.
Q: Please update your list of living Indianapolis 500 drivers who raced in front engine roadsters and also the list that race at Indy in both front- and rear-engine cars. Any stories past or present always appreciated.
RM: A.J., Parnelli, Mario, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock, Bobby Unser, Jim McElreath, Chuck Hulse, Paul Goldsmith, Bill Vukovich, Mel Kenyon, Joe Leonard and Bob Harkey are still kicking and all raced/or drove roadsters and rear-engine cars (Dan Gurney took his rookie test in John Zink’s roadster at Indianapolis in 1962 and Goldy practiced in Jack Adams’ rear-engine car in 1965).
Q: Robin, you were quoted several times in the book “Beast” about the development of the Penske/Ilmor/Mercedes pushrod CART engine. Excellent read, by the way. Do you know if those three cars still exist with those engines in them or did they use the chassis with other engines after they banned the pushrod engine. By the way, why did the Indianapolis Star gas you?
Gary, Anza, CA
RM: I’ll ask Jade Gurss, the author, but I believe one of those cars is in Roger Penske’s museum in Arizona but have no idea what happened to the engines. I imagine Mercedes proudly displays one of them somewhere. The Star claimed it was because I used vulgar language in e-mails (really?), helped Kenny Brack start his website and borrowed money from Tom Sneva, but the real reason is that they wanted to be business partners with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Which they’ve been since a couple days after I was fired.
Q: I have never asked for an autograph, but I have three gifts that I treasure: John Kennedy, A. J. Foyt and Chuck Yeager. But my best is not a signature, it’s personal interaction with another hero. Tom Binford’s old partner invited me to attend a small party in the IMS Turn 2 suites the Friday before the track opened in 1994. We watched three Mustang pace cars do a few laps with the tires screaming as water funneled through the treads at high speed. One car simply left the others and for good reason: the special guest, Rick Mears was piloting.
Donald Davidson hosted the question and answers and I got the final one: “Rick, just a few weeks ago I was watching the 1991 race again and marveled as Michael passed you into Turn 1 on the restart late in the race, and as the announcers were still giddy with excitement, you then passed him the next laps on the OUTSIDE of Turn 1 at 220mph [famously subtle Rick Mears smiles enter stage right]. So the question is, HOW HAIRY WAS IT?” The great pleasure I had was not just his answer; it was seeing him completely engaged and appreciative of my question, and you could hear a pin drop: Mears, smiling and doing the fighter pilot hand maneuvers: “When we came off a yellow, the front grip was such that I had a little push. When the tires were up at full temperature, it was loose. The second full middle lap made the car PERFECT. So Michael gets me going into One on the restart and I let him go because I couldn’t hold it, and then cut down on me, kinda pissed me off, [smiles]. So I got a good run out of Turn 4 and I knew that I could drive the car anywhere but for only this one lap, so I took him on the outside of Turn 1 and I don’t think he saw it coming and the race was mine.”
Hope you enjoy. Have a tandem triple-matted, glass and framed Alexander photos and three language captions of Dan Gurney montage. Love the series.
Joe Wicker, Greenwood, Ind.
RM: Always good to end the Mailbag with a Rick Mears story. The Rocket doesn’t usually like to talk about himself but I think that ’91 pass is something he enjoys reliving.