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. Please send tech questions to PruettsTechMailbag@Racer.com.
Q: Rick Mears nailed it in his article on the direction the IndyCar Series should be going regarding car design as it relates to competition. It’s not so much a revelation as it is an affirmation of what many have already said. However, the way he explains it and calls on the drivers to adapt to it makes it all the more compelling. Robin, can you explain why nobody listens to Rick’s obvious explanation? Have we come to the point where, like in NASCAR, the show trumps true competition? I know you’re going to say the racing has been great, but how much better could it be if we put some of Rick’s ideas in place? I for one would love to find out.
John Fulton, Akron, Ohio
RM: Rick is like E.F. Hutton – when he speaks we should all listen and his RACER.com commentary about 2018 was loaded with logic from one who knows. I do think Derrick Walker and Will Phillips have listened to him because they are supposedly taking away downforce in 2015 but, as he stated, there’s a lot more involved than just the car. His equation of removing downforce and adding talent is exactly why the Indy 500 used to have the 33 best drivers.
Q: I am 27 years old and I have been an IndyCar fan for the past 18 years. In those 18 years, IndyCar or CART always had drivers that made watching the races interesting. Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Greg Moore, Buddy Rice, Dan Wheldon, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and several more. Hunter-Reay and Dixon are 34. Tony Kanaan is 40 and Helio (39) close behind while Will Power is 33. All of these drivers, IndyCar’s current star power, will probably be retired from IndyCar racing within the next 7-10 years.
In my opinion, there is currently only three drivers in the series younger than 30 who have the potential to have a star power impact on the series: Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, and James Hinchcliffe. All three lack results, and Marco, as well as Graham have never been overly friendly with fans (from my experiences). NASCAR has the same issue of having several of their drivers in their late 30s or early 40s. However, they have several drivers that have already made names for themselves who are younger than 25 and will be stars and big names in the racing world. Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, and several others.
My question is, has IndyCar taken notice of this problem? I believe this to be something needed to be addressed more than aero kits, the cars, expanding schedules, and the time of year they end the season.
This also got me thinking, do these IndyCar drivers such as Dixon, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Castroneves, Montoya, Power have the desire to continue their careers after IndyCar by racing in the IMSA sports car series? Is it possible that sports car racing has more upward potential than IndyCar? I am a huge Dixon fan, watched him since he won his first race at Nazareth for PacWest racing: has he ever made mention of racing full-time sports cars after IndyCar?
Derek Engelauf, Riverside, CA
RM: In 2013, Hinch had as many wins in one year (three) as Marco and Graham have totaled for their careers and, yes, it’s imperative for those two to become regular winners and title contenders but I’ve been saying that for six years. Trust me, Josef Newgarden and Sage Karam have the ability to step in for old guard but only if they get the proper chance. Hopefully Matt Brabham, Zach Veach and Spencer Pigot (all Americans) can continue their progression in open-wheel as well. I haven’t asked but I imagine T.K. and Dixie would stay interested enough for sports cars, not sure about Helio (maybe Brazilian stockers like Rubens?).
Q: Agree with you about the F1 castaways not helping generate momentum for IndyCar. The series needs a good set of American drivers that you don’t have to worry if they have a ride or not each year. The only exception is when one of the F1 castaways comes over and adds a car to the series that otherwise would not run. An example would be Aleshin last year. That car would not have run without his funding, and he didn’t take a seat away from someone. The series also needs a strong 25-car field each race. Is Justin Wilson going to KV, or if he is on the sidelines would he be an option for the CFH Racing No. 20 seat on road courses?
RM: My pal Nigel Roebuck of Motor Sport says that Jean-Eric Vergne [ABOVE] is everything a proper racing driver should be and deserves an F1 seat so maybe he would be a positive. Keep hearing JWill to KVSH but he would be perfect for Ed’s co-driver if that doesn’t work out.
Q: Arden and Fortec are certain to be thinking along the same lines as Carlin. All three offer “ladder series” opportunities for funded drivers, but it all stops at GP2 because that budget is nothing compared to F1. In the U.S. they can build the ladder to include the top rung (IndyCar racing) for the same funded drivers. Funded drivers have and will keep open-wheel racing alive. They, like the spectators, want to get the most for their entertainment dollar, so maybe Indy becomes a bargain. I miss the Jerry Karls and Roger Ragers, don’t you? Thanks for keeping my interest in Indy.
RM: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Our ladder system certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of purses but, compared to Europe, it’s a bargain to participate in and, as you stated, an affordable chance to take a young driver all the way to the top of American open-wheel racing. Carlin coming in gave Lights instant credibility with the Euros and more are likely to follow. One of the best things about May was watching Karl try and get some sh**box in the field and Rager qualifying 10th in 1980 with a school bus engine remains legendary. It was the Pat Santellos and Fred Ruths of the world that gave Indianapolis some of the personality that’s missing today: taking a chance and having a chance to qualify at Indy.
Q: In response to Paul from Carmel, who asked about Indy Lights at Laguna in the 12/24 mailbag, one follow-up point: USF2000 ran at Laguna in 2013 as an undercard on the IMSA bill. I love the young guys, and they love Laguna. When I asked a manufacturer’s press officer about the wisdom of running a junior open-wheel series in front of a sports car crowd, he pointed out that series and promoters sometimes shoe-horn disparate series together for business reasons. But he agreed – and I wonder if you do, too – that a young open-wheel racer needs to race in front of future employers, not in front of whatever circuit will host a race.
Scott Bloom, San Francisco
RM: It makes perfect sense because I think the sports car crowd and IndyCar fans have a lot of crossover. And, like you said, a lot of these drivers end up going the sports car route anyway.
Q: I know it is always difficult to include every single name when you are putting together a list of drivers who participated in multiple racing series, but I think your list of those who participated at Le Mans and also had success at Indianapolis should include Mark Donohue. I think the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans was one of Mark’s earliest races in the big leagues and he went on to finish fourth there in 1967.
RM: Good catch, Steve. I didn’t recall Donohue at Le Mans and of course he hadn’t become a star yet but I appreciate your information.
Q: 1) Do you think the successful Iowa Corn Indy’s concept of running an IndyCar race in a rural location with a local title sponsor could be the role model for new events for the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule of 2016 and onward? If so, which racetracks do you think are suitable for this?
2) Congrats to Dale Coyne of Dale Coyne Racing for having Alexander Rossi come round to the team’s shop and make himself comfortable in the #19 Boy Scouts Of America car. That is a cool combination for the naming rights holder, driver and team. I’m glad to see young American Rossi get a seat that can win races: another very smart move by team owner Coyne.
Now, what happens to the second car, the #18, is usually only officially announced the evening before the first practice session. That’s how Coyne does business, and given the fact that the #18 won a race each in both of the previous seasons, this seat should be a hot commodity among sponsored drivers looking for a ride.
I feel race winner Carlos Huertas deserves a sophomore season, at least running the road and street courses if he really does not like the ovals. This could turn the #18 into a shared ride with an oval specialist, and Ed Carpenter Racing’s #20 has proven this year that this is a winning concept. I wonder if Dale Coyne himself has thought about maybe bringing a veteran oval specialist to the #18 for the Indy 500 to give his talented rookie driver Rossi a teammate to learn from? If so, please feel free to hand this suggestion over to him. If Mike Conway can win in the #18, a champion like Buddy Rice surely would do a good job, too.
3) Speaking of Mike Conway, I understand why he prefers to have a full season ride with a manufacturer team in sports cars over a partial season IndyCar ride. Yet, who might Ed Carpenter look for to partner with in the #20? Here’s hoping the CFH Racing team gets a full season budget to run JR Hildebrand in the #21 car so the shared ride in the #20 can go to a road and street course specialist.
Who might be the driver content with not running the Indy 500? Simona? Martin Plowman? Giorgio Pantano? The performance of both sides of their garage, #20 and Josef Newgarden’s #67, have been impressive throughout the past two seasons. Here’s wishing another successful year to CFH Racing!
Yannick from Cologne, Germany
P.S.: It was great to see the DHL car win this year’s Indy 500! After all, German driver Timo Glock brought the sponsor to the States when he ran in Champ Car in the early ’00s. In fact, he is still sponsored by that corporation, driving in DTM.
RM: First off, Iowa is just like Pocono, Michigan and the old Ontario Motor Speedway – out in the boonies. That was the model because the land was cheaper and it worked for a long time but not so much anymore. Iowa’s crowd continues to drop off (and the weather has played a role) and Pocono is trying but struggling to draw people. Rossi hasn’t signed with Coyne yet and Huertas may still be in the frame so it would be cool to see an oval/road course share in that car. Think J.R. still has the inside line at CFH Racing for the #20 car.
Q: Like most readers, I don’t like the short season. Still, we need some outside-the-box thinking, so how about experimenting with a shorter season that ends with the Indy 500? Before you forever block mail from my e-mail address, consider this:
1) The Can-Am began as a six-race series over 2.5 months and grew to 11 races in ’69 before slowly eroding. The long off-season never hurt them, in part because the series drew stars from around the world and everyone always wondered what new thing would emerge from Midland, TX or elsewhere;
2) the resources that are now spread too thinly across a longer season could be consolidated and reallocated to make more technological innovation possible.
3) As interest in the series grows, the schedule grows in sustainable ways; (4) it gives us a whale of a season finale.
The challenges: 1) finding a good geographic mix of tracks in where we could race from March-May and 2) convincing sponsors that they could get enough exposure to justify the same levels of expenditures. This will require creative marketing and exposure across a range of media platforms. Perhaps instead, sponsors could be convinced to support teams/drivers in multiple series (think TUDOR Championship – there is a history of a promising partnership there) so that fans could develop loyalties for drivers in multiple disciplines. Such an arrangement could also keep mechanics employed year-round.
Paul Lewis, Macon, GA
RM: The talk of ending the season at Indy has ramped up lately (remember the IRL tried it in 1996) among the fans but it needs a viable plan (there is a suggestion in the next question) and a much better financial incentive. Crowning the Verizon champion at Indy would certainly garner the driver, team and series more attention than it does now but you don’t want it to take away from winning the Indy 500 either. The way it’s been done at Fontana lately (two separate celebrations) is fine, so it might work at IMS with a little tweaking. Tough call but you can’t have a three- or four-race season like the IRL tried because that proves nothing, so the trick is keeping up your season-long momentum. If you start the season in June, race until Labor Day, sit idle for six months and then try to get people interested in the championship again when March rolls around…well, good luck.
Q: Happy New Year!! I got a great book about Paul Newman from Matt Stone about his racing days. You got any good stories about him? I love the fact he stuck to his principles about supporting CART and Champ Car during the split, as well as being super competitive in a racecar at his age!
RM: I think my best stories were included in that book on Page 138. But here’s one that didn’t make it. We were at Long Beach and it was early Friday morning. PLN was reading the Wall Street Journal under his hospitality tent when three plus-sized women spied him. They excitedly motioned to me so I went over the ropes and they asked if he could pose for a photo. I went back over and said: “It would really make their day if you did that” so he looks at me and says: “What are you now, my PR man?” But he put down the paper and walked over and tried to put his arms around them (no luck). I said “smile” as I shot the picture and he did so, before wishing them a nice day. Trust me, it was the greatest thrill of their lives. A few seconds after they left he says: “Thirty years ago they would have been stacked and gorgeous.”
Q: If the Indy 500 would become the final race of a season….might this work for the schedule? The season begins one week after the “500” and the first half ends on Labor Day and a leader declared who would receive a trophy (money seems out of the question since IndyCar doesn’t believe in paying for winning!). Then the second half starts in Brazil of any other place willing to pay to have them in February or March, and running through the Indy Grand Prix…with another leader would be declared, (Yes, another trophy, this could add up), and then the “500” who regardless of where he/she (I think Danica will give it one more go) finished in the standings.
Since the Borg Warner Trophy is awarded anyhow. no new expenses will be incurred, and we’ll have three drivers (that is if race control uses its skills properly) who nobody will know or care about…well unless Danica wins!
I know I was a bit sarcastic but wouldn’t that actually work? (Well, that is if Boston Consulting agrees!!).
RM: Trophies are for slot car racing and SCCA but your idea could have some merit if there was decent money for running in the top-5 of each season with a big payout for the overall top-3. It’s an opportunity to bring in a couple of big companies to title sponsor those championships but you can’t p**s off Verizon, either, so where does all that extra money come from?
Q: Some interesting news to ring in the new year. I just saw a trailer for a movie called “Focus” starring Will Smith. It appears IndyCar is involved as IMDB has billed cast playing ‘Team Argentina’, ‘Team Italy’ and ‘Team Japan’. Have you seen or heard about this? Does IndyCar know about it? It releases February 27th so Mr. Miles need not worry. It opens after football season ends so the movie won’t compete against the NFL.
And what’s this about a TMZ report that BHA is griping about their sponsor bailing on sponsorship payments? Is this a constant problem (Russian enterprises aside?). Hope you have a happy new year.
Rob Peterson, Rochester, NY
RM: IndyCar does know about it and is involved so hopefully it will play better than “Drivel”, er, “Driven” did back in the late ’90s. Herta’s sponsor stiffed him but it’s not just a Russian thing, IndyCar owners have been getting stiffed by sponsors in all languages forever.
Q: A few days ago on Jeopardy, we got a dose of reality. NOBODY correctly answered The Indy 500, but they got the others in the category.
RM: That is tragic Mark, give me Suicide for $500.
Q: I don’t think it arguable that motor racing in any form, and our everyday means of transportation are reflections of each other. One gains from the other in many ways. A double-edged sword, however is the technology that has been traveling at light speed to “better” our experience, whether in a racing car, or our everyday driver.
As an example, the most blatant egregious technology that has been bestowed upon us has been the cellular telephone. It has no business being allowed while driving a vehicle, making it the most unsafe use of technology I can think of. So, too has technology tainted auto racing over the years. It has perhaps enhanced the overall efficiency, and to a degree safety of the car and driver; however it has done little, if anything to propagate the popularity of racing.
Setting aside the necessary funds to field racecar teams, the racing today has become more about technology than the men and women who compete. And, as with the case of IndyCar, and the spec series it has become, although admittedly allowing for some close racing, has not afforded the talents of each driver to really be shown. Engineers now win or lose races.
We hear and read all the time about how society has become more fractured due to cellphones, computers, video gaming, and other forms of technology, etc. IndyCar reflects this social blemish. It is too detached from the individual fan. It is cold and impersonal. It will continue to flounder with this platform until, once again the driver has control of who wins, or loses, not the engineers.
Michael Baley, Mount Joy, Pa.
RM: You echo some of what Rick Mears said in his RACER.com commentary last week and what A.J. Foyt has been saying for decades. To a large degree, computers and engineers replaced seat-of-the-pants logic or badasses like Lloyd Ruby and Gordy Johncock, who drove to the limit with no chassis savvy, just balls and talent. Paddle shifting and technology made heel-and-toe and smooth shifting extinct. It’s too late to go back but there was always something cool about A.J. and Bignotti, Mario and Brawner, Jud Phillips and Mike Mosley, Uncle Bobby, Gurney [ABOVE] and Wayne Leary, Big Al and Bignotti putting their heads together and figuring out the quick way around between practice sessions. It was more personal and maybe made people care more. Today, you can still make magic with a driver-engineer combo like Franchitti-Simmons, Pagenaud-Bretzman, Power-Faustino, Dixon-Bretzman, Kanaan-Cowdin and make noise with Newgarden-Milless or Hawksworth-Malloy – it’s just different and a lot more assembly line.
Q: I have enjoyed the sports car events at IMS over the last few years with the Grand Am/United SportsCar races on the road course. There isn’t an event scheduled this year (apart from SVRA, which was a blast last year). Does IMS have its sights on bringing a sports car series back?
RM: As Marshall Pruett reported on RACER.com yesterday, the World Endurance Championship and Indianapolis Motor Speedway met last summer to discuss a possible date in 2016.
Q: I recently went to the IMS museum and was impressed with the turbine display. Do you have any stories to share about what the establishment thought of them? I bet A.J. was not at all happy with them racing as they seemed a little strange compared to piston engines. Did these cars require different driving techniques vs. the standard cars of the day? Thank you and keep up the great work.
Terry Abel, Nineveh, Indiana
RM: It seemed like everyone was against the turbine even though Parnelli was one of the most popular drivers. He always talked about the throttle lag and adjusting to it but I think it was the first test at Phoenix that convinced him he had just driven something special. I recall the roar from the grandstands when Joe Leonard’s turbine quit coming down the front straightaway on a restart in 1968 and it sounded like 90 percent of the fans were happy it wasn’t going to win.
Q: I can’t help but notice in the Formula E race in Uruguay two weeks, there were couple of crashes during the race and I have to tell you, the yellow flags came out and the cars went racing in one lap.
With racing only 31 laps long, it’s a must for Formula E to have as much green-flag racing as it can. What surprised me is the speed at which the crashes were cleared and green-flag racing resumed. For a fledgling series to do this is incredibly impressive – and something that IndyCar should take notice of.
IndyCar has to get off the attitude “this is how it was done” to what’s the best way to shorten yellows. Which means shortening the yellow and get back to racing fast, and figuring out the pit situation, etc. I’ve been a longtime fan of Indy/CART series, and for some reason this past season I felt like the yellows were thrown unnecessarily and then the yellows last too long.
RM: I know it seems like cautions take forever in IndyCar [ABOVE] but, in fairness, many times the accident site is clean but the track sweeper is still clearing out the marbles. Street courses present problems that ovals don’t and vice versa but I think the safety crew makes every effort to get back to green ASAP.
Q: Longtime reader, first-time writer. As always, thanks for doing this amazing service to the fans. I wanted to ask your opinion about something I noticed today during our traditional winter family outing to the Speedway museum. In the gift shop, I noticed a shirt that said “INDYCAR- Driving Fast Since 1996,” and the first thing I said was, “Really?” Is this just alluding to the track record, or do they really expect people (especially new fans) to believe Indy cars weren’t going “fast” in any of the years before 1996? So… all those badass IndyCars out there in the museum aren’t fast, eh?
Not that a dumb T-shirt is really that big of a deal, but it’s things like this that really make me think about the people trying to market IndyCar. As someone who cares about the sport and wants to see it improve and attract new fans my age, it really bothers me that IMS not only continues to just push the “500” and those “500 cars” and not the series as a whole, but they also continue to push this concept that everything significant today in the series sort of “started” with the IRL.
If this series is to attract new fans and grow at all, it’s time for IMS to step up and promote the series – IMS is the beating heart of IndyCar, yet it does basically nothing to promote the schedule, the current car, or the drivers, let alone over a century of champ car history in this country. As a marketing student and a die-hard IndyCar fan, it kills me that most of my friends (some of whom are familiar with F1) have no idea what the heck INDYCAR even is, and some that are from Indy don’t even have a clue about the Speedway or the 500. Dumb stuff like this hanging on the walls makes me think the Speedway is still concerned with asserting the significance of the IRL, when they should be marketing the rich history and the evolution of the SERIES (AAA, USAC, CART/CHAMPCAR, IRL, and now INDYCAR) to new fans, and even more so, the diversity and thrill of the current product.
Long story short, if I’m marketing INDYCAR as a whole to new fans, I think they should know it’s the oldest, fastest, most diverse form of motorsport on the planet, and it’s been going pretty damn fast for a little more than 18 years now. Thanks for listening to my rant!
Shane Coogan (Harpo’s kid), Indianapolis
RM: Thanks for ranting; you sound a lot wiser than your years on this planet. As many of us have said, over and over, it’s insulting that shirt was ever printed, let alone sold. I’ve never seen anybody wear one at the track, so maybe that’s a good sign but all of them should be burned.
The crazy thing is that IMS honors its legends each May at the track, on the signboards and sometimes in the program, and also hosts the memorabilia show so it understands history is important. It needs to start printing the record book again because a helluva lot more people care about the past than the present. And all those pre-1996 drivers and cars are the reason IMS still exists. Your dad worked on Indy cars and raced sprinters so you have an insight but you also have an appreciation for why Indy meant so much to so many.
Q: I’ve always valued your opinions, so I wondered if you were a fan of the former IROC series. Sometimes I wonder how that series would do in today’s market? Now please don’t beat me up because some could argue NASCAR is the current version of IROC, but I loved seeing open-wheel drivers going up against the other series.
Mark McKinley, Floyds Knobs, IN
RM: Very much so because it gave Al Unser Jr. a platform to show he could drive a stock car or that Rusty Wallace could road race or that Steve Kinser could whip everyone at Talladega. I wish it still existed because it would give IndyCar drivers and talents like Bryan Clauson some much-needed exposure.
[ABOVE: Johnny Rutherford and Ronnie Peterson battle at Daytona in IROC ’75.]
Q: Keep looking for more of your “Fireside Chats”, have watched all of them and LOVED the 1964 and 1968 Indy seasons immensely. Hope you produce more, as well as the Dan Gurney series. More of you all the time is what I want.
Joe Wicker, Greenwood, IN
RM: Thanks Joe but four or five minutes of my face on video once a week is probably enough. I need to figure out how to put in B roll. Anyway, Lee Kunzman is the latest and Gary B. will be next in the “tough guy” series. Thanks for watching.
Q: I was watching your weekly “fireside chat” (as I do every Monday), and was very interested in your talk about the relatively unknown Joe Leonard. I’d like to point out Joe Weatherly, who won the 1962 and 1963 NASCAR Grand National titles (before you got deeply involved in racing), and was leading the 1964 points when he passed away in an accident at Riverside. He too successfully transitioned from two wheels to four.
Alex in Melbourne, Florida
PS: How about IndyCar looks at a Melbourne street race ;)
RM: Did not know that about Weatherly, thanks for the history lesson. When you think about Paul Goldsmith, Joe Leonard, Mike “The Bike” Hailwood, John Surtees and Weatherly, it makes you appreciate their amazing versatility. Another street race on the other side of Florida might work. I know Fort Lauderdale looked at one but didn’t like the price.
Q: I know he was never a top star in the “big cars,” but Danny Drinan was constantly getting busted up real bad and always coming back on the gas with no fear. He’s a tough guy. I saw him running his dirt champ car at Del Mar years ago and he appeared to not have any crew around to help him. If I didn’t have to shoot photos that day, I would have stepped in and stooged.
Steve, Eden Prairie, MN
RM: Good call Steve. Danny tried to kill himself at Springfield in a midget and again at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a s***box but thankfully wasn’t successful. He was as brave as anybody and had some talent but his real skill is as a fabricator, designer and thinker. He’s created some of the coolest cars and if I were a multi-millionaire I’d fund him to keep building midgets and sprinters. He’s what racing is all about and is definitely one of the tough guys.
Q: Did you ever see or talk to Leland (the “Tempe Tornado”) McSpadden? A local boy who was the king of Manzanita. I once flew back to Phoenix from California sitting next to him and as an evening and once he learned I was a sprint car fan, and he didn’t have to hide what he did, we held a (to me) terrific discussion. How you drove a winged sprint car vs a non-winged car (he preferred the winged sprints better ’cause they were faster – don’t all racers feel that way?) for example. Where you could get on to the gas was different on winged vs. non-winged, and why. Where you could try to take the guy ahead of you was different, and why. He liked that on a winged car you could spend more time flat out than you had to balance the throttle on a non-winged car. He wished he could have gone on the OOW trail, but his day job kept him from the occasional outside appearance from Phoenix (he won the 1991 Chili Bowl).
Chad R. Larson
RM: Hell yes, what a great guy. He was Mr. Excitement at Manzy and B-R-A-V-E as they make ‘em. I think we were in the same crash one night at Haubstadt in a USAC midget race. Anyway, everybody likes Leland and he had a bout with cancer that he thankfully beat.
Q: Love reading your Mailbag as there have been many interesting ideas in them that have made me think about racing and the future of racing whether in America, or on a global level. Kudos for that! I had a different question for you that has more to do with the past than present. Most people associate Gordon Smiley with the most horrific motorsport crash that was ever captured on film. The sheer violence of that crash in 1982 has always stayed with me because it made me realize how thin the line between life and death in racing really is…and also what the “500” used to be about; pushing to the absolute limits once upon a time.
I’ve sort of been baffled by how little information exists out there about Gordon Smiley. The only bit of information I’ve ever found about him was on a racing forum were a poster claimed to have been good friends with Gordon. It was informative as I had always assumed that when he had his crash, he was behind the wheel of a March 82C, but I found out he had been driving the 81C as the 82C he was to drive was not yet assembled.
They mentioned that he was a hell of a driver in his formula days over in England. There was some other information the poster relayed that I was unable to find a great deal of information about. He felt that Gordon was pushing harder than he would have been normally, but he felt up against the wall trying to match the “cheating” Whittington brothers at the “500” that year. Do you have any ideas as to what that cheating accusation refers to, or more particularly what it would have meant at the 1982 Indy 500? Do you have any memories/recollections of Gordon Smiley as a driver and person?
RM: The first time I heard of Smiley was at Mid-Ohio in 1972. I was running my Formula Ford in my first SCCA National and Gordon pulled in with a double-deck trailer – he had a SPARE CAR! He and Dave Weizenhoff had a tremendous duel and then he ended up in England in the Aurora F1 series in the late 1970s. The next time I saw him he was sitting in The Indianapolis Star sports department in 1981 while I was laying out the Sunday sports section. He’d come to town to sign up with Pat Patrick for the CART season and he and his PR man came downtown so I could write a story.
In 1982, the Whittingtons were supposedly cheating the amount of engine boost and it was making Smiley crazy because he couldn’t run as fast as they were. The morning of Pole Day I was standing in Turn 1 with A.J. during the second practice period when Smiley almost crashed three laps in a row. “That boy is gonna bust his ass,” said Super Tex. I walked to the pits and found Smiley’s chief mechanic, Derek Mower, and relayed the information from the four-time Indy winner. “I know, I’ve been trying to calm him down all week but he’s obsessed with 200mph and beating the Whittingtons,” said Mower.
The commentary I wrote after his accident was kinda harsh because I basically said he refused to respect IMS and what the car was telling him and more or less committed suicide. But it was true. I was helping Jackie Stewart back then when he worked for ABC and we watched the replay 25 times and JYS was amazed how far gone the car was when he reacted and then how he tried to correct it by turning right instead of locking up the brakes.
[ABOVE: Smiley after qualifying eighth for the 1981 Indy 500. IMS photo]
Q: Older folks, you need a better excuse for why we won’t watch IndyCar or really motorsport in general. “The kids these days have the shortest attention spans ever, how are they supposed to sit down for two and a half hours to find out the winner?” You may call us out for having short attention spans but that is not the reason most people my age don’t watch. I know why they don’t watch or why they get deterred so quickly with it. You may think you guys know everything, but I spend 24 hours, seven days a week with them in college and let’s not forget all those days I spent in high school.
First, it’s not that we have short attention spans, but we grew up wanting to know answers to our questions. We’d always ask our parents questions about the world and the things we were interested in, but as we got older we no longer needed to go to our parents or the library for answers. One day a device appeared in our pockets that could answer anything we wished to have answered; however, it couldn’t answer the details of motorsport.
I’ve taken numerous friends to IMS and Mid-Ohio, and turned them into fans. Some of them were the most stubborn, hard-headed people I have ever met. The tough ones tried so hard to keep telling themselves this is stupid and I don’t want to watch cars go in circles the whole way to the track. Once they saw one car come through a corner hauling ass, they turned to me and asked, “How did he do that?” That’s the moment their curiosity kicks in, and I get ready to become the Google of IndyCar. They continued to ask questions and after each question and answer they were getting more and more hooked. They began to see the details instead of cars just going in circles. We are just eager for answers.
I was lucky when I began getting into IndyCar from playing Forza Motorsport 3 back in 2011, because my father had been to every Indy 500 since 1983. He was there to answer my questions and explain the details that made it so special. I passed it on and was there for my friends to answer their questions. Soon, more will realize “racing is life, anything that happens before or after is just waiting,” but somebody must be there to answer our questions so we can fully take in the spectacle that is happening right in front of our eyes.
RM: A good way to end 2014 – hearing from a passionate young man who recruits new fans and has an old soul. Maybe IndyCar marketing should hire him.