Welcome to the Robin Miller Mailbag as presented by Honda Racing / HPD. You can follow the Santa Clarita, California-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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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, Robin will pass these on to Marshall Pruett and he will also answer here.
Q: It is so sad when teams have to evaluate their options and stay on budget. And this is the case with Sage Karam. It was obvious that they needed more capital to keep a fourth car for Ganassi. And just like in baseball when you have a struggling rookie, the team have to send him to the minors. Big Machine and Comfort Revolution could only muster up three-quarters of a season and they are working something to attract a third sponsor when they learned that they need at least a certain X amount of dollars. Are his sponsors just looking strictly into the IndyCar or IMSA for Sage? I can understand he had a sub-par season, but is still young. And what about the other open-wheel series outside the US? There is the return of Formula 2. And he could even try GP2 or Super Formula in Japan to get additional experience and then welcome him back as a new man to IndyCar, unless he tries F1. Don’t Sage’s current sponsors have that kind of budget to send him into untested waters? And the most important: How much?
JLS, Chicago, IL
RM: First off, I don’t think he had a sub-par season, I think it was more like a typical rookie year with some highs and lows, but he showed plenty of prowess during qualifying in the downpour at Detroit and with his races at Fontana and Iowa. I see no benefit of going backwards, like Formula 2, and I’m pretty sure Comfort Revolution and Big Machine see no benefits in sports cars or a Euro series compared to IndyCar. I don’t know what kind of money Mickey (Sage’s agent is looking for) but I imagine a Ganassi budget for the fourth car is somewhere between $6-8 million, so he likely needs at least half of that number.
Q: After reading the article saying that Sage Karam was dropped by Ganassi, is there any silver lining to his story? It looks like the heavy investment of the ladder series has failed again. In addition to driver development, it was almost a dream situation that Ganassi had picked up a young driver to develop only to drop the following year. If you consider the investments that teams made, in Tony, Helio, and Dixon, they are staples of the series, it doesn’t seem as though they are staples in the future. The series has become a top heavy series where older drivers can still drive and ride buyers can still buy. Does this concern IndyCar?
Paul Hirsch, Erie, Pa.
RM: Right now I don’t see one. It was a great story that Chip hired Sage, got him started at Indy in 2014 and then brought him on-board for most of 2015. But, to your point, it means nothing if Karam’s career is stopped or blunted while he waits on the 40-something crowd to move on. And it is IndyCar’s problem, and that’s why NASCAR or F1 would likely step in to make sure one of its rising stars stayed on the track. In the story I wrote last week Sage indicated there was still a relationship with Ganassi and a hope of getting something down the road. I imagine Chip just told him that unless they could find enough money for 2016, he needed to try and find something else. But Sage is the future of IndyCar, or should be, and it’s a huge problem if his career suddenly stalls.
Q: I had the pleasure of meeting a nice, articulate, up-and coming-racer recently at the FABTECH Chicago show: Michai Stephens. He was sporting a wrist brace from the weekend before when he was competing for Team USA Scholarship at Silverstone. Michai was at the show stumping for a lubricant company that is sponsoring him during the upcoming F2000 season. Not only was he a pleasure to talk with, but he came across as very genuine. Michai was interested in why I am passionate for open-wheel racing. It was also fascinating to hear about how he got into racing while in college by attending a Skip Barber school. My question is this: is the “ladder system” is truly working? Would Michai have a chance of getting a ride with a top team in IndyCar on his success alone without a huge sponsor or Daddy Warbucks behind him? Watching Karam get sidelined doesn’t really inspire confidence. Having Brabham climb the ranks to only hit a ceiling is more than disappointing. Why can’t the team owners realize that they might have to take a chance on a kid that doesn’t have two critical items: massive dollars or a famous last name (and this is coming from a Grahamburger fan).
Bill in Homer Glen, IL
RM: First off, we did a video with Michai last year at the PRI Show and, besides looking like Tony Kanaan’s twin brother, he’s got the desire and possibly the talent to get to IndyCar. But let’s take Matty Brabs. He cleaned up in every category (except Lights) on his way up the Mazda Ladder system and we all thought Michael Andretti would take him all the way to IndyCar. But even with a famous family and his obvious skill, he lacked sponsorship and that was the end of the road at Andretti. Our Aussie pal Crusher Murray has come up with the funding to take Brabham (ABOVE) to Indy this May for both races, so obviously Stephens will have to be well-oiled to ever get a shot. It’s just the nature of the business today and, unfortunately, the expensive nature of IndyCar dictates a lot of the starting lineup.
Q: I had to wait a few days before I wrote to you, I was so mad when I received my postcard in regards to the Bronze Badge for the 500. (Price increase). I have been going to Indy since 1967, and all they seem to do lately is to continue to raise the cost. I am now, as you would say, in the golden years, and need to watch the bank account. However with continued increase in everything at the Speedway, I think my continued May trips may become a thing of the past. I would think they would try harder to retain loyal fans like myself. Any thoughts? Please keep up your good work.
Terry in Elkhart
RM: The gouge has been in for the past couple years, whether it’s the cost of tickets, parking, badges or charging for Fan Day. As I’ve written several times, I know a lot of longtime fans like yourself that will be dumping their tickets after this May because they’re sick of the way IMS does business nowadays. The Boston Consulting Group’s logic was to gouge the loyal fans and not worry about making new ones and it might work – for one more year. But I think IMS could be in for a rude awakening in terms of selling seats and suites for 2017.
Q: In almost every Mailbag you mention that it’s on the team sponsors to promote their drivers. Years ago I read about drivers having personal service contracts with sponsors. These contracts called for the drivers to make personal appearances and other promo responsibilities on behalf of their sponsors. Do drivers still sign personal services contracts? The Target commercials with Alex and Jimmy Vasser were epic, and I even recall non-race fans talking about them fondly. I don’t understand the reluctance of sponsors to pursue a larger return on investment with their drivers. Of course having said that I know the ultimate answer is money – it always is.
John Fulton, Akron, Ohio
RM: Oh yeah, drivers endorse everything from sunglasses to clothes to products but it’s not for the millions of dollars required for television commercials or an ad campaign in print. I imagine if IndyCar’s TV ratings rivaled NASCAR’s on FOX and NBC, a few companies might be willing to step up and spend big money on a driver. For instance, if Pepsi had a team in IndyCar like Coke does in NASCAR, it could be heavily promoted on national television.
Q: We are almost halfway through our wonderful, refreshing, enjoyable, long off-season *cough.* My question and follow up is: How much does it cost a team to run a full-time USF2000 car? (I ask because while bored this week I was just parading around the respective Road To Indy websites and for the USF2000 site, [series owner and promoter] Dan Andersen is quoted as saying that the USF2000 series is an “affordable” place for up and coming drivers to compete. I think I’m still giggling over that one – Andersen must be a real hoot.) And to boot, how come each year the USF2000 calendar only features one oval event out of 16 rounds? I mean…aren’t these ladies and gentlemen going to be gunning for an Indianapolis 500 appearance in the future? Thanks in advance Robin, and I’m still hopeful for an IndyCar return to Richmond down the line.
Justin, Richmond VA
RM: I’ll hand this over to Dan Andersen himself:
“Glad to answer. Budgets vary depending upon number of sets of tires included, number of private test days, etc., but a good average is $250,000. There are teams doing it for less (some significantly less because those owners choose to subsidize certain drivers), and there are teams able to charge more due to championships, reputation, whether they have teams on higher steps, etc. You didn’t ask, but Pro Mazda budget is about double that, the you can double that again for Indy Lights. Not inexpensive, but all of our series are at lower budgets than comparable European programs, and we offer scholarships.”
Q: Do you think the Indianapolis Motor Speedway should not allow NASCAR to race there once the contract is over? Would IMS suffer more from losing the revenue that even a diminished Brickyard 400 brings? Or would NASCAR suffer more from the loss of losing a race at America’s most prestigious racetrack in a market that has a large number of NASCAR fans?
Jim Overmeyer, Islip, NY
RM: I think the big loser would be IMS because of the millions of dollars it collects off the NASCAR television contract. That’s why only drawing 50,000 the past couple years hasn’t resulted in IMS pulling the plug. Don’t get me wrong, it wouldn’t be the best PR for NASCAR but I don’t think it would bother them that much since it’s no longer a big deal (other than to the driver and team). A lot of people are under the assumption that doing away with NASCAR and Moto GP could benefit the Indy 500 and again make it a sellout and a tough ticket, but I’m not sure that’s true. When the formula was tampered with in 1996, May has never recovered.
Q: Let’s talk about Auto Club Speedway. You said in the July 1st Mailbag that: “If you knew how disrespectful IndyCar has been to Auto Club Speedway, you would be seething and I may share that sooner rather than later depending on what happens with the 2016 schedule.” So now that we have lost Auto Club Speedway, please elaborate on how badly IndyCar treated them. Sometimes I just don’t get our sport. We let the race at Auto Club Speedway fall by the wayside, meanwhile we will still get treated to two hours of pure boredom at St. Pete, Detroit, Texas and God help us, Sonoma. The event in Fontana is why the ratings and buzzed for IndyCar picked up for the final part of our season – and this is how we treat them? Fontana should be our season finale on a Saturday night on the last weekend of September! (end rant.)
Jeremy, Glendale, AZ
RM: Sticking them with a Saturday afternoon date in June was bad enough, but it was more the lack of communication from the IndyCar office that showed little respect for Dave Allen. Having an intern return his calls? That’s unacceptable. IndyCar doesn’t have many allies in ISC, but Allen and Auto Club were one of them so it’s just bad business. And, yes, if Fontana was being held next year on a Saturday night in October and IndyCar heavily promoted this year’s race, I imagine it would attract a decent turnout and a good TV audience.
Q: Really enjoyed hearing a little input from Mike Hull the other week. I believe it was a couple years ago he did a nice piece about himself for you guys, being a Diehard Dixon fan it was awesome to learn a bit more about Mike. He’s always been a bit in the shadows, but is one of the biggest reasons Chip Ganassi Racing is what it is. Every year at Newton I always make sure to take a second to chat with him, and he’s always more then willing to take the time. Someday I would love to be able to take more time and pick his brain about racing! No doubt the IndyCar team will continue success and the Ford GT will be greatly benefited with Mike helping guide the team. Love see a column in the mag with guys like Mike talking racing, that would be awesome.
RM: Mike is an old Formula Ford racer who started as a mechanic in USAC/CART and worked his way up so he’s got an appreciation of IndyCar’s history and a passion for the sport. He also understands the importance of connecting with the fans and I think Mark Miles wanted him to take Derrick Walker’s place. But Hull said Le Mans was a long-awaited assignment and that helped sway his decision – plus he’s too smart to take that job.
Q:Is IndyCar purposefully trying to ruin anything good left in the series? I attend the Iowa race almost every year. The races are always good, even with the threat of rain or bad scheduling (that day race a few years back …). And now we are getting a Sunday evening affair? What the heck? A race run at 5pm on a July afternoon means that this will not be a night race. I just may not go and watch the race on television since that’s all IndyCar cares about. And instead, I will maybe just go to Phoenix.
Gigi LG, Rural Northern Minnesota
RM: It’s not that IndyCar or Iowa Speedway didn’t want a Saturday night race, but with NASCAR at Kentucky on July 9th and it being an NBCSN show, the only decent television option was Sunday afternoon. Trust me, both parties would love to have Sunday as a rain date in case but it can always return to a Saturday night show in 2017. But please go to Phoenix, I think it’s going to need fans.
Q: Just finished your Mailbag. I was amused by the question about Andy Granatelli. I remember I believe that it was two, maybe three years ago at the Drivers Meeting that Andy got the microphone and screamed that ‘The 500 is the Greatest Effin Race in the World’ ! I loved it – probably not the best way to put it with that crowd, but it was great nonetheless! Hope you have a great Holiday season and so look forward to everything that you write!
RM: As I said, had Andy run USAC it would still be The Big Dog in American motorsports because he knew how to sell, promote and market and he cared so much about Indianapolis. Every year he’d have a dinner at the Iron Skillet and another at Squealor’s BarBQ for all the old-timers and his pals and it was always educational. Too bad USAC was so close-minded and jealous.
Q: So I just saw the McLaren MP4-X concept, and the first thing that popped into my mind was, “the rear of that thing resembles an Indy Car.” The circle of life, I guess.
DJ Odom , Anderson, IN
RM: It does look pretty zoomy, but more like a sportscar than F1.
Q: It has been a long time since I’ve made a submission to the Mailbag. There hasn’t been much to write about though, with the season having been done for three months already. Now that the rest of the racing world has concluded their seasons there might be a little bit to think about. McLaren-Honda was an unquestionable disaster in 2015, just like the Honda aero kits were in IndyCar. A lot of discussion has been done about a comment from Ron Dennis regarding Alonso possibly taking a sabbatical next year if the McLaren-Honda is a repeat of the previous year. Given Renault’s inability to close the gap or provide anything decent with the help of Red Bull, the outlook for McHonda is not good. If Alonso (effectively a Honda factory driver) doesn’t like his car again in 2016, could he be wooed into an Andretti car? Could Andretti make it happen? If we assume the odds are 100 percent that the McHonda is garbage and we also assume Alonso doesn’t want to drive it, what are the odds he races in IndyCar? I still put them at less than one percent, but it would be a bit different if Alonso came to race compared to when Barrichello did it.
Ryan in West Michigan
RM: Would Alonso carry the clout Mansell did in 1993? Not likely, because he’s not the reigning F1 champion, but he would sell tickets and create a lot of interest because of his past status. Of course you answered your own question, because I don’t think he’s got any interest in coming to Indy at this stage of his career. Mansell was a rarity because he was 40 when he bolted for CART, but he embraced the challenge and also knew he was coming to the best situation with Newman/Haas. I still recall Mansell saying that he had a much better chance of succeeding here than Michael Andretti did at McLaren that year because of the equipment, testing limitations and atmosphere. And he was spot on.
Q: I am lifetime Champ Car fan who attends racing wherever he can find it. I was at Homestead for NASCAR’s season finale and can’t say enough about their Air Titan track-drying system (ABOVE). They had the track bone dry in 90 minutes. This is something that we definitely need at IndyCar races.
John, Venice, Florida
RM: Indy and other oval tracks have always had track dryers, but it appears NASCAR’s is the best. Road tracks tend to have sweepers and jet blowers which don’t work as good as the new NASCAR blowers, which blast air at the pavement at a much higher pressure. I know Derrick Walker was working on a company that makes those machines to sponsor the series by donating their use.
Q: Watching Jeff Gordon run his final race, how is it that CART could have totally overlooked this guys talent? I watched the video again of him driving Montoya’s F1 car at Indy several years back and he was immediately fast. Imagine how many Indy 500s he might have had if Penske instead of Hendrick had signed him in 1992? I read an article about F1 and how much trouble they are in. Has any interest been shown by a Lotus or a Force India-type team to join IndyCar? I think they would look at the cost comparisons and be shocked. They could run a three-car team in IndyCar with a chance to win every week. Finally, I think racing continues to fade away in 2015. So here is my last question. If we had a time machine, took the CART series from 1995 and dropped in 2015, would people come?
RM: John Bickford tried to get an audience with Ganassi in the CART paddock at Cleveland in the early ’90s and I don’t know if he also reached out to Penske but, obviously, nobody gave Gordon any encouragement. Would he have been just as good in an IndyCar as he was a stock car? No doubt, providing he got with Penske or Newman/Haas or Ganassi. But his career turned out OK. Considering the TV money, if you are an F1 team in trouble I can’t imagine how or why you would look to IndyCar. There’s no financial incentive to come here. As for your last question, all I know is that the crowds and sponsors were never bigger than in the mid-90s, Indy was a sellout and CART was neck-in-neck with NASCAR.
Q: Just heard that Formula E is going to add ‘Roborace’ to showcase autonomous racing. Once they get this idea ‘right’ the possibilities are endless, especially when they get autonomous cars to outperform human-controlled cars. I don’t think Audi’s publicity stunt out at Sonoma was just for grins. What if Audi showed up a Le Mans with an autonomous R18 as a ‘Garage 56’ entry – would the ACO accept it? The ACO wants to promote technical innovation. What if Apple, HP, Google, or Amazon showed up at Indy, with all their dollars, and an autonomous DW12? How about totally robotic pit stops? Garage 34, indeed! You can see where this thing is going; driverless cars and crewless pit stops. The kids born in 2016 won’t know what they missed.
Jim Scott, Wisconsin Rapids
RM: We run stories on races run on computers so nothing would surprise me.
Q: Let me ask you something. Why didn’t Michael Greenfield’s engine get more attention when he and his father tried to go through the same loophole that Penske drove a Mack truck through? Also, we need a third engine manufacturer. Couldn’t someone buy Lotus’s engine and manufacturing? John Judd knows what he’s doing. It would be a lot cheaper, and you could use the money you saved to make it competitive! Have a happy holiday.
RM: Well, let’s see, RP had Mercedes and millions behind his effort and the Greenfield family had a few thousand. As I recall, the Greenfield engine kept blowing up and finally was withdrawn. If you could find a buyer to re-start the Lotus/Judd engine project for IndyCar, please send them my way and I’ll start selling them my NFL picks.
Q: Got to think that Gene Haas is going to have a rude awakening in F1. Says he’s prepared to go for at least 10 years. What’s your over/under on 10 years?
RM: I say the doors are closed in two years and Haas is borrowing money from Beneficial Finance.