Welcome to the Robin Miller Mailbag as presented by Honda Racing / HPD. You can follow the Santa Clarita, California-based company at:
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, Robin will pass these on to Marshall Pruett and he will also answer here.
Q: At time of writing (Monday, January 18th) crude oil prices have now plunged below $28.00 per barrel. That is the lowest point in the last 13 years. On CNBC this morning, one contributor says that this news is very troubling for oil companies. (Even though as consumers we get a nice price break.) So Robin, do you have any inside information about Wink Hartman and how much of the Hartman Oil money he plans to put into CFH Racing this upcoming season? When I really think about it, if oil companies have to secure/trim their budgets, I’d much rather see Wink try to retain as many of his employees as possible, rather than throwing money into a silly IndyCar, in a series that doesn’t really generate that much exposure. Your thoughts?
First Time Writer – Long Time Fan of Your Mailbag
Kiki G., Woodstock, GA
RM: Nothing from the inside, but Wink told me at Sonoma he was backing off for 2016 because the oil business was in the toilet. He still owns 75 percent of Newgarden’s cars and equipment (plus the building) so he might only be putting in a couple million this season. He’s been a godsend to Sarah and Josef, but don’t be surprised if he’s gone sooner than later.
Q: Check out the web site up for the IndyCar race in Boston: http://indycarboston.com. They have a section called IndyCar 101, which is obviously targeted to the novice fan, but makes no mention of the fact that these are the same cars and drivers that race in the Indianapolis 500. The one thing associated with IndyCar racing that is universally recognizable to the general public is the Indy 500, yet it is not even mentioned anywhere on the web site. Unbelievable. What is going on here?
Ben, Westfield, IN
RM: I perused the Grand Prix of Boston website and, as you point out, it’s got everything except anything linking the race to the Indianapolis 500 (except for a brief mention of three-time winner Helio Castroneves), but that’s on the promoter. Obviously, the caveat is that the drivers and cars that race in the famous Indy 500 will be in Boston, but it seems to be assumed rather than promoted.
Q: At Exhibition Place in Toronto, there are newly-built permanent tree gardens and sidewalks on the south side of Princes’ Boulevard, where much of the pit lane has been for the race since its first running in 1986. I believe the gardens have been planned for years to be on the grounds of the hotel that is finally nearing completion, as seen in renderings.
But I have heard nothing about what is planned with regards to relocating the pit lane, and the maps on the race website still show it where it has always been. I think it would make sense to move it to the other side of the track and have the pit entrance at Turn 9 and exit after Turn 11. Have you heard anything about what is planned?
Keith Baxter, Toronto
RM: We posed your question to Kevin Savoree, who promotes Toronto along with Kim Green, and here’s his response:
“Hey Robin, a very observant fan! Yes the planning has been in the works for four years now with the rollout of the design and ticket launch set for February 8th … stay tuned!”
Q: Robin, you have long championed the need for more races in Canada and I agree with you. They have good venues and educated enthusiastic fans. I’m not sure how enthusiastic any Canadian promoters might be, but has the weak leadership of IndyCar even broached the possibilities in a realistic way? In addition to the possibility of creating new fans, do you think if they held more races in Canada it might attract potential car sponsors from Canadian companies? This scenario makes more sense to me than trying to race in China or some Middle Eastern country.
John Fulton, Akron, Ohio
RM: We know that James Hinchcliffe and car owner Ric Peterson are making a run at staging a race in Calgary, hopefully for 2017, but that’s all I’ve heard in recently. Alex Tagliani seemed to be gaining traction with a race in Quebec a few years ago but that got scotched and Mosport was in the frame last year for a while if Toronto wasn’t going to be able to host. Obviously, Montreal was a good venue for Champ Car as long as Patrick Carpentier, Sebastian Bourdais and Tag had rides and I loved Mount Tremblant, but neither has been mentioned in a long time. Can’t say what more races would do in terms of potential sponsors north of the border but I can promise you that there’s as much, if not more, interest in IndyCar in Canada as there is in much of the United States and racing there two or three times would be ideal.
Q: I am of the generation – as I think you are – who can remember the excitement that came when Jim Hall put a moveable spoiler on the back of a Chaparral (with an automatic transmission, no less, so the driver had foot free to adjust it), as well as when Colin Chapman put wings on his Formula 1 cars, even if they occasionally flew off. It was a time of great advances in aerodynamics and these cars were on the cutting edge. Now, and I know this is not a unique position to hold, that might have been the start down a path that has led to declining interest in our sport. Frankly, it is just not that interesting watching cars that are stuck to the ground by high levels of downforce.
They might go real fast, but so what? They don’t slide, they don’t move, they don’t twitch. There is nothing visible telling the fan the challenges that the driver is facing. Their aerodynamic shadow can make passing either impossible or meaningless. Moreover, the wings and such separated race cars from cars on the road. Sure, we now all have spoilers, etc, on many of our cars, but they are there for decoration as they have no real effect as any but the highest speeds we drive.
When IndyCar was last considering a new car, a friend from our same generation suggested a return to front-engine roadsters. I scoffed at the idea (I loved the rear-engine revolution), but in this age of spec cars, I do wonder if a drastic dialing back is called for, maybe not to front engines, but to wingless cars. Any downforce would have to come from the body itself. Nothing in front of the front wheels, nothing sticking out above the engine. Let there be a spec carbon fiber tub that passes safety requirements, then let the designers innovate, within specified width and height parameters, to come up with different designs, perhaps using only aluminum beyond the tub to hold down costs.
This would be drastic. The cars would not look like what we now think of as race cars. But, really, IndyCar has to do something drastic if it is to survive past the 100th anniversary race in Indy. Having nothing to lose gives the series a freedom to experiment. First IndyCar and now NASCAR saw dramatic declines in interest, race attendance, TV ratings, etc. when all the cars became identical. That path is leading to oblivion. NASCAR has recognized this somewhat with its decision to limit downforce next season. IndyCar needs to get on another path before it is too late.
Michael Hill, Baltimore
RM: It’s the dreaded Catch-22. Spec cars thrill nobody, and yet the racing is as good as it’s ever been. The only way Indy will ever have 40-45 cars going for 33 spots again will be to tear up the current rulebook and open it up but is there enough interest out there to risk it? I think we’d all love to see the visual return of car control and it begins with taking away downforce and adding power, but not sure anyone at IndyCar today thinks there is any reason to change status quo.
Q: Since I live in Arizona, can fans go to the two Phoenix tests?
RM: The Saturday session (Feb. 27) will be open to the public and free of charge.
Q: What’s the scoop with James Jakes, Sebastian Saavedra, and Max Chilton? Any talks of these guys getting (buying) a seat somewhere? It’s pretty obvious that they all have had backing in recent years through various ways. It’s been pretty quiet with all three. Any news on the road/street portion of the #20 car or is it going to be the loss of another full-time car?
RM: As Marshall Pruett wrote earlier this week, Saavedra will be back in IndyCar with his angel Gary Peterson and AFS Racing but exactly where remains to be seen. (Although the AFS truck is parked at Andretti Autosport today, so maybe he’s in the fourth car there). Marshall reported that Max Chilton could be in line for Chip Ganassi’s fourth car with Sage Karam (driving for Dennis Reinbold at Indy) also still a long-shot for a few races? Jakes tested recently for a team in the Pirelli World Challenge so it sounds like he could be going sports car racing 2016. Got a call into Ed Carpenter about plans for #20 but doubt if anything will be forthcoming for a few more weeks.
Q: Do you know the origin of the term ‘Penske Perfect’? Is it something one of you coined on-air and we hear it once in a while, or does it exist somewhere in a training film at Penske? I’ve been a CART fan since living in eastern Pennsylvania and have been back in Detroit now for over 20 years. ‘Penske Perfect’ has affected me more as a hospitality professional than as a race fan. The race set-ups, perfectly polished transporters and motor coaches are great, but do they know how to put together a high-end hospitality tent? Is there someone you can refer me to at Penske here in Detroit who can shed some light on their process and maybe help me put together a more complete presentation?
Eric Gackenbach, Dearborn, Mich.
RM: That is a damn good question so I spent an hour looking through some of my old clippings. The first time I ever used it in print was in 1976 when describing a ‘Penske Perfect’ combination of speed, savvy and personality with Mario and Tom Sneva as teammates. I’ve probably used it 100 times since then and I have no idea if that was its origination, but I’m sure NASCAR takes credit for it.
Q: I just read Marshall’s article about shaker rig testing. This is an example of how IndyCar racing is needlessly expensive. I assume the lower-funded teams don’t get the use of this technology, which partially explains their dismal results, and explains why the better-funded teams want that advantage to continue. When I sit next to a corner watching an endless train of cars go by without drama, no apparent sliding, it is not interesting to watch. I know there are bumps, I can see the suspension suck them up. A bumpy corner should be a challenge for the driver, not the engineer. I do appreciate the fact that the dampers on my street car are better as a result of ‘racing improving the breed’, but this technology is playing a part in making the show uninteresting and racing unaffordable for most. Some time ago you said someone in the know stated carbon fiber needs to be banned. That would require a new car and time to implement. A shaker rig ban could be done immediately and bare on everyone’s bottom line. When the country was in the depth of the depression AAA had the fortitude to implement what came to be known as the junk formula, and it may have saved IndyCar racing. Something similar is needed, and soon.
Tom in Monterey
RM: Well, since testing has been greatly reduced, the shaker rig has become a popular tool for every team in IndyCar. Obviously, some can afford more days than others, but it’s still cheaper than towing to a track for a couple of days. I agree with your desire to see cars sliding around and drivers fighting for control but, unless we get a MAJOR rethink and have Rick Mears re-write the rulebook, not sure anything is going to change. Marshall Pruett offers his own thoughts here:
“I agree that it is a unnecessary expense. The only place where true discrepancies exist is the big teams actually buy their own shaker rigs and use them in-house, while the rest are limited to what they can afford when renting days at off-site locations.”
Q: I watched the College National Football Championship game on ESPN and was impressed by the MegaCast that featured three alternate channels of commentary. That got me thinking: since the quality of the color commentary of the ABC IndyCar broadcasts continues to be deplorable, might it be possible that you and some others to internet stream an alternate play-by-play and commentary during the ABC races? It would be you and an old koot like Uncle Bobby or old man Foyt, a younger guy like Sage Karam and Kevin Lee to do the play-by-play. No fancy studio; just sitting around in a room offering your perspectives. It’d beat the heck out of what ABC offers.
Don, Chardon, Ohio
RM: It’s funny, about 30 years ago I suggested to Jeff Smulyan, owner of EMMIS Broadcasting, that we needed to have some kind of all-color radio channel where a couple guys could comment on games with no censorship. He said it wouldn’t work and it probably wouldn’t have back then. But now, with all the cable channels and competition, I think the time is right and I’d love to call a race with Uncle Bobby and Wally Dallenbach Jr, but we can’t drag Kevin Lee into this cesspool – he’s got a career going at NBCSN. But I like your suggestion.
Q: This year will make my 33rd straight Indy 500. I also attend other races on the IndyCar schedule, including road races. I was in Tulsa for the Chili Bowl this week, and IndyCar needs to wake up and understand the event does contain fans in their democratic. One hundred percent of the reason I’m an IndyCar fan is due to short track racing. Everybody that is a race fan was paying attention to Tulsa this week. Seems to me 16th street should understand that. Doesn’t seem too hard to see that to me.
P.S. Rico is a badass, but us short track fans already knew that.
KT, Noblesville, IN
RM: Let me tell you a quick story. Just before the A Main last Saturday night, Max Papis came up to me and starting raving about the crowd, the atmosphere and what an amazing event this was. He wondered why IndyCar didn’t have any presence in Tulsa? I explained they had passed on my idea of having an IndyCar booth with Marco, Graham, Josef and Conor and then buying a ride for Newgarden. Like most of us, Max was dumbfounded because it’s exactly where IndyCar should be trying to promote its product.
Q: I just read the news of Bob Harkey’s passing. I knew him when he drove for us twice during the time I worked for magneto builder and car owner Joe Hunt. The first time was in the USAC Dirt Championship (now Silver Crown) race at the Springfield, Ill mile. It was in the summer of ’75 and Bob drove Joe’s Meskowski-Offy. We drew a late qualifying number, and were just not fast enough to make the show. I spoke to Bob after his run and told him he still looked pretty fast out there; he just gave me a funny smile and said “I may have looked good, but to tell you the truth I don’t know how many scares I have left in me!” The second time was in ’76 at Indy; we brought a freshly-rebuilt Eagle in time for the second weekend of qualifying but suffered a number of teething problems. Bob jumped in the car on the last day and tried his best but we couldn’t keep our turbo-Offy together long enough to make a qualifying run. After it was clear we were out of time, we parted ways amicably and Bob jumped into another car (ABOVE) and made the race! I saw Bob a couple of years ago at Indy during one of the autograph sessions. We relived those experiences once again and left each other with smiles on our faces. It’s true Bob never got a ride with any of the major teams of the day, but no one can argue that he had a very full and interesting life.
Bruce Selby, Magnolia, TX
RM: As I wrote in his tribute, whenever Hark would bemoan the fact he never got to drive a first-class ride at Indianapolis I would always interject that’s what made his reputation – he could jump into anything at the last minute and put it in the show. That’s a helluva skill and he did it when it really meant something to qualify. But his whole life was fascinating and I was lucky enough to fly in his beloved Stearman – and live to tell about it. Bob was a man of many talents and just a wonderful guy on top of it. Thanks for the memories Bruce.
Q: In regards to IndyCar not viewing the Chili Bowl audience as being its target demographic, I have the NHL Center Ice package. NASCAR advertises its Daytona 500 race several months in advance on the various south east USA team networks. Since Daytona is broadcast by Fox and virtually all USA NHL teams are broadcast by various Fox sports regional networks, there probably is some mutual back scratching going on. But at the same time Brian France and Mike Helton didn’t say “guys on skates carrying sticks aren’t our target demographic”. They said a sports fan is, and if they won’t come to Daytona, at least we are reminding them to watch it on television. I think if you told IndyCar head honchos that Daytona gets twice the ratings over Indianapolis, they won’t believe you and then tell you it’s not relevant.
Jim Overmeyer, Islip NY
RM: Whether it’s demographic or geographic, IndyCar needs help in all areas and to say that the Chili Bowl wasn’t in the budget or was too expensive shows a great lack of understanding. IndyCar can’t afford not to be there, and spends thousands on media dinners that do nothing for the product. The Chili Bowl would be a great investment because IndyCar would get more good PR in five days than it does in the six months it’s sitting silent. But just remember, there is no cure for stupid.
Q: Just a thought. What would happen if a ‘fan group’ sponsored a booth at the Chili Bowl and/or any other event on their own? Since IndyCar management won’t do it, what would they do if a fan group went ahead without ‘official blessing’?
RM: Save your money. Without IndyCar’s involvement, the drivers wouldn’t show and the reason to have a booth would be to pass out schedules, hats and T-shirts while the drivers sign autographs, pose for photos and mingle with the fans.
Q: Tony Stewart needs to get an IndyCar team in spite of what he said in your interview. Can’t you see him, ten years from now, 50 pounds heavier, raising hell with officials, drivers, crew members, fans and getting into fights? What a perfect guy to take the place of one Anthony Joseph Foyt when his days are finally done. Looking forward to the start of the season.
Tom in Waco
RM: I imagine if he ever sells a couple of his teams or a series he might still consider fielding a car at Indianapolis. It’s part of his DNA.
Q: Now that Jamie Allison has been replaced by Dave Pericak, what do you think about the chances of Ford returning to IndyCar? The EcoBoost branding would present no issues being associated with an IndyCar twin-turbo V6, even if it would be a purpose-built racing engine. With the GT program, Ford appears to be ready to spend some money again on racing, and not just on those ‘Fusions’ in NASCAR.
RM: I guess it depends on how much clout Edsel Ford II has with Pericak. You’ll recall that Edsel II said he’d be “six feet under” before Ford got back into IndyCar racing because there was no value in it.
Q: Does IndyCar have the rulebooks that govern what you were allowed to build for each year of the Indy 500? It would be really interesting to compare rulebooks from the 50’s and 60’s. I know they were a lot more loose back then, but it would be neat to read them.
RM: I don’t have any rulebooks from the 1950s and 1960s but I think the rules always pertained more to the engines than the cars so having four wheels, a certain wheelbase and fuel capacity may have been the norm. But when Andy Granatelli brought the turbine in 1967 and Roger Penske unveiled the Mercedes pushrod engine in 1994, the rules were quickly re-written.
Q: Just back from my first ROAR Before the 24. Spent two days wandering through all of the garage area and the infield. Best $15/day I ever spent. Took a couple hundred photos of all the cars there while they were undressed. When stripped to the bone, the DeltaWing is extraordinary. Surprisingly, there were more IndyCar drivers than NASCAR. Got to talk to most of them including, Katherine Legge, RHR, the Scotts (Dixon & Pruett), Seebass, Graham & Bobby Rahal, AJ Allmendinger, Christian Fittipaldi, Kyle Larson and Dorsey Schroeder. Had an interesting conversation with Chip Ganassi. Found out that I once lived only 10 minutes from where he grew up. Saw a lot of sports car drivers but had no idea who they were.
The new P2s are now faster than the old Daytona Prototypes. If you haven’t heard, Ms. Legge was very fast in the DeltaWing. It was second best on Saturday, fifth on Sunday. She told me that they have all of their little problems solved and she expects to run strong for the 24. She said that her Indy 500 car is progressing well and she expects to be competitive. The Ford GT looks awesome. Nobody really knows how fast it will be but it was neat to see Katherine blow it off big time on the high banks. The newly rebuilt Speedway is beyond belief!! It will open for the 24 and was built on time & under its $400 million budget. As a long-time Indy fan, it is very sad to have to say that as the end of this month, ‘The Speedway’ will no longer be in Indy but in Daytona.
Dick Hildebrand, Ormond Beach, Florida
RM: It’s always a star-studded cast at the Rolex, it’s just too bad more people don’t attend (like Sebring). The Ford GT just has an aura about it. But don’t dismiss IMS just yet. Wait until you see all the improvements for this May.
Q: During the off-season I thought I’d get your input on favorite racing movies. Do you have any favorites? First one I ever saw was Grand Prix with James Garner when I was kid. Some other good ones were Le Mans with Steve McQueen and Winning with Paul Newman when he caught the racing bug. Also, there was the Stallone movie Driven, and how could we forget Days of Thunder with Tom Cruise? And I thought the Ron Howard movie Rush was very well done.
RM: Grand Prix is my favorite (saw it three nights in a row when it came out) and I liked Winning and Le Mans as well. Driven was Drivel – the worst ever made, followed closely by Days of Thunder, Grease Lightning and Bobby Deerfield with Al Pacino.
Q: Now that 2015 is officially over and we have are finally on the countdown for St Pete, what are your 10 predictions for the 2016 IndyCar season?
Alan, Butler, PA
RM: Marco, Graham, Josef each win two races; Conor Daly scores a podium; Pagenaud wins a race; Dixon wins Indy; Kanaan gets two poles, one victory and his AARP Card; Power (ABOVE) wins the championship; Montoya quits point racing, wins three times and speeding in the pits to cost him the title; Castroneves wins the pole at Indy but finishes second in the race; Road America draws the third-best crowd of 2016; Honda closes the gap but Chevy is still supreme; the Phoenix race draws more than the air race at IMS.
Q: When the Miller’s Mailbag writer last Summer requested you to recommend books for his racing library, I acquired all of the books you named. In the preface to ‘As A Matter of Fact, I am Parnelli Jones’ (I love the California Highway Patrol story behind the book title), Parnelli explains that his given name was Rufus Parnell Jones. But his friend and Jalopy car co-owner, Billy Calder, helped him disguise his first name from his high school peers attending the races in Gardena, California because Rufus did not meet the minimum age requirement of 18 in order to race. Parnelli wrote: “There had been a girl at school named Nellie, and Billy used to tease me about her liking me. He knew my middle name was Parnell, so he would joke around by calling me “Parnellie . . . and when it came time to paint the driver’s name on the door he came up with the perfect alias: ‘Parnellie Jones.’ We lost the ‘e’ somewhere along the way, but I’ve been Parnelli ever since.” Robin, the classic question remains: What became of the girl? Maybe you can ask Parnelli the next time you bump into him. Thanks for the book recommendations. Keep ’em coming!
Mark Synovitz, Altus, Oklahoma
RM: Not sure, but Rufus ran into an old high school flame a couple years ago and said he wished he hadn’t because it would have been better to remember her as an 18-year-old.
Q: I’m watching the Dubai 24 hours, and just like the WEC, the race and its 24 Hours series uses a full-course yellow as an alternative to deploying a safety car (24h Series calls it a ‘Code 60’ as that is the track speed limit). Unlike the WEC, the Dubai 24 hours has a bevy of amateur/club drivers. Yet these participants seem to have few issues adhering to the FCY rule. I strongly believe that the FCY is a great alternative to deploying the safety car because it allows drivers to keep the gaps they fought for, and the pits remain open! Thinking of IndyCar, the FCY would be great for road courses and street circuits as it would reduce the impact of untimely cautions. The technology readily exists to enforce a track-wide speed limit, and IndyCar drivers have plenty of skill to adapt to the change. So with that said, what sort of grassroots effort can the Mailbag and its readers muster to get IndyCar to consider this alternative to safety car periods? Free lunch at the Mug N Bun? Robin Miller hug coupons?
RM: I’ll forward your suggestion to IndyCar but I can’t see anything changing since closing the pits and bunching the pack is first and foremost for cleaning up an accident and protecting the Holmatro Safety crew. But it could be worse – we could have Caution Clock like NASCAR is installing.
Q: I read the January 6 Mailbag, and I wanted to share something with you that relates to Doug Baggett’s question concerning the average age of entrants for the 500. I’ll openly admit that I am a self-proclaimed ‘500 nerd’, and because I am also single and have lots of free time, I like to create all sorts of spreadsheets and databases on the 500. Attached is one of the documents that I have created that has two tabs: the first is a listing of each starter’s age on the race date dating back to 1946, and their birth/death date information. The second tab features some charts and a graph showing how the average age has changed over the years. I hope its alright that I shared this with you, and if you ever wanted to see some other documents I’ve created I’d be more than happy to send them. Thank you for everything you’ve done for IndyCar over the years, and I look forward to enjoying your work for many more years to come!
Scott Richards, Hughesville, PA
RM: Thanks for all your hard work and I’ll share your findings. The average age of the 33 starters for the Indy 500 from 1946-49 was 36.5, 37.8, 36.5 and 34. By comparison, the average age of last year’s starting lineup was 30.24, but you must remember that owners didn’t trust young drivers in the old days and you couldn’t start officially racing until you were 21, although some like Troy Ruttman began much younger.