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: I have to admit I was pleasantly pleased with the turnout for the Phoenix #PrixView. The lines for concessions were massive and even the workers all kept saying that they never expected that many people to turn out for a test session. The stands were full of NASCAR shirts and you could tell many people came out specifically because of the free ticket but I am really hoping the speeds Indy car turned changes everyone’s mind.
It seemed like many of these fans were delighted by the differences. I wasn’t able to stay to watch the Saturday night test but my only concern about this race is how the cars will be able to run in traffic. It seems like the speeds and track is similar to Iowa but the multiple lane options are missing. Do you see this more as a Milwaukee style of race or a hybrid between that and Iowa similar to an old Richmond race?
Luke from Prescott, AZ
RM: I asked a couple of NASCAR fans if they were coming back on April 2 and they said they hadn’t considered it until they saw how fast the Indy cars were running (190 mph compared to Jimmie Johnson’s PIR record of 143 mph). And they only knew Montoya because he ran Cup. Not sure anybody ran long enough stints to be able to tell if tire wear would be a factor but if the race was like the early Richmond races (and not the last two) it would be great. Several drivers thought it might be a one-and-a-half grooved track but probably not two like Iowa. So maybe somewhere between Iowa and Milwaukee.
Q: Last Saturday’s PrixView day at PIR appeared to be a great marketing tool for both the series and the track. However, I don’t think anyone expected THAT many people to come out for the day. When we arrived about 11 a.m., cars were lined up for blocks from both directions trying to enter into one gate. We didn’t get parked and through security until a little after 12. What I enjoyed seeing in addition to the on-track action were families, sometimes three generations, coming to see open-wheel racing. There were a lot of folks in NASCAR T-shirts too.
The people in my area (in the shade) were very enthusiastic about the series and the speed of the cars. I would be curious to know the size of the crowd, which I thought was probably close to the gate numbers of last year’s Fontana race. I also saw a lot of license plates that were not from Arizona out in the parking lot. So, Paula and I weren’t the only ones who drove from a distance to attend testing. More importantly I wonder how many people bought tickets for April’s race after spending the day watching IndyCar. That would be an interesting statistic to know.
I especially loved the action of the night session. There was some good passing! Racing on an oval under the lights on a warm evening in the desert, what could be more perfect? I think I have found my new home oval track until Fontana comes back on the schedule. I just wish I could come back in April for this year’s race. I plan to be in Phoenix in 2017.
Deb Schaeffer, Los Angeles
RM: The evening crowd was estimated at 4,000-5,000 and probably 2,000 on Saturday afternoon and it certainly impressed the teams that so many people showed up. Like I wrote in Monday’s column, I think PIR is really behind making it work and I’m glad it’s a three-year-deal because being gone for 11 years makes it very challenging. Glad you enjoyed your 12-hour trip and hopefully the race will be up to old PIR standards with traffic dictating the action.
Q: Why does IndyCar insist on using the road/street course aero configurations and lower turbo boost at tracks like Phoenix and Iowa? Why do they feel the need to set the cars up to run flat or almost flat? Oval racing needs to involve downshifting/braking or at least lifting. Can you please comment on why the series thinks the cars should be set up to run flat with heavy downforce? Don’t they realize that setting the cars up this way is actually more dangerous, because higher corner speeds mean heavier impacts? Am I missing anything here? Turn the boost up, take the downforce out, and let the real racing begin.
Can’t wait for the 100th, I’ll be watching from high in Turn Three. It will be my father’s 26th and my 17th Indy 500. We’ll also be in St. Pete and at Barber. Love the Mailbag!
Dan Evers, Atlanta
RM: I can’t speak for IndyCar but let me give you some of the drivers’ takes. Some say all that downforce makes it possible to tuck in behind a car and that makes overtaking possible. Others say get rid of the rear wing altogether so they have to slow down for the corners. And one former champ said just give us road course boost and superspeedway wings. The majority seemed to think passing might be real tough but they said the same thing about Iowa and it was a free-for-all. Thanks.
ABOVE: Testing at Phoenix
Q: I have been following IndyCar since I was 12 years old, which was in 1992 when Al Jr. beat Scott Goodyear by 0.043 second at Indy. I was flabbergasted when the split happened in ’96 and those horrible IRL cars with Oldsmobile engines came on the scene.
I have to say that the current car isn’t that much better than those IRL cars. They are slow, look ugly, and they make the racing boring.
How come we can’t go back to the 2000s model Champ Cars with 800hp that actually differentiated talent? Right now you absolutely have to nail a perfect exit and the leading guy has to botch his exit in order to make an ugly-as-hell pass.
Jonathan, Long Beach, CA
RM: I will agree the cars aren’t the least bit memorable or collectable but they have proven to be very good racecars the past four seasons. The aero kits un-leveled the playing field last season but, before that, you had no idea which driver or team was going to win. But I think we all wish they were sexier – like the DP01.
Q: After the testing session at Phoenix International Raceway, I don’t know if I should have excitement or trepidation. First, it seems that there were more fans there to watch testing at PIR than were at the last Indy Racing League race there. But, sans Hawksworth, there was less than 0.5sec covering the field. And they all seem to be running the same line. So I have to wonder, how good will the racing be? Will it be wheel-to-wheel with multiple passing, or will it be a lackluster oval parade? What say you?
RM: I asked that of a lot of drivers and got mixed opinions (imagine that?). Scott Dixon said he thought passing would be tough but possible while Will Power and Juan Montoya wanted less downforce and Josef Newgarden said the downforce package at least allowed you to run close to others going into a corner. Would we like to see 1,000hp and reduced downforce so drivers had to brake or downshift (or both)? Hell yes. But that’s not going to happen in 2016 so hopefully Bill Pappas & Company can find the delicate balance on the ovals.
Q: As a millennial (19), I’d like to voice my opinion on the aero kits. While some might not like the way they look, I think if you compare them to the DW12s with the boring Dallara bodywork, there is no comparison. If they aren’t more visually appealing to you, at least they are interesting. The engineering student in me is fascinated by the details, and I look forward to the start of seasons much more now that I know the Chevys and Hondas will look different every year.
And to those saying the two look too much alike this year, look at the new F1 cars for 2016. Apart from their distinctive liveries for each team, the front wings, rear wings, and sidepods are all very similar. They started out much more unique with the first year of the formula, and got more and more similar, just like IndyCar. Looking forward to my fifth trip to the 500 in May!
Jack Z in Burlington, VT
P.S. Thank you for your passion for everything IndyCar. I didn’t become a really big fan of the series until I started reading RACER and the Mailbag.
RM: Thanks for chiming in, being a fan and reading RACER. It seems younger people favor the aero kits while the older hardliners hate them. We know General Motors and Honda wanted them so that’s why they happened but I don’t think it’s beneficial if it separates the competition as much as it did in 2015 and may threaten to do this year. You make a great point about F1 and, until there’s some kind of major rethink on Indy cars, maybe it doesn’t matter that they look similar. I just don’t want Chevy totally dominating again because Honda’s teams need to keep their sponsors.
ABOVE: Simona de Silvestro
Q: Do you have any idea why Michael Andretti can’t find an IndyCar sponsor for Simona de Silvestro? She is clearly one of the favorite drivers but that doesn’t seem to make any difference. I remember you have said that not being American works against her, but I would think her personality and attitude should offset that. She speaks perfect English with just a slight accent. She seems like someone that young women and girls could easily relate to. She is good with fans, good with the media, and good for IndyCar. It’s starting to look like Simona is another driver that will never realize the potential she showed a few years ago.
Pat, Brownsburg, IN
RM: Let me answer it a different way. If Roger Penske can’t find sponsors for two of his four cars then how can anyone else be expected to? Simona is easily the best female road racer to ever come along and, as you say, great with the fans and media alike. If she were American would she have a sponsor? It might help but it’s just hard to find money, period, and it’s a shame because the Swiss Miss belongs in IndyCar. And I’m afraid you may be right.
Q: So I know there’s a mixed reaction to European-based drivers coming over here when their rides are up overseas, but I’d like to address the dissent of those who want the “good old days” and also want to grow the brand.
The greatest of days involved many countries represented in the field and hundreds of media credentials from dozens of countries for the month of May. It wasn’t because international viewers suddenly realized CART was fantastic, it’s because international drivers and sponsors realized CART was fantastic. Racing media all through Europe took notice when Mansell came over (we get that that was a one-off), but Japanese media and sponsors came with Hiro Matsushita, to say nothing of the South American exposure that IndyCar has maintained for the last three decades. Each of those entities brought exposure, which equals dollars.
We may want an organic revival of IndyCar racing but the fact is America is a niche market, which NASCAR is finding out now. IndyCar may not have to race in Europe or South America or the Middle East, but they should be aiming for the television dollars there. If that means a guy from Europe or Asia with a budget who has the chops, but not a country’s sponsorship, to race in F1 can come over here, be competitive and raise an eyebrow or two in their neck of the woods, it helps the bottom line.
At the end of the day, those international broadcast rights can increase the Winner’s Circle payouts, meaning the car count doesn’t have to dip below two dozen for St. Pete, Bryan Herta doesn’t have to partner with Michael Andretti, Sarah Fisher doesn’t have to close her doors, Jimmy Vasser can get the second car he covets and Dennis Reinbold can participate beyond the month of May. While those may not be huge players at the front of the field, the low car count will really hit home when we see the vast expanse of barren asphalt by lap 10 at Pocono.
RM: I wish the international broadcast rights were big money that was shared with the teams but it’s not. And when Indy became a melting pot of talent in the mid-’60s with the British Invasion, it raised Indy’s profile. Ditto for CART with Emmo and Mansell when open-wheel experienced its best crowds, funding and recognition. But today IndyCar needs a few young Americans that are going to be around for 20 years and that’s what is so disappointing about Sage Karam being left by the side of the road (except for Indianapolis). IndyCar must build stars from within and hopefully Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly, Karam and Spencer Pigot can take over when T.K., Helio and JPM move on. But the revolving door and uncertainty in the driver’s seats makes it impossible to build a fan base.
Q: Just wanted to give my two cents on the recent happenings. Awesome to see Alex Rossi here with Andretti Autosport. I mentioned to him last year here in Austin that IndyCar is better than dragging around the back in F1. I honestly believe he’ll do just fine here and might not want to go back to F1, but we all know how much of a different monster ovals are – especially the 500-mile races. Also with him and Chilton in full-time rides, if they have a good opinion about ovals then maybe some of those other aspiring talents with F1 goals and limited funds might jump over here and make IndyCar great again.
As for Honda and their new aero kit, it is very similar to what I described to their engineers two years ago at TMS. Direct the flow of air over the wheels with small and tight sidepods. Unfortunately Chevy got that part right last year and now the Honda looks similar to the Chevy design, minus the rear and engine cover. But hey, I’m not going to complain about similarities cause I can tell by looking at it that this new Honda will be a much better contender on the track and for the engineers. Also glad to read Marshall Pruett’s first take on it and how HPD went away from Wirth(less) and designed it almost entirely in house. Looking forward to seeing everyone in Long Beach!
Ruben E. Hernandez, Austin, TX
RM: I guess my feeling is that Fittipaldi, Mansell and Piquet moved the international needle when they came to CART/Indy so the only way to make that kind of impact would be if Alonso quit McLaren to come run IndyCar. Rossi and Chilton could both become stars over here but they aren’t even half as well known as Blundell and Gugelmin were, so they’re not going to make much of a difference – yet. And if, say, Will Stevens opts to come here and it helps put another car on the grid, that’s great. But he’s not going to sell many tickets, either. That’s the conundrum. Teams need paid drivers and most Americans don’t have any money. As for the aero kit, probably too early to make any definitive statements but based on Phoenix testing it still looks like GM has the upper hand.
ABOVE: Bryan Clauson at Indy last year
Q: As an open-wheel racing fan, seeing the situation that has evolved with IndyCar’s young talent has got me on edge. The last two years I’ve had the opportunity to briefly meet with guys such as Daly, Karam, and Clauson and these guys are raw talent. Karam has the most talent that I’ve seen come out of the ladder system. Daly obviously can drive as well considering his performance as a substitute last year. Clauson has won it all on dirt, and just needs more seat time in an Indy car. What does IndyCar need to do in order to bring up more young guns like this? Whether it be from the ladder system or from USAC. NASCAR now has Larson, Elliott and Blaney all in top rides. Why can’t IndyCar make this happen for these guys?
Ben, Noblesville IN
RM: As a sanctioning body, IndyCar would say it’s not its job to make sure drivers had rides. But, as a sanctioning body that needs to secure its future stars, it should have some kind of a fund to make sure a Karam isn’t left without a ride. Or that a Daly gets a chance. Or that last year’s top rookie, Gabby Chaves, gets some help. Clauson never intended to try and make IndyCar his career, he’s fine as a midget/sprint badass, and only got the Indy 500 opportunities because of Randy Bernard and now the Byrd family. NASCAR still has good sponsorship and well-funded teams that can hire young drivers with talent rather than asking them for money.
Q: I don’t care what your take is on the F1 rejects. It has done one very good thing. People are talking about it and that’s attention the series wouldn’t otherwise have. Rossi’s credentials on road and street courses are impeccable. He WON GP2 races. I don’t like him because it seemed like Daly was always second fiddle to Rossi. Still, people are talking and that’s a good thing.
Ryan in West Michigan
RM: I don’t think anyone has called them “F1 rejects,” as least nobody at RACER, anyway, and that’s not really true. They couldn’t come up with enough money to stay in F1 but they had enough for IndyCar so that was the option. And they’ve certainly generated some publicity and (see Marshall Pruett’s story & video) Chilton has already impressed Dario Franchitti.
Q: Not sure what to think of Alexander Rossi one way or the other. What do you know about the guy? His backing (money), etc.? Family? He’s always seemed to fly a little under the radar.
RM: He went to Europe at age 17 and won at every level except F1 and finally got five F1 starts last year with under-financed Manor. I have no clue about his backing except for the rumor he brought $2.5 million to Andretti (to go with Herta’s $1.2 for the Leader’s Circle). But I’ll bet he’s pretty quick on road and street courses before it’s all over.
Q: Please comment on this year’s Indy 500 Rookie class. Brabham, Chilton, Pigot, and Rossi have to be one of the strongest in years.
Ralph Power, Indianapolis
RM: You said it best. They’ve all been successful on their way up in lower formulas so that’s a pretty good endorsement.
ABOVE: Max Chilton
Q: As much as it does suck to see Gabby and Sage on the sidelines I do believe we have two capable drivers in those seats. I really do believe if Rossi and Chilton can have some success it will open the door to some more talent to come across and give IndyCar a go. It’s not great seeing some young Americans get passed over but looking through the Road to Indy it is slightly watered down. Like you said a few weeks ago USAC is where it’s at and IndyCar doesn’t seem to care, hence why the young Americans go NASCAR racing.
I think “rich kid” Max Chilton is going to surprise this year; he drove junk in F1 but he always kept it on track. Definitely says something finishing your first 25 GPs. I also think Chip does have a plan for Sage down the road, or so I hope. Interesting how he ends up with Scott Pruett at Lexus. Hopefully NTT Data likes him when TK walks away. It’s a tough road out there with that money. Definitely a little worried about Newgarden – hopefully someone makes a run at him next year, definitely a star that should be for a long time – hopefully, fingers crossed! Ready to go racing in a few weeks!
RM: Not sure what I said (I’m 66, I think) but Indy Lights had quality – not quantity — last year with Jack Harvey, Ed Jones, Sean Rayhall, R.C. Enerson, Chilton and Pigot. It’s like how could anyone judge Rossi or Chilton based on the F1 cars they drove? You can’t. But, like I said in another answer above, getting a bunch of guys that didn’t have enough money to stay in F1 isn’t going to help IndyCar’s identity crisis.
Q: Will Arie Luyendyk be brave enough to rule against A. J. Foyt?
RM: He will if Kevin Cogan and I have his back. Way back.
Q: I’m from Mar del Plata, Argentina. I’ve been reading RACER.com for quite a while. It’s my favorite way to practice my English. And I’ve been an IndyCar fan for even longer. It’s so annoying for us that the very talented drivers from the Mazda Road to Indy have such a hard time getting funding for their seats, meanwhile European drivers who were rejected from the F1 ladder, show up with their huge paychecks, buy their way into a ride and stay until they get another chance on Europe.
You’ve been answering questions about it for quite a while now, and I’m sure you don’t want to read again, “Chilton is a moron, Sage should have gotten that seat, blah blah blah.” Instead, I want to ask you if there is something we can do, as fans, to support Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves or Spencer Pigot; you know, those talented drivers from the Road to Indy and throw in our little grain of sand to help them getting full-time rides?
I’ve already joked around with Sage on iRacing saying if I ever win the lottery I’ll use all the money to buy a team and hire him as my driver. We had a good laugh, but seriously, do you think there is anything we can do to support them? I have the feeling that this will keep happening, and every time more F1 rejects will come to IndyCar because they can’t race anywhere else, this is not good for our series, that has a lot of troubles by itself.
Also, I’ll fulfill my lifetime dream and attend some IndyCar races during this year. I’ll stay at a friend’s house in Wisconsin for the summer. Among the races I’ll attend is Pocono. As a kid I loved Nazareth Speedway, and I know it’s only a one-hour drive away from Pocono. Do you know if it’s still possible to access the track and take a walk on the remains of that great speedway? Or is it closed, to keep people from entering, and whoever enters may have trouble for entering private property?
Finally, on this same trip, I’ll attend the Indy 500. What do you think is the best moment on the Indy 500 weekend to reach a driver for an autograph, and a picture? I have this Argentinean magazine from Dixie’s first win on CART, back on the Nazareth race on 2001. I’ve been wanting to get this magazine signed by him since that day, and I want to reach him on the best moment possible, to show him the magazine and take a picture with him. When do you think it’s the best moment for this?
Thank you very much for keeping me informed about the series I love so much.
Lucas Stinziano, Argentina
RM: Well it’s kind of you to offer but unless you can find $500,000 for Indy and $2-3 million for the season, there’s nothing you can do for them. I try and buy Gabby a meal every now and then but while the fans like yourself mean well, unless you hit the lottery it’s impossible to raise the proper funding. Don’t think there’s much left of Nazareth but I’m sure you could take a picture of the remains. There is always an autograph session at IMS on Saturday before the race so that’s the best time to track down Dixon.
Q: Just like most fans, I am disappointed that Fontana will not be on the schedule. I understand why it will not be but for as good as the racing was, it’s a shot in the foot for IndyCar (despite their lack of promoting). Given the time of year that IndyCar wanted to run Fontana, do you think it’s possible that Michigan could enter as a possibility for next year? I know that it could create a conflict with Detroit, but at the same time, they could use Detroit to cross promote it.
Alan Bandi, Butler, PA
RM: I don’t see MIS ever coming back as long as Detroit is on the schedule but I’m not sure MIS has an interest, either. It would be easiest to run MIS in the late summer before football. Maybe.
ABOVE: 1999 CART IndyCar race start at Surfers Paradise.
Q: I recently read about IndyCar wanted to plan overseas races. They should have added races race fans from overseas they can truly relate to. I would say the best example of the races would have been Surfers Paradise (Australia), Twin Ring Motegi (Japan), Rockingham (England), Lausitz Ring/Euro Speedway (Germany) and Mexico City (only if there is a Mexican driver they can root for). These are former racetracks and having one of them as Mark Miles consolation prize races to the fans will give us something we can really relate to. Instead of just finding new temporary circuits and less-than-decent racetracks like Louisiana, Miles please take a good look at these aforementioned tracks first.
Now I know Australians and Kiwis would kill to get tickets to Surfers Paradise Race to see Will Power and Scott Dixon Down Under for real if Miles was really interested. It’s one of two events international events while the other being Japan 1998-2002 then 2003-’11) despite the races on television are on midnight on the U.S. East Coast.
Alex, West Indies (Caribbean)
RM: I know Mark Miles is very aware that Australia or New Zealand would be a nice stop for IndyCar but, repeat after me, it still boils down to finding a track and a promoter. Are any of those tracks you mentioned clamoring for an IndyCar race? Don’t think so. But going Down Under makes the most sense because of Dixie and Willy P., it’s just that Surfers isn’t an option anymore so maybe Phillip Island.
Q: I’m spaced out at the office living out Powerball winning fantasies. We always hear about last-minute Indy deals coming together. Say I win over $200,000,000 this weekend. Is it too late to find people to put a ride together for Kurt Busch, and if not, how much would it cost?
Desmond, Oak Lawn, IL
RM: Well, Kurt has already said he’s not interested in running Indy this May so you need to find another driver (J.R. Hildebrand, Oriol Servia, Tristan Vautier or Simona). If you want a full-blown engine program for the month with a good team, go get at least $750,000 and probably closer to $1 million. Partnering with a decent team with a partial engine program and minimal running would likely run you $500,000.
Q: I have an idea (hate it) for bringing back some of the thrill of Bump Day: Reduce the starting grid to 30 cars! Now I am all for tradition first but they’ve messed so much with what once was, this is only another tweak to improve the show. And base the starting grid each year, (27, 30, 33) on a formula that takes into account the number of entries. If it’s 40 then 27 on grid. If it’s 50 then 30 start. If get 60+, it’s back to 33.
500 fan since ’57
Bruce Boembeke, Mishawaka, IN
RM: Well, you could get your wish of 30 if a few more teams and drivers don’t find some money in the next few weeks. But I think IMS will make sure there are 33 cars. As for your suggestion, if by some miracle 40 cars ever turned up again, why would you limit the field to 27? Having seven legitimate bumps would be more than we could dream. Eleven rows of three are all we have left so let’s not mess that up.
ABOVE: Rick Mears (3) on his way to Indy win #4 in 1991
Q: I don’t have to elaborate on the ridiculous costs of IndyCar racing. While competition on the track is as good as ever, I believe the formula is long overdue for a complete overhaul, starting with the area of aerodynamics. If you, and the more technically astute Marshall Pruett, Jon Beekhuis, or Derrick Walker, could start with a clean slate, describe the ideal IndyCar design.
IndySteve from Eugene, OR
RM: I’d hire Rick Mears and turn him loose. But I bet we might see 1,000 horsepower and a lot less downforce at Indianapolis.
Q: Why doesn’t IndyCar hire a social media savvy millennial (tattoos and piercings required) to cultivate IndyCar among the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter set? This person would develop contacts with any and all celebrities (and wanna-bes) that have a huge following on social media. The goal would be to have a list of people with millions of followers that have a standing invitation to take a ride in the two-seater anytime/anywhere IndyCar is running. If we can get celebrities to experience the “Oh! My! GOD!” speed of an Indy car, and talk about it, it will do more for growing IndyCar’s audience than the local targeted ads or preaching to the choir on Fox Sports at a fraction of the cost.
Imagine a star/starlet sitting down with Jimmy Fallon to push their latest movie a couple of days after riding in an IndyCar and telling Jimmy how awesome it was. Heck, get Fallon in the car. Get Hinch or Newgarden to drive the car. Hate to say it, but Kim Kardashian should have a standing invitation to take a ride in the two-seater anytime/anywhere it is running. One tweet from to her millions of followers with a pic showing her wedging her backside into an IndyCar would do more to grow the audience than all of the ads on Fox Sports network. Thoughts?
Rob Roten, Spring Hill, TN
RM: IndyCar has a pretty active social media presence with Brian Simpson and some of the IndyCar staff. They’re always tweeting and posting and making videos with drivers so I think that area is covered. And Fallon did a shtick at IMS a few years ago during the Super Bowl but unless it’s David Letterman, James Garner, Paul Newman or Patrick Dempsey, none of Hollywood would use IndyCar enough to make an impression. And Kim K. did run the two-seater a couple years ago at Indy and I don’t think it made much of an impression on her, got much time on her show or sold many tickets. And today we’d need the Jaws of Life to get her in the car.
Q: The downloadable PDF race schedule provided on IndyCar.com shows the races for both Toronto and Mid-Ohio listed on NBCSN. But the website is saying both are on CNBC. Which is correct? And is IndyCar aware of this? Thanks for all you do!
Rob Peterson, Rochester, NY
RM: I believe those two races will be shown live on CNBC and then re-aired on NBCSN. Thank you for reading and watching RACER.com.
Q: I watched some of the live timing and scoring from Phoenix. Good to see the field within about a half second of each other, an improvement over past years. But I soon got bored and left. Why doesn’t IndyCar add audio commentary like they do in qualifying? After five-plus months of dead air you would thing there would be plenty to talk about to get people interested again. Just seems like they do nothing to get people to tune in.
PaPa from Minnesota
RM: Good question and I’ll ask. I know they always had somebody calling the action during practice a few years ago but I’m at the track so I never listen and I don’t know the routine. But I agree that you need somebody to try and keep things lively.
Q: I was curious about your opinion regarding NASCAR’s team charter setup. As was announced, NASCAR went to a setup where the 36 top teams for the previous three years get a charter which guarantees them a starting position in each race and guarantees them more of the winnings. Instead of addressing the rules and resulting high expenses, NASCAR just shifted the winnings towards the big teams…those who already have the money to run and get sponsorship. Naturally, the small teams reacted as expected and NASCAR couldn’t even fill the reduced 40-car field at Atlanta. NASCAR may as well have given a charter to the Wood Brothers as there will only be 37 teams at many of the races this year.
One of the big draws for loyal NASCAR fans was the illusion of it being a sport for anybody. One where a guy with limited resources, but a lot of talent and ambition, could put together a car and show up at a race and beat the big teams. A lot like Indy was back in the ’60s. With the charter system, that illusion is gone. It is now a sport for the rich elites and the little guy is officially shut out. Yeah, NASCAR will claim they are not as officially four spots are still open for the little guys. But with the expenses sky high and the purse payout stacked against them, they have effectively shut out the little guy.
Now, with NASCAR’s leadership listening to the big owners over the last 10 years and changing the rules which has driven up engine costs, added a bunch of 1.5-mile tracks that require expensive wind tunnel work on the cars, standardized bodies, etc., the costs have skyrocketed and the product quality has decreased. It’s a lot like the direction open-wheel racing went. Especially with NASCAR grabbing big-money TV contracts that line the pockets of the France family but put the races on small distribution cable channels. It makes it hard to get sponsors to pay for the high costs for lower exposure. It’s not a viable model in the long term.
I see another auto sport that is doing everything wrong and is in decline. It’s pretty bad when tracks are now paying good money to remove seats so they can claim a sellout. Yet, they continue to dig their head in the sand and fail to address the key issues like the financials. I see a lot of similarities to open-wheel racing (without the war) and it’s not a positive future. What do you think?
John Balestrieri, Milwaukee
RM: I guess there is a similarity between IndyCar’s Leader’s Circle and NASCAR’s charter system but it’s separated by millions of dollars on the stock car side. In each case, it restricts new owners coming in because they wouldn’t be able to share in the payout. And guaranteeing spots for every race is insulting to the word competition although, as you point out, the little guy is all but extinct in NASCAR. But I don’t think you can say NASCAR is in decline when it gets billion-dollar television contracts, multi-million dollar sponsorships and better TV ratings than everything but the NFL on a regular basis. People were panning Daytona’s 6.0 rating. Seriously? Indy was a 4.0 last year and we were half-assed happy. I think NASCAR is a joke with its caution clocks, restart lines and hokey ways to try and make its boring racing more watchable but it’s damn sure still got a lock on the American public. And I’m envious.
Q: Marshall Pruett recently wrote an article about IndyCar engine costs. If the manufacturers are losing money on the engines and most of the teams can’t really afford them, then what is eventually going to happen?
RM: I can’t answer that but $1 million for an engine lease for a year isn’t that out of line. And GM and Honda are in IndyCar for lots of reasons but making money obviously isn’t one of them.
Q: I am a longtime IndyCar fan and have seen the ups and downs with American open-wheel racing over the last 45 years. The current state of the series and the management decisions that go along with it perplex me. It seems to me that the low car counts, a small number of owners/teams, and lack of economic incentive for prospective new owners makes for the perfect storm.
The level of risk inherent in the current model seems very high and all it would take is one of the “Big Three” teams to fold or leave for other opportunities and you would be left with a field somewhere near 15 or 16 cars at most tracks. If more than one left it would probably spell the end of the series as we know it. If the management team is truly responsible for the long-term health of the series, why does it not take steps to make necessary changes to increase the practicality of participation?
The “Big Three” owners probably have way too much power over decisions as a result of this situation and it seems to me that making the right decisions for the betterment of the sport overall may be difficult. Perhaps the current car ownership cartel can use the limited seat capacity to keep the “buy a ride” prices high. I just do not understand how the management of the IndyCar series can continue to run their business in this manner. Why don’t they take the necessary steps to make the tough decisions and look at a rulebook (less costly) that makes more sense given the current economic, and business risk, realities of the series? Can you help me here?
Mike from Antioch, IL
RM: It’s a serious problem that Randy Bernard and then Mark Miles inherited. The cars are too expensive, the purses are too cheap, big sponsors are rare and there is no real incentive to become a car owner since you can’t start out in the Leader’s Circle. If you throw away the Leader’s Circle, how many people could afford to play? If you throw away the rulebook, and start fresh, how many new teams from IMSA might join if they had to start from scratch? Mike Shank bought a car but couldn’t get an engine so what kind of message did that send? It’s a terrible Catch-22 and IndyCar’s overall health isn’t as healthy as they want you to believe.
ABOVE: Gary Bettenhausen in a Menard Lola Buick at Indy in ’92
Q: I love your weekly series on the “good guys, tough guys, and best guys of open-wheel racing.” Please buy lunch or something for whoever thought of this genius idea – even if it’s yourself. Honestly, I could probably listen to you talk about guys from the past (some of which I haven’t heard of or never knew the whole story behind) for an hour. Love it, can’t get enough of it, I wish there were more of those videos!
I was re-watching the Indy 500 from (I think) 1993, and there was a Gary Bettenhausen on-board camera on the dashboard. Not only would you need balls of tempered steel to drive those monster Buicks, as well as he did one-handed is even more impressive. Seemed like he had at least some use of the grip in his left hand, just not his arm – but still impressive regardless.
The only race I ever saw Gary B run in live was the 1996 US 500 (my first IndyCar race was Surfers ’94), but I’ve seen almost every CART race. Looking forward to hearing more about the good guys and the tough guys, especially the guys like Phil Krueger that just kept going on their own terms even though their results might not have been spectacular.
C.W., Chicago, IL
RM: Thanks C.W. With no racing for seven months I thought it would be fun to look back at IndyCar’s history and hopefully tell some stories people hadn’t heard. Gary B. was an American original and I know how lucky I was to have been the “fourth Bettenhausen brother” in 1975 when I bought Merle’s old midget. Best times of my life going to lunch with those guys and being ordered around by The Schmuck. His moxie was as impressive as his driving with one arm. Krueger was another racer who made his mark with perseverance and guts.
Q: I need to correct myself. I did a little digging and I believe Lloyd Ruby (Milwaukee in 1961 and Phoenix in 1964) and Don Branson (Trenton in 1962 and Phoenix in 1965) both won on ovals in front- and rear-engine machines. I just can’t confirm what they ran at Phoenix in those two races.
John Sedlak, Venice, FL
RM: ‘Ol Rube did it but not Pappy Branson, according to Donald Davidson. Lloyd was in a Watson roadster at Milwaukee and the scored a win at Phoenix in 1964 in Ted Hallibrand’s rear-engine Shrike.
Q: Great work as always, followed you for literally decades and can’t thank you enough for all your contributions to our beloved Indy 500 (on a separate note, I want to hear significantly more details from your Cannonball days). This year my dad and I hit the 27-year mark at the 500 and will attend the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational as well. What are you recommendations in terms of days, passes, seating and anything else for this event?
Thank you in advance,
Allen Smith, Muskegon, MI
RM: I’ve not been yet because it’s always on the same weekend as an IndyCar race but it appears that a pit pass is all you need to get up close with those great cars and the drivers.
Q: I’m sitting here as I write this, fighting sleep, watching the NASCAR race. I’m such a racing junkie that this time of year I’ll watch almost anything with a flag system and motors involved. But if I’m writing to you, obviously my heart is with IndyCar.
I’ve noticed something about myself, which is: I say every year I’m gonna try to watch more NASCAR. I get past Daytona, about 2-3 races into the season, and I’m like this sucks. The sport is God-awful, entirely too long, and just plain boring. And yes, I’ve seen it live. Got free tickets two years ago here in Vegas, went and left about an hour and half after the green dropped. I’m sorry America, but your primary choice for motorsports, is crap!
But I say all that to say this: what NASCAR incites in me, more than anything is not passion or melatonin. It incites envy. I gotta give it to the good ol’ boys down South. They know how to run a marketing campaign. They know how to ensure ROI. They know how to engage the “common fan.” Their commercials are awesome. You stop what your doing, and watch them. Why? Because they’re cool. They have all the big sponsors. And the seats are 75-90% full everywhere they go. Why? That, I can’t answer. The product is dog s**t. But people speak loudest with their wallets, and they’ve spoken.
I felt like Christopher Columbus looking for China trying to find info on IndyCar testing. Only reputable place to find info is here and IndyCar.com, AFTER the event. IndyCar should be posting on social media, all major platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat) every 15-30 minutes! NASCAR does. And the only thing they do is turn left. Of what I did see, the IndyCar’s looked and sounded awesome. Running 190 mph on a track a mile long should get at least a mention, or bottom-line feature on ESPN or Fox Sports 1.
Your interview with James Hinchcliffe mocking Penske drivers was hilarious and should at minimum be discussed in some sports media somewhere, if even as just a gag reel. Look at the stuff that guys like Loud Pedal Productions has done for sprint cars with their visual editing (search them on YouTube and prepare to have you mind blown), Marshall Pruitt’s photography, get ’em in commercials. Just. Do. Something! This sport is too great to be overshadowed by a bunch of country boys driving Camry’s and Fusions in circles for four hours every Sunday. Keep doing the Lord’s work, good sir.
Tory, Las Vegas, NV
RM: If you can watch a NASCAR race for two straight hours then I’d recommend an immediate trip to your local emergency room because, obviously, you’re dangerously close to a comatose state. But, as for commercials that promote drivers, NASCAR has the sponsors and money to do it right. IndyCar must follow suit by producing its own TV spots to introduce its drivers and put a name with a face. Hinch and Newgarden should co-host a weekly show on radio or television (or both) and IndyCar should pay for it. As it is, the drivers’ personalities are almost as well kept a secret as the racing.