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 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: We all know your feelings about Sage Karam and the need for more young American drivers, and I agree. That being said, I think the addition of Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Max Chilton is the most interesting news of the off-season. Doesn’t the addition of these three drivers give IndyCar the most competitive group of drivers, top to bottom, in recent history? How about sharing any inside info and your observations on how these guys fit in to the paddock, their teams and media? And their on-track performance thus far? And of course your predictions on their individual results and Rookie of the Year.
Sam from Minnesota
RM: I think you are spot on and, in a story to be published on RACER.com later this week, we say this is as deep a field as IndyCar has ever had because there are no w&*kers. It’s way too early to say how this trio fits in but they’ve all won in Europe and they all seem pretty cool under fire. I’d give Conor a slight edge because he’s got half a dozen IndyCar races under his belt, but the other two have the advantage of being on bigger teams with lots of experienced teammates. Predictions? They’ll each get a podium.
Q: Very mixed emotions on Alexander Rossi coming to IndyCar. His intra-team performance at Manor last season clearly showed he deserves a seat in F1. While I am excited to see him in a race seat in IndyCar this year, especially with a squad that can give him at least an honest shot at wins, I wonder if you were able to get from him any more on his thought process of ride choice. It sounds like he would still like his future to be in Europe and F1 (and honestly, that’s where I’d rather see him).
Did he choose IndyCar over a real chance at a WEC ride or another season in GP2? And, if so, is it because he feels that IndyCar is a better shot back to a potential F1 ride than GP2/WEC? Or was Europe just not an option? Another sad example of an American open wheel star with real talent passed over for mediocre drivers with national backing and deep pocketbooks. Either way best of luck, will be rooting for him!
Scott B., Gainesville, FL.
RM: He’s been in Europe since he was 17 and invested all his energy and effort to making it in F1 but, without enough money to stay on the grid, I think he realizes IndyCar offers him a good chance to be a race driver again instead of cannon fodder. I don’t know him well enough to answer your other questions but I wouldn’t think going back to GP2 was very inviting. I think he’s still young enough that F1 remains his goal but, if he has a good season over here, who knows?
Q: I have been a fan since the CART days and can’t tell you how exited I am to get this season going! Unlike many of the whiners, I feel that guys like Chilton, Rossi, or any F1 refugee bring more exposure and increase buzz and prestige for IndyCar. In a small way it’s similar to what Nigel Mansell did when he left F1. I also feel the series is headed in the right direction. The driver lineup is deep, and the cars are faster than ever. So glad that testing is underway and can’t wait for the season to start!
RM: I’ve received more positive than negative feedback from the Mailbag crowd about Chilton and Rossi, and Sage Karam being out of the equation generates the most unhappiness. Obviously, neither Max nor Alex had the equipment to dazzle anyone in F1, but they will have a better than fair shot to show their stuff in IndyCar.
Q: I could hardly wait for a premiere of “Under One Roof.” But definitely it became the theme for Andretti Autosport. It is true that Michael, Scott Speed, and Alexander Rossi were the last three U.S. drivers that competed in Formula 1. But Marco tested the 2006 Honda Formula 1 car thanks to Gil De Ferran, [ED: Andretti also tested in early 2007, ABOVE] and I recall Bryan Herta having an autumn version of “Spring Fling” in 2002 when he tested the Minardi F1 car. And just like Manor, it was a back-marker team.
If I can remember well, I was expecting for Herta to take the seat but only to lose it to the late Justin Wilson (and my god bless his soul). Herta felt so bad for Rossi because he was there in the same position. I am also so glad that Michael Andretti is very supportive on his goal. But in the meantime: he has a race seat for 2016. I hope Alex can prove that he could jump back into the F1 paddock in the future and wave the U.S. flag.
JLS, Chicago, Il
RM: Not sure how serious Bryan’s chances were but I do recall Jeremy Shaw (motorsports writer/announcer and keeper of the Team USA Scholarship) musing it would have been a good match to see Herta in F1. And Rossi got the ride with Andretti because he brought a couple million to go with Herta’s Leader’s Circle money.
Q: It seems like over the past few years, no rules are written when it comes to IndyCar that can’t be changed. April 11 is the deadline for entries for the 100th running of the 500. Can you see that deadline pushed back in order to fill the field? Or is that one rule that won’t be touched by the powers that be?
Gerry Courtney, San Francisco, CA
RM: Well, when you’re going to have to struggle to get 33 cars and IMS is going to have to help guys like Gabby Chaves, there’s hardly any reason to have any entry deadlines. In the old days at The Indianapolis Star, we ran a separate story daily to announce the entries because it was newsworthy and it helped start the momentum towards May. And there were so many of them. Nowadays IMS sends out releases telling us which band is playing on Carb Day or Legends Day instead of which driver is with which car. Yep, that was Tony Hulman you heard screaming from the graveyard.
Q: How can there be two such divergent opinions as to what will make for better racing at Phoenix? On the same day that Michael Andretti (whose opinion I would highly respect) says that IndyCar needs to add more downforce so Phoenix will be a good show. Will Power, who should also know, says they need to half the downforce and add a ton more horsepower (plus 150 HP) for a good show. You can’t make this stuff up! How can these guys be so 180 degrees out of phase with what will make for a good show, and does this reveal just how unpredictable these cars are?
Forrester Morgan, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
RM: Most of the drivers seem to agree they would love 1,000 HP and a lot less downforce so PIR wasn’t wide open all the way around. But many also said the downforce level made it possible to run up behind each other and have a chance to overtake, whereas cutting it might make a terrible show like Texas. A test would be advisable before any drastic measures and Firestone must also be part of the equation. As to how two drivers could have a difference of opinion? Shocking.
Q: It seems the debate is on again for setting downforce levels for non-speedway ovals. I’m of the personal opinion that there should be some lifting on these smaller ovals, especially as the tires fall off, to allow true separation between car setups and driver skill. It seems that the road course/short oval aero kits are at their limit in regards to minimizing downforce, noting many had their wings set very flat in comparison to their traditional road course settings. While I think sticking with the current spec may be best for Phoenix (ABOVE), or even other non-speedway ovals this season, should some sort of compromise be considered for ovals?
Several years ago something similar was done at Texas, although I’m not sure of the specific configuration. I am not an engineer but it seems the speedway aero kit combined with complete tub floor and strakes may be a good compromise on these types of tracks. It would allow some increase in downforce in the floors and strakes to make up for the speedway kit while reducing turbulence. I’m looking forward to the start of this season with the best field of drivers since the CART era.
RM: As I said in the question on the previous page, Kevin, the drivers would relish backing off for the corners, not just at PIR, but also Indy if it puts more of a premium on driving the cars. I wish I had taped the conversation between Newgarden and Hinch in between sessions at the Phoenix test so I could play it for you readers. Basically they said hell yes they want more power and less downforce on ovals but not at the expense of ruining the chance to run close (like they had at PIR). It’s way over my head but it’s a delicate balance of power, downforce and tires and Bill Pappas listened to suggestions for two days so I’m confident he’ll do the right thing when the time comes.
Q: I was looking forward to the return to PIR, which used to be my annual IndyCar pilgrimage in the ’90’s, but after reading about the downforce and dome skid issues, it sounds like their triumphant return is going to be a big yawner. It’s disappointing to hear the drivers complain about taking away downforce and simultaneously increasing power in an effort to force them to lift in the turns. Combine this with the creation of marbles off-line, and I don’t see this thing working out well either way.
So here comes the stereotypical old-guy, good old days comment, “What ever happened to getting in the car and racing?” All this belly-aching and they haven’t even run a lap in anger yet. I’d like to consider returning to Phoenix to watch the race in person, but with all of these negative comments it sounds like it would be better to watch on TV, or listen on the radio (if you can find a radio station that broadcasts IndyCar).
Napalm Nick, Locust Grove, VA
RM: There wasn’t any belly-aching to my knowledge, just an honest evaluation that downforce can’t be changed overnight without some kind of a test and wide-open will be the norm come April 2. But Ryan Hunter-Reay also pointed out they all predicted no passing at Iowa and it turned out to be a helluva a show. IndyCar’s biggest concern should be if the race goes green most of the way it will be over in an hour.
Q: Thanks for the great article on PIR’s history and the new efforts by everyone to put on a great event. I plan on going 4/2 and hope others will as well. Not to be too snarkey but a couple of comments/questions that might have been in Sperber’s comments or yours: Any reason why at the end of the article there was no link to the PIR website? After reading the article, next step go buy tickets! No mention of any ticket/paddock prices? Was this a missed opportunity to intrigue fans to attend? Will tickets be sold at any local places (Pep Boys, Autozone, Checker) etc?
Peter in Phoenix
RM: Thanks for reading. Tickets in the Bobby Allison Grandstand tickets run from $10-70 while a two-day paddock pass is $50. There are no third-party vendors for this event but here are is a link: https://secure.racetickets.com/PhoenixIntlRaceway/ft/public/index.cfm?event=eda&eventid=4438
Q: Just got my tickets for Phoenix and can’t wait for the race! We’re flying from north Idaho and I’m bringing my wife, three kids and my brother-in-law and his two boys. The last IndyCar race my wife and I went to was the 2011 Indy 500. This will be everyone else’s first and can’t wait to see the looks on my kids face when they see the cars go by for the first time at speed! My question is, if I set my DVR to record the race, do you know if that is picked up by the TV ratings as a TV viewer? Hope to see you at the race.
Brad Heuer, Coeurdalene, Idaho
RM: I’m told some systems will measure your TV if you watch within 24 hours but that’s not set in stone. I’m just impressed you’re coming from Idaho and bringing all those people.
Q: I understand that J.R. Hildebrand (ABOVE) was in line for the Andretti/Herta seat, until Rossi came in. Why is he not in the running for any other open seat? He most have had some backers, otherwise he wouldn’t have had the conversation with Andretti/Herta.
Paul Hirsch, Erie, Pa.
RM: Spent an hour on the phone with J.R. yesterday and I think I can safely predict he’s going to have a ride for Indianapolis – maybe both races.
Q: I was hoping you might consult your sources with the Honda Indy Toronto again and get readers an update on when tickets will be on sale. It’s usually in December. I know from reading your column that the pit-lane area now has an entrance to a new hotel, sidewalks, permanent planters and street lights. A slight layout change is being made. I also saw in the same January 20th column that Kevin Savoree expected a ticket launch February 8th – that has come and gone. Where do things stand as of now with the race and a ticket sales launch?
JD Pentland, Toronto
RM: Savoree says the goal is to have Toronto tickets go on sale a week after this Sunday’s IndyCar opener at St. Pete.
Q: I went into our local Verizon store today here in Reno. There were no posters or anything about the 100th running of the Indy 500 – not even a schedule on the wall or anything about IndyCar. Is it like this everywhere? Pretty Sad.
RM: “Verizon will utilize in store digital displays featuring INDYCAR in its company-owned stores. In addition, one of their privately-managed retailers is exploring a program of their own. When both projects are activated, you will see INDYCAR promotion in a majority of Verizon retailers. This is good news for INDYCAR.” C.J. O’Donnell, chief marketing officer for IMS & IndyCar.
Q: I emailed you back in January regarding when tickets would go sale for the Boston Grand Prix and you were kind enough to print it in the January 27th edition of the Mailbag. Your response, “Mark Miles is at the promoter’s meeting in Phoenix and he says the tickets will go on sale Feb. 25th”. Well it’s March 1st and not only haven’t tickets gone on sale, there’s no information on pricing. What gives? I was organizing a group of friends to go see the race. People who have interest in auto racing but only watch the famous races. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to show them the great racing Indy has been putting on in the last three years. But now I won’t even mention it to them because I have no info to share. I’m embarrassed as an IndyCar fan.
Still Frustrated in New England
RM: It certainly looks like Amateur Night in Beantown but on Tuesday Mark Miles said tickets will be on sale by next Monday. Early Vegas odds are 15-1.
Q: Your January 20th Mailbag contained this response from the Indy Boston organizers. “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!” So it’s March, still no tickets, and supporters are being asked to petition the Governor, Mayor, etc. What gives?
Chris Schaffner, Concord, MA
RM: I guess the thing that most bothers me is having no phone number on the Grand Prix of Boston website. Maybe it’s by design or maybe it’s a sign of ineptitude, not sure. But when a bunch of people are trying to spend money on your event you should have someone answering questions – not email correspondence.
Q: Read with great interest on RACER.com a few articles about F1 testing the “halo” head protection. Ugly-yes, but innovative, potentially life-saving, yes. Maybe if it works it can be made less ugly with some further innovation and maybe not. Maybe in testing it will be found to actually be less safe, a hazard, or totally un-driveable in actual race conditions. Regardless of what the outcome will be, I like the fact that they are trying, investigating, etc. What has IndyCar been doing, if anything, in the area of head protection since the Justin Wilson tragedy last year- are they just watching F1, or are they trying to prototype anything on the current IndyCar chassis? (and if not, why not?)
Whether it’s realistic to actually integrate a part like the halo on the current chassis across the series, or whether they would have to wait until the next iteration, why not test, get feedback, and repeat now, so that the series can work out an answer? Is IndyCar just content to wait until the next chassis iteration to even think about it? Does IndyCar feel any pressure to do something or are they taking an out of sight, out of mind approach? Given last year and all the conversations drivers, teams, owners, IndyCar officials, and fans had after JW’s death that would be a shame.
Mike K, Baltimore
RM: Marshall Pruett answers your questions in a story running today on RACER.com and the gist of it is that IndyCar seems to be behind in responding. But Scott Dixon has spoken up and said he thinks the halo is a step in the right direction. It might not work on a high-banked oval for IndyCars, but Dixon is for some kind of protection, be it a canopy or version of a halo.
Q: It was interesting to see that FIA/Formula 1 is already at the testing stage for protective cockpit halos. While one can’t deny they look odd, given recent fatalities and career-ending head injuries, I’m sure they’ll be the norm in 2017 or 2018 in F1. I do think it a bit sad that IndyCar seems content to let F1 take the lead. I know IndyCar has discussed canopies and halos and I believe they have a working group discussing the concept with Chevy and Honda, but I am surprised that we haven’t yet seen tests in this department in IndyCar. How long until Mercedes makes the halo into an aerodynamic device?
Trevor Bohay, Kamloops, BC, Canada
RM: To be fair, IndyCar’s tech chief Will Phillips was abruptly shown the door a few weeks ago and Bill Pappas is in a massive education course for his new job. And it’s very seldom that IndyCar is behind or beaten in any area regarding safety or response. I’m sure Mercedes already has a halo that retracts on the straightaways.
Q: I have been a fan of yours for a long time, and of IndyCars since 1968. I was 10 years old, we had just moved to Indy and my dad took me to Pole Day. I was in awe of those wedge turbines and have been a fan for going on 50 years now. My question is, why can’t we go to 1,000 HP and reduced downforce? Is it money – the engine manufactures think it will cost too much to make the engines to support that kind of HP, which in turn makes the support too expensive? Or is it safety, political or all three and more?
Tom from Wheeling, WV
RM: In CART’s heyday we had practice engines, qualifying engines and race engines and the budgets from Honda, Toyota, Mercedes and Ford were insane. Now General Motors and Honda claim they are losing money with $1 million leases and detuned motors so, yes, I think the engine manufacturers want to control costs and competition. These engines last a long time nowadays so could they have the same reliability with 250 more HP? Not sure.
Q: Has IndyCar re-upped its agreement with USA Today for IndyCar-related content and placement?
Mark, Naperville, IL
RM: Yep. IndyCar is in the final year of a three-year agreement with USA Today and the good coverage provided by Brant James and Jeff Olson should increase in 2016. It was a smart investment by IndyCar, even though I despise Gannett for obvious reasons and put a voodoo curse on The Indy Star’s circulation numbers (and I’m happy to report it’s working).
Q: As a lifelong IndyCar fan, I attended every race from 1968 thru 1980 and several others since. I was on YouTube over the weekend and stumbled across a bunch of old shows with highlights from many of those races. They were about 25 minutes long, hosted by Donald Davidson. Outstanding stuff which ushered in lots of really great memories.
Two things stood out. In 1966, they had an interview with eventual winner Graham Hill (ABOVE). The interviewer asked him how he felt to be called a rookie. He hesitated for a moment, and then said “Terrible.” Then he acknowledged he still had a lot to learn about what he called “track racing.” Kinda humorous. Second, the disaster of 1973. I watched the ABC replay of this one. Forgot just how big a wreck Swede Savage had. Hard to believe he did not die instantly. We always sat in the northwest vista and I saw the crash first hand. Awful. During the lengthy clean-up, they interviewed several drivers, who hinted that the track was extremely oily and perhaps caused the crash. Then they interviewed Jerry Grant who was visibly shaken. He said he had not taken the the normal groove through the turns as it was so oily. Dave Diles practically begged JG to openly admit that the track was too dangerous to race on. He came close but did not.
Last interview I saw was with Bobby Unser. DD asked him the same questions. I am paraphrasing here but BU basically said “Hogwash! The track is safe and just fine. Unless you don’t know what you are doing out there!” That’s the guy I remember!
David Reihman, Cincinnati
RM: Even though a lot of people don’t think Hill won that race (Jimmy Clark started to pull into Victory Lane), he did give a hilarious speech at the banquet. Swede was tough and I went to visit him a few days before he died – from a tainted blood transfusion according to Dr. Steve Olvey in his book “Rapid Response.” And, naturally, that’s why we love Uncle Bobby.
Q: Robin, I know your were friends with Junior Kurtz, who died last week, and I was wondering as much as he loved racing why he never entered a car at Indianapolis?
RM: Junior was a free-spirited, dirt-lovin’, grassroots racer that adored Silver Crown cars, one-mile dirt tracks and the way Chuck Gurney drove them. If Indy had gone back to front-engine cars I’m sure Junior would have built his own model. As it was, he enjoyed the three decades he competed in USAC, as well as the eight victories and one championship that Chuck gave him. We’ll all miss the Plastic Express Special and Junior’s great laugh and wicked sense of humor.
Q: Actually had to look up from working my crossword this past Sunday (with the NASCAR Las Vegas snooze-fest being used for background noise) when I heard them say…”and the number 10 of Danica Patrick is knocking on the door of the top 20, a lap down.” Now that’s some good racing to follow.
My question is, have you heard anything about an increase in the purse for the 100th running of Indy? Still think they should get Betty White as the Grand Marshall for the 500 Festival Parade since she was the celebrity who kissed Ray Harroun in the Winner’s Circle. The 100th running only happens once – hope they spend some money to make it special.
RM: I haven’t heard anything and I imagine if there’s going to be any kind of substantial increase that IMS will make a special announcement or have a press conference. But it should pay at least $5 million to win the 100th Indy 500. I think Betty is booked but look on the bright side – Skrillex is playing in the Snake Pit.
Q: I went to order my Bronze Badge today and was hit with another $10 price increase for 2016, so now the badges cost $135 each. In 2015 the price for the badges increased 25 percent to $125 per badge. Must be another idiotic Boston Consulting Group recommendation. I expressed my displeasure to IMS on Twitter: #pricegouging
RM: Greed is not good so there needs to be an adjustment for the 2017 Indy 500 prices because I hear from a lot of disgruntled, longtime fans they aren’t coming back after this May. But BCG did say to gouge the fans you’ve already got.