Welcome to the Robin Miller Mailbag as presented by Honda Racing / HPD. You can follow the Santa Clarita, California-based company at: hpd.honda.com and on social media at @HondaRacing_HPD and https://www.facebook.com/HondaRacingHPD.
Your questions for Robin should continue to be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org We cannot guarantee we’ll publish all your questions and answers, but Robin will reply to you. And if you have a question about the technology side of racing, Robin will pass these on to Marshall Pruett and he will also answer here.
Q: A lot of fans say that IndyCar needs to do a better job of marketing itself and spreading the word. But I don’t think the product is something the average person can just get into. I am a huge racing fan in general, and IndyCars are close to my heart. But when I tell people I am into racing or IndyCars, I get the same response: ‘Something, something, NASCAR’. Most people don’t fully understand that IndyCars run at Indy! Anyone can turn on a football game, baseball game, or whatever, and they can see the talent. The average person that does not follow racing sees “cars going around in a circle.”
I think IndyCar needs to push two things: excitement and personality. What makes this great to watch and who is driving these cars. I think more of that in commercials during other sports would help. Also, make the weekend events more appealing to average fans. Concerts, rides, other things to do, will help during a race weekend. As for getting kids involved, think what ‘Cars’ did for Disney/Pixar and make a full line of inexpensive little toy vehicles and tracks. Make bigger ones with lights and sounds too. They don’t need to perfectly replicate, they need to be cool! Add a picture of the driver to the package for personality. Lastly, to the other readers, if you love IndyCar then support it and spread the word. Tell everyone about it. Show them. Be the positive influence for our great sport.
RM: You’ve identified the major problem in that most people with no knowledge or interest immediately assume NASCAR is the subject if auto racing is mentioned. IndyCar’s failure to promote its stars on a national level and the lack of national media coverage has combined to leave it as a little blip on the sports’ radar. Unfortunately, music acts, parties and Xmas lights get more promotion than Josef Newgarden, and three months after his championship he’s just another faceless name to most people.
Without a title sponsor to spend money, IndyCar has shown no inclination to step up and promote at the level needed so IndyCar’s drivers are only visible one month a year. And that’s not enough. Promoting speed would seem to be a good hook, like a billboard at Phoenix that says an Indy car goes 50mph a lap faster than a stock car, but there’s just a general malaise today about the things that first drew us to racing. And ‘Dancing With The Stars,’ The Bachelor’ and ‘The Great Race’ are all nice perks for IndyCar, but not sure they create many fans. The CBS commercial for ‘The Great Race’ showed an F1 car, so…
Q: The sales guy at Phoenix (PIR) has been pursuing me to buy tickets for the April IndyCar race, and he kept lowering the price. The latest was that even though we missed last yea,r he put “renewal” in the computer. The price of $91 per seat includes general admission on Friday, grandstands (about where were last time) on Saturday, parking and pit/garage passes both days. Too good of a deal, so I bought two. I hope you’ll be able to make it, and I just wanted to point out to the Mailbag population that PIR is trying.
Chad Larson, Phoenix
RM: Thanks Chad. I know Bryan Sperber is working hard to keep IndyCar on the schedule, and his salute to Mario in April tells me how much he’s trying to engage the public and media. But $91 for seats, passes and parking is a helluva deal.
Q: Great to hear local boy Aaron Telitz signed with Brian Belardi for the 2018 Indy lights season. He’s got a ton of talent and he’s a public relations dream. Money continues to be the limiting factor in his rise to an IndyCar future. I’m glad Brian is working with him, because we need Aaron in the big time.
Joe Weiss, Spooner, WI
RM: Aaron had a fine rookie season in Lights last year with a pair of victories, a pole and a sixth-place finish in the points, and it’s great to see Brian Belardi bring him back even though the kid doesn’t have any money.
Q: Normally we think of Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. not having a huge liking towards ”furriners.” The addition of Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist (ABOVE) made me realize Foyt really seems to like those Brazilians. Since 1996 Foyt has had Marco Greco, Airton Dare (Aaron Dare), Felipe Giaffone and Vitor Meira all drive for him. Does A.J. have a certain liking towards the Brazilians? And honestly, what made him drop Conor Daly for Leist? It could not have been a sponsor thing because it seemed like the people at ABC Supply liked Conor. And Conor was really starting to hit it off with the team toward the end of the season. I just do not understand the reasoning, but hey I’m not A.J. or Larry. Oh and by the way, have you ever heard of a video game called ‘Indianapolis 500 Evolution’? I got it for Xmas and it’s pretty awesome – you basically race through the roadster era to the rear-engine evolution. It’s really cool!
Austin Blayney, Lakewood, CA
RM: I busted him in ’96 at Indy when he hired Marco Greco Wrote A Big Checko, and he just shrugged and said: “he’s not that bad.” I have no idea why Tex has an affinity for Brazilians, but I do think in the case of Leist that money was the factor – despite having a great sponsor like ABC Supply. That’s the sad part for many fans, because they liked Daly being with A.J. and he ran strong the final third of the season, so it looked promising for the future. And Leist may end up being a good shoe down the road, but he won’t sell a single ticket. Haven’t heard of Indy 500 Evolution, but it sounds cool.
Q: You frequently bash the puny purses in IndyCar, and suggest the Leader’s Circle money should instead be used to increase the purses, particularly for Indy. However, most major sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, soccer) have revenue sharing in some form, so why not IndyCar? I do not necessarily agree or disagree with Leader’s Circle, but it’s not unprecedented in other sports, and even NASCAR jumped on that bandwagon a few years ago. Maybe the real issue is not the Leader’s Circle itself, but the lack of revenue it has available to distribute. Considering that Penske, CGR and Andretti win most of the races, could smaller teams like SPM, ECR, RLL, and Coyne survive if Leader’s Circle funds were shifted to race purses?
David, Greensboro, NC
RM: I bash the Indy 500 purse because it’s a joke and it’s embarrassing, and there will always be a struggle to field 33 cars because there is no financial incentive to run Indianapolis. A non-Leader’s Circle entrant can only earn $200,000, and your tire bill is half of that for May if you try to stay competitive. The Leader’s Circle is a necessary evil because sponsorship is so scarce and cars, engines, tires and parts are too expensive so just about everyone depends on it. But to win a race and earn $40,000 in 2017 is so minor league, and so indicative of why we only have 21-22 full-timers. There has been enough parity lately that teams likely could be sustained on purses (providing they are increased properly), and for a Team Penske (10 wins in 2017) there could be an earnings cap if necessary. But what IMS and/or IndyCar must do is find the Indy 500 a title sponsor for $5 million and stuff it into the purse. There’s no other place to find that kind of money.
Q: I just read that first there will no longer be random draws for (oval) qualifying and no extra tires for the weekend for drivers outside the Top 10. WTF! New teams come on board, and they take away any chance of being up in the field with the qualifying change. I guess Will Power and the other whiners complained. Didn’t they learn before that having the owners call the shots is the path to dissolution? It was called CART. Then with the tire situation, Jay Frye says how fair is it that an 11th-placed driver four points out of 10th gets an extra set of tires? It’s fair Frye, you dolt, because that’s how the guy got that close to 10th. The deck is now stacked even more against the non-gazzillion dollar teams without 20 engineers. I really like Scott and Graham and Josef, but come on, give the low-dollar (relatively speaking) boys a break. If it becomes an even more boring parade of the big names I’m tuning out.
Duane Dyckman, Houston (still pissed that NOLA got our race and it tanked)
RM: I really don’t care about oval-track qualifying because it doesn’t matter where you start (especially with only 22 cars except Indy), so IndyCar went with points and I got no problem with that. IndyCar added sets of tires to other venues to make sure everyone had enough, and I guess the argument is, why should you be rewarded for being outside the Top 10? Rookies will still get an extra set of tires for road and street courses, so that’s more important in my mind.
Q: During this lull before the New Year kicks off, how would you and Marshall like to sit in front of your crystal balls and suggest who your Indy 500 and 2018 IndyCar champs will be? With engine parity between Honda and the Bowtie guys, plus new universal bodywork all cars must use, choosing a favorite may prove more difficult than normal, but I’m sure you are up to the task.
RM: A few people seem to think Honda may have a little edge going into 2018, so I’ll take a flyer on Scott Dixon to win the championship and Ryan Hunter-Reay to win Indianapolis. As for Marshall: “I’m also going to go with Dixon for his fifth championship, but not because of Honda. The UAK18 bodywork was seemingly made for the guy – lower downforce, car dancing around beneath him, and he doesn’t care. It’s a perfect match. For the 500, how about the fairytale scenario of Josef Newgarden winning his first IndyCar championship followed by capturing his first Indy 500?”
Q: OK, we’ve got Danica Patrick from NASCAR. Do you see anyone else coming to the Indy 500 in 2018 – Matt Kenseth, Kyke Larson or Kyle Busch?
RM: Well right now we’ve got Danica saying she wants to run Indy but no ride has emerged as yet, although I’m sure IndyCar and IMS will make sure it happens. Kyle Larson is obviously most of our choices and I imagine his fate could depend on whether Chip can get the funding to run DP. Love to see Kyle Busch, but not sure Kenseth has any desire at his age.
Q: What is the scoop on Harding? I thought it was all set and announced that they were all-in for 2018. During Sonoma weekend Mike Harding even said to the media that he was one car was for sure and that he was 70 percent confident on a second full-time car. They have hired Larry Curry and now the IndyCar website this morning says “The team’s goal for 2018 is a full season with Chaves at the wheel, though no official announcement of that plan has come to date.” What hear you?
Forrester L Morgan
RM: The scoop is that the team has taken over Wink Hartman’s shop (formerly the home of Ed Carpenter Racing) on Main Street in Speedway, and Mike Harding hired Brian Barnhart to run the operation and he’s already hired several new mechanics from other teams. Gabby Chaves is the full-time driver, Al Unser Jr. is his coach and they had an impressive start in 2017.
Q: The talk of the new teams coming over to IndyCar got me wondering about some of the CART teams from the ’90s, and what those guys are doing now, and if any of them would ever consider coming back as a team owner. Derrick Walker, Mike Lanigan, Cal Wells and Gerald Forsythe are a few names that come to mind.
RM: Mike Lanigan is part-owner of RLL Racing with Bobby Rahal and David Letterman on the two-car team of Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Gerald Forsythe is leasing his shop on Georgetown Road to Ed Carpenter, but has no plans to re-enter IndyCar racing. Derrick sold his shop but is always looking to help an IndyCar team, while Wells worked with Michael Waltrip in NASCAR after his Toyota CART days and today works as a consultant for selected NASCAR teams.
Q: What is Jimmy Vasser doing these days? Any indication that Jimmy will soon return to the track with a team?
BP, Sheffield, MA
RM: JV is minding his car dealership and winery but I’m sure if James “Sully” Sullivan ever puts something together that our 1996 CART champion would jump back into the team scene.
Q: You said: “Montoya was the only modern-day IndyCar champion with an opportunity to drive front-runners with Williams and McLaren.” What, did Jacques Villeneuve drive during the Jurassic Period?
RM: Good catch Tom, I am an idiot. I totally spaced on JV and, obviously, he went from CART champ to F1 king in what, three years? He’s also delightfully candid and never bashful about stating his opinion.
Q: Many years ago, Dan Gurney tried to get IndyCar to see the value in stock block engines. Sure, today’s technology would leave them in the dust (I guess) but if stock blocks were the rule, not the exception, and everyone had to go that route, wouldn’t that bring down the costs significantly? Bring Chevy/Ford/Cosworth and a host of others into the fold, and further lowering the costs? We don’t have to go 250mph… but getting more cars “affordable” would mean more drivers having a chance at Indy in particular and in my view, increase fan interest. No?
RM: Let’s go to our stock block man Marshall Pruett: “Hi Bruce. We get this question about stock blocks at least once a month, and the same answer applies: It’s not impossible, but the current Dallara chassis was designed to fit a small custom engine, so if IndyCar were to open the rules up to stock block engines, it would fall in line with the next Dallara due in 2020 or 2021.
“Then there’s the question of weight and performance, since a stock block – a true stock block, with direct road car heritage, not the Penske ‘special’ stock blocks Ilmor built that blitzed Indy in 1994 – is going to be heavier than a lightweight custom engine. I’d counter the stock block argument you’re making – one based on shifting engine regulations to reduce costs – by going the opposite direction. IndyCar needs to embrace new technologies, and the companies that would spend money with the series and its teams to explore that new tech – it could be anything from electronics to powertrain systems – to bring cash into IndyCar. America already has stock block-ish racing with NASCAR, and its ratings are in a continual decline. IMSA is 99 percent production-based engines, and while the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is on an upswing, its ratings are an ongoing issue.
“If IndyCar wants to be different, changing the engine regulations to be like the other two series is the opposite of what I’d recommend. Last note – Gurney’s Pepsi Challenger did indeed take the fight to the custom turbos with a stock block engine. The car was also designed from scratch, and it was a radical concept from nose to tail in order to make use of that engine. If and when IndyCar allows teams to follow All American Racers’ model by building a chassis around an alternative engine package, it might work.”
Q: I just finished watching a very nice documentary about Bruce McLaren and the early years of McLaren Racing Cars. You might want to pass on to your readers that it is available, in Canada at least, on Netflix. I have no idea if you have Netflix in the U.S. or if it’s the same programming as in Canada. The documentary is about 90 minutes with lots of historical footage and interviews with his driver peers from that era. Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney in particular.
RM: I bought copies on Amazon.com and sent them as Christmas presents, because it’s a wonderful insight of McLaren’s impact on racing, his skills, the loyalty he instilled and what a great guy he was on and off the track.
Q: Family matters have taken me out of Tampa and west to Albuquerque. I will miss Sebring and East Bay, but have found one good, high-banked dirt track in Albuquerque. Since I am close to Arizona, are any of the dirt track or short ovals in Arizona worth the six-hour drive over to see some sprint cars?
RM: The only one still standing I know of is Arizona Speedway in Queen Creek, Ariz. And it hosts the World of Outlaws on April 7th.