Welcome to the Robin Miller Mailbag 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: It’s 77 degrees today near Laguna Seca (no longer Mazda Raceway) and should be gorgeous at the Sonoma test. I don’t think the Monterey County Board of Supervisors has anyone left in the motorsports world to offend. The new agreement with SCRAMP will sweep a lot under the rug, but look for stability in Laguna’s operations for the foreseeable future, though I don’t see any game-changer that will bring the track to the prominence it once held.
I had a chance to briefly speak to Mark Miles at Sonoma after the on track ceremonies. When asking about an early-season race at Laguna, I was surprised at his response, namely “management” (SCRAMP) does not want an early-season race. After giving it some thought, it makes sense that they don’t want to spin up their volunteer structure that early and also, the Wolf Hill parking area could be a sea of mud during the rainy season. That would mean shuttling spectators in from the old Fort Ord tank parking lots on what is now Cal State Monterey Bay.
At this point, the only way I see IndyCar returning to Laguna is if Sonoma goes away. And after attending Sonoma for the first time, that’s not likely. With the WeatherTech series on the rise with greater star power, the most prominent Historics weekend in North America, a solid World Superbikes weekend and manufacturer-funded events like the Porsche Rennsport Reunion, Laguna really doesn’t need to compete for a NASCAR or IndyCar weekend. That means minimal sanctioning fees and events that bring manufacturer revenue that lessens the importance of TV or spectator revenue. That being said, looking back to the DP01 test in the Champ Car days, why would Laguna Seca not be a good candidate for a pre-season test, especially with the weather we’re having now?
Paul, Carmel, CA
RM: If Sonoma were to go away then I imagine Laguna would get some serious consideration for that fall date, since it doesn’t sound like spring is an option. I do think Laguna would be fine for the pre-season test, but IndyCar is trying to re-establish a presence back in Phoenix, and along with testing the new aero kit and hopefully improving the on-track product from the last two snoozers, this was also an opportunity to do that.
Q: Just checking if there is any new information on the season starting earlier in the future? I think the series could definitely look at Australia and or Mexico to make that possible. Start with two races before St. Pete, fill the gap in August with Calgary or another Canadian venue, and move Gateway or Iowa to the season finale, and the schedule would be perfect. Another crazy idea I thought of was having Fontana start the season with a 500-miler, and end at Michigan with a 500-miler. That way there is a 500-mile race early, middle, and late. I know it’s far-fetched, but a guy can dream.
Brian, Joliet, Illinois
RM: Japan or Australia would seem the logical choices to open the season, but not much talk about either right now. No way Fontana runs in the spring, it’s gearing up for its NASCAR race, and Michigan has no interest to my knowledge.
Q: Great to see Vasser and Sulli back in the game! Looks like they brought the sponsor with them, which leads to my question: does that change how much funding needs to be brought to the table for the No.19, and open the doors to more potential drivers? Also, is it possible this grows to a three-car team in the future?
Glenn, Houston, TX
RM: I suppose anything is possible with Dale, but I wouldn’t think he’d be interested in a third car without another Leader’s Circle check – unless somebody brings a bunch of money. If DeMelo and Fittipaldi are splitting the ride in #No.9 and Seb has good funding thanks to Vasser and Sullivan, I imagine a fourth car at Indy is possible.
Q: So Conor Daly is on The Amazing Race building new fans. So when those new fan see an IndyCar race and look for where Conor is, well, he won’t be there. This doesn’t seem like a good plan for IndyCar. I understand drivers have to bring money, however Conor being in a car is in the best interest of IndyCar. Not just for these new fans, BUT also Conor has slowly become one of the most popular drivers. Why does IndyCar sit by and see marketing opportunities like this pass them by?
Tom Harleman, Carmel, IN
RM: The biggest difference between NASCAR and IndyCar is that the former would never let one of its young guns sit on the sidelines, while IndyCar either doesn’t have the money or interest to keep Daly in a car. I don’t know how many new fans The Amazing Race might make, but they won’t follow long if the guy they want to cheer for doesn’t have a ride. Having said that, IndyCar will do anything and everything (financially) to make sure Danica has a ride in May because it feels like she’s going to draw so much extra attention (I don’t), but Daly isn’t in that category.
Q: Do you know what happened to Esteban Gutierrez, and whether he is still in a frame to drive an IndyCar this year?
RM: The last thing I heard many weeks ago was that his seat had been taken to Ed Carpenter’s shop but, obviously, nothing came of it and Jordan King has that seat.
Q: I like the aeroscreen shots I’ve seen. I’ve been against the idea since Day 1, but I think what IndyCar has come up with is tasteful and harkens back to older Indy cars. Hopefully the drivers like the visibility. I read the screen has been modeled in software – any idea how it affects the cars aerodynamic efficiency or top-side downforce?
John in Dayton
RM: No idea, but that’s why they’re testing it tomorrow in Phoenix. I’m sure RACER.com will have a story from the test about it.
Q: The Official Media Partnership agreement between IndyCar and RACER is troubling for us First Amendment, Free Speech nerds. Your history of dissing those with power, money and ego prompts me to worry about you. I’ve sat across many a desk with a publisher promising a robust free press only to be shown the door when those with power, money and ego squeal like pigs denied a fattening meal without interruption. Do you have nightmares?
RM: Not at all. Paul Pfanner [RACER founder & CEO] understands business and reporting, and he’s never said don’t write anything or spin things a certain way before, and I don’t expect it to happen now. The separation of church and state is healthy, and RACER.com will maintain it. I guess the thing sanctioning bodies, officials and drivers don’t always look at is that most of us write stories that are 80-90 percent positive but they always remember the one that was critical. But, other than once at The Indianapolis Star when IMS was contemplating trying to yank my credential, and once when I was writing for ESPN and the IRL tried to have me removed from the beat, I’ve never had anyone try to censor me.
Q: I just read the article of the IndyCar media partnership with RACER. This is fantastic news, and what IndyCar has needed for so long! IndyCar’s media team has long been falling short of fans’ expectations while RACER has the best team in place, and the tools to get the word out there that IndyCar is the best racing on the planet! I visit RACER.com and read RACER magazine every day, so I hope that word also spreads of the great content provided by RACER.
Mark Suska, Lexington, OH
RM: It’s a tricky slope because IndyCar likely can’t run all of our content about Silly Season or venues going away or drivers being on the hot seat or a controversial call at a race, but right now its website has some really good writers and they’re asked to crank out features and historic pieces – not hard news. So it will be interesting to see how much of RACER.com makes it onto their site. But I appreciate your support of RACER.
Here’s a bit more information from RACER.com Editor Mark Glendenning: “The partnership between RACER and INDYCAR is first and foremost a commercial one, and really just enshrines a relationship that had previously existed on an informal basis. Editorially, there will be some content exchange – for example, we might provide more visibility for their live streams; they might pick up something from our archives to compliment a feature that they’re doing. And every once in a while there will be a project that we’ll collaborate on, such as the fourth annual IndyCar special issue of the magazine, which we’re working on as we speak. You can also expect special RACER/INDYCAR promotional events. But RACER.com will retain its editorial independence, and the partnership will have no influence on how we cover the sport.”
Q: Marshall Pruett’s story Monday on RACER.com had Zachary Claman DeMelo and Pietro Fittipaldi piloting the No.19 in 2018, but there is a possibility of running both in the Indy 500, along with Bourdais and Pippa Mann, for a four-car Coyne effort? If I’m not mistaken, this would mean we have 33 cars confirmed for the 500. Andretti (Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Rossi, Veach, Munoz, Wilson), Ganassi (Dixon, Jones), Penske (Castroneves, Power, Pagenaud, Newgarden), Foyt (Kanaan, Leist), Coyne (Bourdais, DeMelo, Mann), Carlin (Chilton, Kimball), DRR (Karam or Patrick), SPM (Hinchcliffe, Wickens, Harvey), RLL (Rahal, Sato), Harding (Chaves), ECR (Pigot, Carpenter), Juncos (Kaiser), Lazier (Lazier). Are we gonna see any extra entries, or is this our field of 33 set already?
RM: I think Oriol Servia and Conor Daly will get something by May (RLL and Coyne would be my guess) so that would make 33 if all if the above combinations come through. Nobody seems sure about Sage right now, but Danica will definitely have a ride.
Q: What are the chances of 34 cars going for the 33 spots in May? I count 31 so far.
RM: You count well Ron, but I’d say a slim chance of 34 and, really, does it make any difference? One extra car doesn’t return the drama to Bump Day, so just start ’em all if 34 somehow show up – providing they can all get engines.
Q: As I’ve been following the driver reactions to the new car, I’m wondering about speeds. Do you have any knowledge about who’s been quick with the new car right out of the box? Also, I love me some Graham Rahal, and in thinking about him and Indy, it seems like it’s unfortunately not one of his better tracks. Is that bad luck, team, or is he just not the quickest guy at the Brickyard? I wouldn’t be surprised if Taku is faster than Graham at Indy… it seems like Sato is much more of a natural at the Speedway than Rahal. Thoughts?
Randy from Milwaukee
RM: I haven’t seen any definitive times from testing, but I’m told Andretti had a good session at Sebring not long ago, and we should know more this week about speeds with IndyCar testing as a group at Phoenix. As for young Rahal, he doesn’t qualify very well at Indianapolis but he always races good (29th to third in 2011 and fifth in 2015), and the distance fits his racecraft, so don’t ever count him out.
Q: I wanted to share my thoughts on Jordan King. I think he’s being bashed unfairly. His record in Europe is not spectacular, but he’s definitely not a Francesco Dracone. His style suits cars with oversteer, so the new car could be to his liking. Given that his family is worth more than a lot of countries, and that on road courses I would rate him at or around the drivers who are currently on the market, I think Ed made a good choice. He could be the next Mike Conway, and I have no problem with that. One thing – he whines on the radio too much, but that won’t last long in Ed’s garage.
Jake, New York
RM: Well since I know nothing about him I appreciate your scouting report, but I have to say I haven’t heard too many complaints about him – yet. I think most IndyCar fans understand the process, that car owners are forced to take money to keep going or improving, and I’m fine with King and his riches because Ed kept Spencer Pigot as his full-timer and that’s a win for the Mazda Road to Indy and IndyCar. If he could duplicate Conway’s prowess on certain tracks, then I think Carpenter will be quite satisfied.
Q: Thank you for your Mailbag, I enjoy reading it and thought to send in a comment. Oftentimes the question comes up as to how to keep racing relevant, how IndyCar viewer numbers are dipping, etc. So my idea was for an E-500 at Indy. At the moment, Formula E needs two cars to complete their race distances, less than 100 miles. When Indy started some 100-odd years ago, 500 miles was quite a challenge, and the winning speed was 75 miles per hour. So create an electric car 500-mile race. Base it on the current IndyCar formula (chassis, aero, etc.) but with electric motors. Indy pioneered the gasoline engine 100 years ago. Perhaps they could do it with electric now. They may be slow or underpowered, or need charge breaks (as in, pulling your car off under green to recharge – no competition cautions please) but you have to start somewhere.
In reality, I know better. IMS is not going to create an E-split and target their biggest moneymaker/largest sporting event on the planet, and to think that “E-offies” are going to turn everything back to the 60s is wishful thinking. But it was just an idea, and I wondered what you thought about it.
RM: I have lunch with Derrick Walker every week and I asked him why every major manufacturer in the world seemed to be enamored with Formula E, and he said: “because that’s what the future is going to look like in a few years.” Personally, I don’t watch Formula E and hate the thought of a car that doesn’t make any noise, but it’s probably time for IndyCar and/or IMS to do some serious due diligence on electric engines. If it started as a project like Le Mans runs, then maybe it’s something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. IndyCar has been trying to find a third manufacturer for a long time without any success, but every engine manufacturer in the world is lining up to jump into Formula E, so it’s probably worth exploring.
Q: Last June while attending the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit for the third day in a row, I had a bit of an unpleasant experience involving a pretty, lets just keep this PG and say “interesting” event volunteer.
Just prior to the start of the weekends second IndyCar race I had to leave my coveted top-row Turn 3 grandstand general admission seat to make a quick pit stop and grab a bottle of water from concessions for the girlfriend. We had been sitting up there since not long after the gates opened for the Trans-Am series in the morning, with a good group of die-hard fans and everything seemed set for a perfect afternoon of racing on the island.
Just before my quick trip downstairs, several spotters from various teams started showing up and setting up shop at the bottom corner of the grandstand at the entry to Turn 3. Upon returning to the stands after no more than two minutes I was shocked to see my girlfriend had been moved down a row and Takuma Sato’s spotter standing in her place. I was approached by the previously-mentioned event volunteer, and told that he had to split my girlfriend and I up so the spotter could have the top row. Needless to say I was none too pleased to be a paying customer and have my seat taken by somebody who wasn’t, and ended up getting so worked up that I eventually just walked out. I’ve attended that event nearly every year since Bobby Rahal won the first race on the island back in 92′ and have never been treated that way.
So I guess I was just wondering if this is a common occurrence for spotters to be in the spectator seats on road/street courses, because honestly, up until that day I had no idea they even used spotters at the non-oval events on the schedule.
Kevin from Clinton Township
RM: First off, I think it sucks that you got evicted, and spotters on a road or street course just make me laugh. IndyCar had best make sure it doesn’t piss off the fans it’s still got, and I sent your letter to the folks at Detroit so expect their response within the week. I get that spotters have established places (the roof, mostly) on ovals and that’s fine because they’re already designated (like Turn 3 at IMS). and it doesn’t take away anyone’s seat. Spotters have been around for several years and they’re necessary for ovals, but a spotter at Belle Isle is laughable – until I hear a story like yours, and that’s not funny.
Q: I am from Salem, Indiana and a history buff when it comes to that track and open-wheel, and I have some of the oldest known memorabilia from Salem Speedway. With the history of the Salem high banks and so many who has passed over the start/finish line; Foyt, Parnelli, Andretti, O’Connor, most of those drivers said Salem was toughest track in the 50s and 60s. What do you think besides Salem and Indy was the toughest and most fun track for open-wheel during that era?
Josh Sherron, your biggest fan
RM: Parnelli [pictured duelling with A.J. Foyt at Salem in 1961] said if he had to do his career over again he would NEVER run the high banks. I responded that he won races on them, and he replied that it was madness. So Winchester and Dayton are right alongside Salem in terms of being fast and treacherous and great stars like Vuky and Ward refused to run them. So those were the toughest tracks, along with Langhorne, but I imagine if you asked most ’60s sprint drivers their most fun tracks then Terre Haute, New Bremen and Eldora would always be mentioned.
Q: I have read a number of excellent articles online which cover the CART/IRL split. However I am struggling to find any of a similar quality or detail which cover the Champ Car/IRL merger in 2008. I realize that some of the business details will be in confidence and could not be disclosed, however there must be some details out there which relate to the negotiations. Can you recommend any?
RM: Unless you saved all the stories I wrote for SPEED.com in February of 2008, it’s going to be difficult to find much in the way of details. It was an interesting time in that Tony George and I worked together on the story for a couple of weeks, even meeting for breakfast a couple of times, and I was careful to check with him before printing anything because I didn’t want to screw things up with a misplaced story. I think I broke the story on Feb. 25 or 26. And you could always try the Indy Star’s achieves, except I recall it running a story saying the merger had been scrapped.
Q: In light of the news about F1 dropping grid girls, I think IndyCar (and other series) could put a positive spin on this and introduce “Grid Kids” – recognize kids from local schools or other organizations for doing good things like getting good grades in school, doing positive things in their community, etc. Make it a behind the scenes VIP experience for kids and their families who might not otherwise attend due to the costs or other reasons. It would be a fun way to make some new young fans, and wouldn’t cost the series much, either. The more we can do to get kids involved and keep them interested the better. Racing needs to think long-term and focus on the kids.
Travis R, Noblesville, IN
RM: It’s a great idea, and your letter came in only to be followed a few hours later by a story that Formula 1 is replacing Grid Girls with Grid Kids, so obviously other people think it’s a good idea. IndyCar says it’s going to look into it and what better way to make some new, young fans.
Q: Robin, with all the rave reviews of the new IndyCar, I would love to see Indy back at Chicagoland (five of 10 closes finishes in IndyCar history) and Michigan. Do you think there is any chance of that happening? Is Milwaukee off the schedule for good? Is there anytime during the month of May that you are available to the fans for a Q&A? I’ve been an IndyCar fan since my first Indy 500 in 1967, and will be attending my 42nd Indy 500 this year. I would love to meet you and ask some questions.
Mike Kinzler, Joliet, Ill.
RM: No chance for Chicago, MIS or Milwaukee – at least not in the foreseeable future unless you hit the lottery and want to promote one of them (smile). No Q&A sessions planned; sometimes Marshall and I do a podcast or take questions online, so that’s probably the best bet. Thanks for being a loyal fan.
Q: The other day, Rolling Stone magazine published a good article on Randy Lanier, who has received a lot of attention over the last couple years since his release from prison. It has now been pushing 35-40 years since the International Marijuana Smuggler’s Association infiltrated the IMSA and CART ranks, amongst others. I know at the time some people chose to look the other way, while others were pretty blatant about their dislike for where the funding of some of these teams were. But you can’t deny that for a five or six-year period people like John Paul Sr./Jr., Don and Bill Whittington, Randy Lanier, etc. brought a large influx of both money, attention, and talent into the racing series, especially with how they challenged the established factory and legacy teams. Rides were ‘bought’, sponsorships were fake or non-existent at times, but these were relative newcomers that won multiple championships and crowns in a short period of time before things caught up with them.
In hindsight, what do you think the long-term impact of these drivers and this era had on both IMSA and CART, or even motorsports in general? I always thought these guys were RACERS, regardless of where their dollars came from. I have always been fascinated by the players, and virtually all of them have repaid their debts to society. Will you, or history for that matter, ever look back on this era in a positive light? Stick and ball sports have managed to weather steroid and drug eras where the actual participants were affected, and other forms of motorsport have survived all sorts of cheating scandals and such. The general fan is usually pretty quick to dismiss and forgive these things if the sport keeps them entertained, but some purists are still bitching about the designated hitter rule after almost 50 years.
Is the ‘smugglers-era’ always going to be a black storm cloud, or will we look back and realize that there was some really good racing by some really good drivers going on back then?
RM: I read it, and it’s too bad the author didn’t spend a little more time talking to informed people, because he painted Lanier as a budding superstar that could kick Mario and Emerson’s butt and he was on the cusp of superstardom. Hardly. Yes, he was rookie of the year at Indianapolis [1986, pictured] and finished 10th (five laps behind the winner) and he was brave and rich but he wasn’t around long enough to get much of a read. (He finished sixth at The Meadowlands and qualified fifth at MIS). John Paul Jr. was by far the most talented of the Drug Era, and it was his evil father, not JPJ, that was the criminal and when JPJ refused to testify against his dad and went to jail, he was welcomed back warmly to IndyCar racing. He’s a great guy.
As for how history looks at that period of time in sports cars, not sure anybody really cares enough about it, but we all knew something was fishy at Indy when the Whittingtons paid cash for a Cosworth engine and Lanier had the same DNA. They all went to jail and paid their dues, so I guess that’s the story.
Q: While Bobby Rahal did not come out and say ‘streaming’ in the article recently posted on the RACER website [LINK: http://www.racer.com/indycar/item/147145-end-of-tv-deal-presents-opportunity-for-digital-growth-rahal%5D, certainly that could be a large part of what he means as he talks about the TV deal ending with this season.
Personally, given the low ratings and the age group that seems to be most interested in watching IndyCar I don’t believe that the loss of a “terrestrial” feed will be the impetus to a wider ranging audience. I think most of us old farts won’t make the transition to a different media type, and ratings will drop even more. It is certainly possible, given the number of my students that immediately pull out their phones during a break (about 99.9 percent) that it might attract a younger audience, but there just does not seem to be a big enough group of millennials, even though you do get a share writing in, to make up the difference let alone grow the ratings.
I hope I am wrong, but I know I don’t want to have to pay more money to see the races that are part of my regular cable bill now. What do you and the readers think? Looking forward to getting the shirts in the next few weeks; glad to see there was a “Dan Gurney for President” choice.
Tom in Waco
RM: IndyCar is in no position to go to only streaming its races yet, it still needs cable and network television, and we’re all hoping NBC gets the whole shooting match in 2019. I worked for SPEED and paid $10 extra a month to get it, and always thought it was worth it because it offered lots of racing shows. NBCSN has NASCAR and IndyCar, and I think it could expand it’s programming in 2019 to include more shows, which is exactly what IndyCar needs – exposure. But IndyCar has a niche audience and we’re all older, so I’d concentrate on keeping that audience happy because today’s youth simply doesn’t care about racing or cars for that matter. The Big Eagle shirt is a classic – just like Dan.
Q: Has John Andretti totally recovered from his cancer treatments and is he out of the woods? Have heard virtually nothing in the media about him.
Tom Fitzgerald, CPA
RM: Spoke with John this morning and he’s making “gains every day” and is back in the gym, so that’s good news. He went through hell with chemo and radiation but along with his positive attitude, it saved his life. He had a good line; he said chemo was like the IRS: mean and doesn’t play fair.