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 becoming painfully obvious that all the Hulman-George family cares about is the Indy 500 and IMS. It seems more and more that the actual series is just a necessary evil. How else can they explain spending zero dollars on a national ad for the IndyCar Series during “The Amazing Race”? Talk about a missed opportunity!
I totally agree with your take that a regional ad during the Super Bowl does nothing to raise the profile of the series. It does raise the profile of the Speedway and the 500. If Mark Miles is smart, he will take some of the money Hulman & Co doesn’t put into the pathetic purses and spend it on a national ad during the Super Bowl or multiple ads during the Rolex 24 and Daytona 500. Fox would take their money. Simply use the footage from Fontana a few years back, along with JoNew’s bump-and-run from Gateway, and show the national sports fans what they don’t see on their sports reports. Take your product to your audience.
And how dare they cry poor? The 500 has been packed the last few years, but the purse… see my earlier comment. Miles has done some good things for the series (hiring Jay Frye), but at other times it seems like his head up his backside (Boston Consulting Group). This TV deal will define his tenure, and if he’s narrowed things down to ESPN/ABC and NBCSN/NBC as the SBJ hinted at, God help the series if he goes with Always Bad Coverage – but it would be the Hulman & Co way of doing things: same old, same old. If it wasn’t for the racing, the teams and the drivers I would’ve been gone a few years ago, but that’s what keeps me around, despite the lack of leadership from the parent company and family.
Scott St. Clair, Erie, PA
RM: Believe it or not, the Hulman/George family has nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of IndyCar or IMS. Sure, they’re all still on the board and TG is the president of the museum, but they don’t make policy on marketing, promotions, schedules or rules. Everything changed when the sisters took the keys away from TG and hired Randy Bernard.
They still have five votes (Mari, Tony, Kathi, Nancy and Josie) on the 12-member board of directors (really six, since Jack Snyder has been part of the family for years) but Mark Miles and his staff calls the shots. That doesn’t mean the family doesn’t have a voice, but Kathi lives in California, Josie in Wyoming and Mari’s health isn’t good, so the family is in no position to be hands-on anyway. And I believe the BCG was the brainchild of Jeff Belskus prior to handing it off to Miles.
Q: Today while researching your great comment on “concerts, camping and Christmas trees,” I stumbled across the new “The Fast Four” fantasy cartoon video on the IndyCar site. This is the first in a professionally-produced series that IndyCar has invested in, and it’s presumably intended to be distributed to IndyCar social media subscribers to get them excited about their favorite drivers and to watch upcoming races. The video only promotes the racing once in the last few seconds.
While distributing the last few seconds on social media might help remind existing fans of the upcoming race, it is virtually worthless in its current format. People will not suffer through it, and it will insult the intelligence of anyone over six years old. At the direction of C.J. O’Donnell they have obviously spent a lot of money on this mess. Preaching to the choir via social media will not resurrect this series. While the IMS flag relay could have had some potential merit outside the existing fan base, it, too, seems to have been poorly executed. Is O’Donnell insane, or just seriously incompetent? Does anyone in IndyCar management realize that sales success in the automobile industry doesn’t necessarily qualify someone for a marketing position in the entertainment business – which is what racing is, as John Force somewhat eloquently described today?
Rick Marengo, OH
RM: Not sure how much they spent on the Fast Four, but I think having an IndyCar booth at the Chili Bowl for a week (with different drivers every day and maybe letting JoNew race) would be cheaper and much more effective at spreading the word and identifying the players. IndyCar’s biggest challenge is trying to get its drivers and races back on the general public’s radar, and I don’t see how this cartoon does it. I’d rather see JoNew and Hinch just BS about racing for two minutes, because their personalities would come out and people might get to know them and like them. I do think O’Donnell is strapped by budget constraints, so it’s even more important to spend that marketing money wisely.
Q: Michael Andretti and Roger Penske recently buying into Australian Supercar teams stoked my interest a bit, so I’ve been watching races on YouTube for the past few days and I must say I’m simply blown away by the excitement. They race on tracks that would be much better suited for Indy cars than heavy stock cars, but that’s the appeal, I think. They are racing flat-out from start to finish on tight street circuits. Sebastian Bourdais [above, at Bathurst in 2015] supposedly said once it was the most fun he’d ever had in a race car after a practice session at the Gold Coast/Surfers race he participated in. IndyCar sharing the bill with them a couple times a year seems like a great idea, I would think. There are successful Aussies in IndyCar, and Indy drivers who love running Supercars. Seems perfect. Bring them over here to share St. Pete, and Indy cars run Surfers or Adelaide.
RM: No doubt they get after it and put on a helluva show in Supercars, but bringing them over here would cost the promoter a fortune, and downtown Surfers no longer sports its old layout because of construction and progress. Racing in Australia certainly makes sense with Power and Dixie on top of their game, but it’s all about money and there are no takers at the moment.
Q: Not sure if your older, non-social media following readers are aware of this, but have you seen the animated series IndyCar has put together to promote this season? They’ve been teasing it over Twitter and Instagram the last few weeks, and all I can say is “Really?”
They’ve given a handful of their drivers “super powers” (Josef Newgarden has bionic eyes, y’all) and are putting together some sort of weird cartoon about racing. It makes no sense. It’s not going to make any sense to the kids it’s supposed to be attracting. How do I know this? Because I was the target demographic for the “NASCAR Racers” cartoon in 1999. I was 11 years old when that show came out and I thought it was dumb back then (it’s about NASCAR racing in a future sci-fi world).
It didn’t do anything for NASCAR’s ratings, and I bet nobody in NASCAR speaks of it today (because it was dumb even for a kid’s show). Which brings me to my question: of all the possible ways IndyCar could be promoting itself right now, what utter moron decided a kid’s cartoon would be the best way of doing it? Who looked at the last 100 years of open-wheel racing and said “None of this is good enough, let’s add robot eyeballs”?
I am gobsmacked that IMS can claim they have no budget for promotion, then turn around and spend money on this. Laying down $100 bills end to end around IMS, dousing them in Sunoco ethanol, and lighting them on fire would have made better financial sense than commissioning a cartoon. At least the local news would have covered a $100 bill bonfire. How g**damn hard is it to promote a sport that has tons of action, a rich history, great fan access, and entertaining stars?
Put together a highlight reel, put some cool-sounding music over it, and hire a voiceover announcer with some enthusiasm. If money is an issue, make it a contest: fans put together their own promo vids, post them on YouTube, the series picks a handful and the fans vote for their favorite. Then put that sucker on TV anytime BUT during an IndyCar race. IndyCar can have this idea free of charge as long as they actually use it and stop spending money on stupid crap.
David Z, Lexington, KY
RM: Not sure who gets the blame or credit, but you are spot-on in terms of promoting what you have. Instead of spending money on a cartoon where cars fly through the air or come apart and drivers have superpowers, just put together a highlight reel of the finishes or passes at Indy, Texas, Fontana and Gateway with some sound from the drivers interspersed and you’ve got a ’60s or ’90s promo that could all be done in-house at IMS Productions. IndyCar doesn’t need to do anything but promote its drivers, the speeds and close finishes of some of the best racing on the planet.
Q: I can’t figure out why Indy fans look back on the CART glory days in the late ’80s/early ’90s while trashing the recent era. Sure, having Michael and Mario, Mears, the Unsers, etc. was fantastic, but Dixie, JoNew, TK, RHR and Helio are legit Indy badasses. Even more than that, the racing from the last seven or eight Indy 500s have been the best string of races in the last few decades of the 500, and it’s not even very close. Granted, qualifying will likely never be the same, but I’ve sat through Michael lapping the field in the cold, Emmo lapping the field two years later, and Mario making things boring in 1987. No thanks. Watching Helio and RHR go at it for 10 laps in 2014 is every bit as exciting (and took every bit of the cajones) as watching Little Al and Emmo in ’89, and 2014 was a way better race as a whole. The facts are: 1) The American public just isn’t nearly as fascinated by racing in general (IndyCar, NASCAR and F1) as they once were, and 2) The racing at Indy has been the best it’s ever been in these last number of years. Let’s enjoy it.
RM: All good points Randall, but as great as the racing has been at Indy in the past decade, it’s not enough to get people to watch (TV ratings keep going down) or attend practice or qualifying. The buzz that used to grip Indianapolis for a month has now been reduced to one big weekend in May, and that’s just the way it’s always going to be because, as you said, that fascination is gone. I hear from a lot of fans that miss Pole Day and Bump Day, but I don’t hear too many complaints about the racing or the quality of the field. If you enjoy open-wheel racing, I defy anyone to find something more entertaining for three hours than Indy.
Q: Newgarden went ice racing? I ice race, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t at the AMEC races. Where did he race?
RM: He finished fifth in the RallyX on Ice in Norway, and Helio also competed.
Q: Got to spend some time with my dad the other day, and he started talking about Dan Gurney passing away. He said he thought that Dan either qualified or attempted to qualify a car with two engines for the Indy 500. One engine in front, one in back. I have never heard of anything like this. Do you know if this was fact or fiction?
Sure hope Conor Daly gets a ride. He totally deserves one. I won’t name a name, but I was talking with someone who has known Conor and his family well for years. Coached him in youth sports. He told me that you would be very hard-pressed to find a more quality young man, and if he can’t get a ride in IndyCar, then they have a serious problem. I have never met Conor, but he has the talent and he is a local. We need him in the series. (Stunned and disappointed A.J. didn’t keep him).
Aaron & Mossie
RM: There was a twin-engine Porsche in 1966, but Gurney never drove it and Bill Cheesbourg made some laps in it but it was way too heavy and slow. Paul Russo qualified second fastest in 1946 with a pair of Offy engines in front and rear [above]. As for Conor, he did a good enough job to keep his ride, but A.J. opted for some Brazilian money. But at least Conor finally got a ride for Indy with Dale Coyne.
Q: My wife surprised me with tickets to the Indy 500 this year for my birthday with parking passes for the infield. This will be my first trip and I have been looking around and trying to research what that parking entails, but haven’t found much. Is infield parking a good idea? Will I be stuck in traffic for hours before and after the race? I’m willing to sell the passes and change if needed, or loiter and explore the track as long as needed to kill time. Thoughts on the best route? Regardless, I can’t wait, as she did some research and has us high in Turn 4. Is the racing expected to be as close as years past with the new cars?
Ben, Columbus, OH
RM: It’s been 50 years since I drove in or out of the track like a normal fan, so I’ve got no answer on parking except that if you are sitting in Turn 4 then I’d find a lot on Georgetown Road and walk so you don’t get trapped in the infield. My advice would be take a cab but it drops you off a long way from Turn 4, so call IMS and ask exactly where your parking spot is located and where the shuttle/cab drop-offs will be before bailing on it. I think as long as you have restarts and two long straightaways, the racing will be just fine with the new aero kits.
Q: I’m in Indy for school now and wanted to take some of my friends to the Speedway to see what IndyCar is all about. Are there going to be any open tests before May at IMS?
RM: There is an open test at IMS on March 27, and you and your friends could drive into the IMS museum parking lot, walk to the bleachers between Turns 1-2 and watch. It’s possible the spectator mounds in Turn 2 could be open as well.
Q: The new IndyCar chassis seems slippery. The DW12 supposedly punched a big hole in the air. Do you believe the aeroscreen and the new chassis will affect drafting (for better or worse) at Indy?
Jonathan and Cleide Morris, Ventura, CA
RM: Well the windscreen won’t be used in May so that’s no concern, and here’s what 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan has to say: “The car has less downforce now so it will poke a smaller hole in the air than last year, and there could be less drafting. But we don’t know yet because we haven’t run together at Indy to see what happens.”
Q: Given the low car count in Indy Lights, any idea what a team would charge a driver for a one-off race, be it either a road course or, let’s say, the Freedom 100? Hell even just a test day on a road course?
RM: I’ve always heard $100,000 per race, so I imagine half of that for a test day – probably depending on where it’s held.
Q: Having brought A.J., Lone Star JR, Larry Rice, Mel Kenyon, Steve Kinser and Jack Hewitt, among many others, to Australia for oval track tours, I am aghast at the suggestion IMS is “broadening the appeal” of the Speedway by including F1 and MotoGP in the future HOF inductions. I can remember spending a glorious month of May watching Herk working his way towards a 150mph lap at the Speedway. Indy is Indy and not to be confused with anything else. Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Fernando Alonso came to Indy to drive in the 500. I can understand why NASCAR and the Brickyard event should be recognized, but not F1 or the bikes. Let them be feted in Paris or Spain. If they didn’t run 400 or 500 miles on the oval, no way Jose!
RM: Moto GP isn’t included, just NASCAR and F1. I was told one of the reasons for the expansion is that IMS is running out of living candidates for the HOF, and that’s why it’s important to honor the deserving deceased like Herk, Mike Mosley, Bill Finley and Wayne Leary. I also think it’s easier to sell tickets to the banquet if Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are part of the proceedings. But that doesn’t mean I like it or agree with it.
Q: What’s your thought on Continental wanting to be a tire supplier for the IndyCar series? Continental did a pretty good job advertising the IMSA series and IndyCar could use a partner like that. I think IndyCar should let Continental and Firestone provide tires for the teams as long as they have enough tires at each race to provide the entire field in case of tire failure. NASCAR did that with Goodyear and Hoosier back in the day. That would prevent a situation like the F1 U.S. Grand Prix in 2005. What about Continental taking over as series sponsor after Verizon?
RM: Let’s say IndyCar allowed tire competition and Continental came in, started a tire war and lots of money got thrown around to teams and drivers like the 1960s between Firestone and Goodyear. That would be a good thing for IndyCar in this economy. But a tire war could also ruin the competitive balance that IndyCar currently boasts, and teams can’t afford to lose a sponsor if their tire is inferior. Plus, with the emphasis on safety and performance, it’s going to be very difficult to find a better brand than Firestone. Not only are their tires bulletproof, they work with IndyCar on primaries and optional tires and seemingly do anything necessary to make the racing better, so it’s hard to imagine any manufacturer doing a better job. Obviously, if Firestone would ever leave then Continental might step up, and last month we heard a rumor that was going to happen. But, turns out, IndyCar and Firestone are working on a new deal for 2019 and beyond.
Q: Let’s say you own a top-flight racing series and you have to choose a new CEO. You only get two resumes: Tony George and Brian France. You must choose one of them. Who do you pick and why?
RM: I’d pick TG because he’s always had passion for open-wheel racing, from driving himself, to owning a team, to his obvious family roots. But I’d also hire a sergeant-at-arms to advise him and guard the checkbook.
Q: I am currently reading Black Noon, and it is fantastic. I only started following IndyCar about 10 years or so ago, it’s been interesting to learn more about the history. Can you recommend any other books to read?
RM: Beast by Jade Gurss is a great read about the last real surprise in Gasoline Alley, Vukovich by Bob Gates, As a Matter of Fact I am Parnelli Jones by Bones Bourcier, Second to None by Gordon Kirby and Hard Luck Lloyd by John Lingel. And the Official History of the Indy 500 by Donald Davidson and Rick Shaffer.
Q: What can you tell us about how Chip Ganassi Racing came to existence in 1989/1990? I’ve done a bit of reading for an article I wrote about CGR’s livery history and the creation of CGR sounds like some sort of crazy three-way deal between Ganassi, Pat Patrick and Roger Penske. Can you share some details?
Andrew, Nottingham, UK
RM: After Chip’s nasty accident at Michigan in 1983, Floyd Ganassi wanted his son to stay involved in IndyCar racing but not necessarily as a driver, so he helped form a partnership in 1989 with Pat Patrick. Chip was technically the co-owner for Emerson Fittipaldi’s exhilarating victory over Al Unser Jr. and then started Chip Ganassi Racing in 1990. Roger Penske supplied a pair of PC-18s to Patrick in 1989 with the understanding that Emmo and sponsor Marlboro would join Team Penske in 1990. (How did that partnership work out over the next two decades?) Ganassi got to keep the PC-18s and the Chevy engine lease, while Patrick’s retirement only lasted a few months until Alfa-Romeo wrote him a big check. It took Ganassi Racing five years to win its first race (thank you Michael Andretti) but since then the Chipster’s drivers and cars have racked up 101 wins and 10 IndyCar titles, and had Target as a sponsor for 27 years.
Q: I heard a rumor that back in CART’s heyday in the early ’90s, some top NASCAR drivers were offered big dollars to drive full-time with some of the biggest teams in CART. Any truth to this? And if it is true, do you know which drivers and teams were involved or if the drivers seriously considered.
Ron, Portland, OR
RM: Never heard that one. Bill Elliott hot-lapped at MIS once and turned some quick laps, but he wasn’t about to leave stock cars because NASCAR was just hitting its stride nationally. Bobby and Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough and Lee Roy Yarbrough all gave Indy cars a full-time shot in the ’60s and ’70s, and Lee Roy damn-near won the inaugural Ontario 500 in 1970. Lloyd Ruby told me once that Cale was as brave as anybody he’d ever raced with, and that’s a pretty good compliment.
Q: Do you think IndyCar would or could do open tests (charge half-price to get in) at prospective tracks on off weekends or in the off-season? For instance like Vegas, they could use the weekend to gather information on how the cars race there, pass on the track, determine the interest there and use it for promotion. And if it shows positive signs, then try and put a race weekend together at that track. Seems like they are doing a version of this thing with ISM in Phoenix, and should try other venues as well.
RM: The only reason to do anything like that would be at a track already on the IndyCar schedule that’s struggling to draw fans, but Phoenix didn’t get many people last month. It’s an expensive proposition for teams and promoters, but it might be worthwhile at a place like Portland (do it during the month between races in August) to try and generate some interest in a series that’s been gone for 11 years.
Q: Nigel Mansell made his Indy car season debut at Surfers Paradise on March 17, 1993. Before the season started, did you had any idea that he was going to win the series title? It was interesting that Derek Daly predicted that because of his driving style Mansell could actually dominate the ovals, though he had the heavy shunt at Phoenix. What was the talk about Nigel’s chances in winning the IndyCar Series title?
RM: I think a lot of us predicted the 1992 world driving champion would win every road/street race, and have a good shot at the championship because he was with one of the best teams (Newman/Haas). Daly was spot-on because ‘ol Nige loved the ovals, and four of his five wins in ’93 came at Milwaukee, Loudon, Michigan and Nazareth. Had he been a bit more saavy on restarts, he’d have also won Indianapolis.
Q: I haven’t written in quite some time but I read you every week and watch when you’re on during the season. I was surprised at your comment about patch placement on Newgarden’s uniform – I guess I shouldn’t be at this point. In our day we stitched stuff on ourselves. I was particularly appreciative of your NASCAR comments. My wife and I attended a bunch of races in the ’80s – Pocono, Dover – but have very little interest these days. I think IndyCar is on the upswing (slowly) and I usually tune in especially when PT is working. I really disliked his persona as a driver, but he does a great job.
Jon Jones, Oologah, OK
RM: I’d never noticed anyone wearing a champion’s patch, but I’m told by IndyCar’s Arni Sribhen that Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan [above] and Will Power also sport them on the arm of their driver’s suit. It’s optional for champions or Indy 500 winners.
Q: I’m a longtime fan of yours and the mailbag, but it’s been a long while since I last wrote to you (it was back in the ESPN days with a question about Christian Fittipaldi going to NASCAR). I’d love to hear your opinion on another Brazilian driver: Gil de Ferran. Here in Brazil I think he doesn’t not get nearly as much recognition as he should, being a two-time CART champion and an Indy 500 winner, and I always wonder how he’s seen Stateside. Any thoughts or stories about him? Thanks for all the great content on RACER.com.
Rafael, Belo Horizonte, Brazil
RM: Gil was a resplendent road racer with an engineering mind who figured out ovals and captured one of the greatest battles of all time with Kenny Brack in Rockingham, England in 2001 (I think they passed each other four times in the last two laps). He also owns the closed course record of 241.428mph set at Fontana in 2000. He was a smart racer with a wry sense of humor that won races for Derrick Walker on Goodyears when Firestone was superior, and then became a stud with Team Penske. My favorite story? After he ran 241mph, I interviewed him for ESPN’s “RPM2Night” and he said: “that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”
Q: While there have been a lot of positives over the off season for the 2018 IndyCar series, it has been very disappointing for Australian IndyCar fans to find out that the monopoly cable TV provider (Foxtel) and the cable TV channel that televised it last year (ESPN Australia) have decided to drop the IndyCar series from their broadcast schedule for this year. We can watch all three levels of NASCAR from Cup down to Trucks, plus all the F1 practice sessions, qualifying and races, and all the Formula E races, however IndyCar does not seem to be important enough to include on their TV schedule. If IndyCar wants to increase their visibility overseas as well as domestically, it would be good if TV broadcasts could be restored to the country that has one of the leading championship and Indy 500 contenders in Will Power, as well as the history of running the very successful Surfers Paradise IndyCar race for nearly 20 years.
RM: That’s very depressing news and I can recall Barry Sheene hosting CART parties at his bar back in the day, so you know there’s an audience with Scott Dixon and Power fighting for wins and titles. I forwarded this to Robby Greene and Mark Miles, so hopefully they can get something done to restore IndyCar to your airwaves.
Q: When you first said that Matheus Leist was the favorite for the second Foyt car, with financial backing of “a Brazilian TV network”, me and lot of Brazilian IndyCar fans were intrigued. I’ll explain why: Rede Bandeirantes (or simply “Band”) is the holder of IndyCar TV rights in Brazil until 2019. Band is a free TV channel in Brazil, just like ABC. But its coverage of IndyCar is SHAMEFUL. In all events (except the Indy 500), the coverage starts five minutes before the green flag and ends just one or two minutes after the checkered.
Band also has a cable channel but those broadcasts on cable are just the SAME SH*T that we see on the Band, there’s nothing extra on it.
Added to all that, Band is short on money, and to compensate, is scrapping sports programming and investing in cheaper, made-in-house productions. With fewer sporting events on Band, lot of personnel from the sports department were let go when their contracts ended, including their main announcer, who also worked on IndyCar broadcasts since mid-’90s. With all of these cost-cutting measures, looks like Band is just waiting the end of their contract with IndyCar, so Band sponsoring a driver didn’t made much sense to us.
But here comes the interesting part: On the last few months, a cable TV channel named “SporTV” has been interviewing some young Brazilian drivers that are aiming on IndyCar, including Leist. Given the fact that they are holders of Formula 1 TV rights in Brazil, that’s very unusual to talk about a product owned by a rival channel, unless if you want to have it in the future. SporTV’s ratings are the biggest around the sports channels in Brazil, BandSports’ ratings are the smallest. So, some of us hope that SporTV is the “Brazilian TV” that’s backing Leist, and that they want IndyCar on their programming. This is not really a question for you Robin, but advice to Mark Miles: INDYCAR NEEDS TO GET AWAY FROM THIS RUBBISH CALLED BAND!
Paulo from Recife, Brazil
RM: Band has sponsored Ruebens Barrichello, Ana Beatrice and T.K. at various times so Leist would merely be the latest if Band is his sugar daddy. I forwarded your letter to Mark Miles and he will be looking into the Brazilian TV scenario in the coming weeks.