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: I understand both sides of the Indy qualifying argument. We’ve seen a watered-down last few rows the last few years, but the running up front has never been better. Here’s an idea I think might work: minimum speeds. Expand the field to 36 cars, but the final three spots must have their four-lap average be within a certain percentage of the pole-sitter’s four-lap speed. Or it could be a percentage of the average of the front row, or the mean of the field, or any other variable you’d like. Bottom line is, it allows the new teams or potential new partners a chance to get in the field, and it also pushes every team to put their absolute best out there because there are no guarantees. Additionally, it covers the series’ backsides by making sure that only the most competitive cars are in the field, and if you can’t field a car capable of running within a few laps of the leaders (De Silvestro and Alesi in 2012 come to mind), then you’ll need to come back when you’re ready. There’s nothing wrong with throwing down a gauntlet. The cream will rise to the top.
Dan W., Ft. Worth, TX
RM: A version of that formula was used in 1997 when the Nissans were dog slow, but Leo Mehl neglected to tell all the competitors in the final hours that all they had to do was match the speed run by Johnny Unser (209) and Lyn St. James (210). That’s why Scott Harrington crashed – he was running more than fast enough, but nobody bothered to tell A.J. (Harrington was in a Foyt car) he didn’t need to push it. And that’s why A.J. was going to strangle Mehl. But a speed within a percentage would be one acceptable way to add cars rather than bump one or two.
Q: Regarding the question of what to do with more than 33 entries at Indy, I think I would bump and pay the bumpees 33rd place money for their efforts. I can see the argument for letting them all race, and I have a feeling the bumping process will not seem as organically dramatic as the good ‘ol days. But the lack of bumping has been such a point of contention for the diehards that I would throw ’em this bone. Also, if the tradition of 33 cars doesn’t matter when there are extra entries, then it might be equally diminished when there are fewer than 33 entries. Thus the Speedway, engine manufacturers, team owners, etc. might be less inclined in the future to rally around efforts to maintain the tradition when necessary.
Kirby Kinghorn, Indianapolis, IN
RM: Well 33 was only a number to one person I can recall, but it is sacred and the last bastion of tradition at IMS. I like the idea of paying something for trying in this economy, but last place in the race is only $200,000 so you can’t pay that much, and after you pay for engine lease, fuel, tires and crew, $100,000 doesn’t begin to cover it. But I really don’t think anybody cares about bumping unless we’re talking 10-12 cars going for those final few spots. And I predict the same poor qualifying crowds for the past 20 years will show up next month whether somebody gets bumped or not.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about bumping for this year’s 500. I have heard varying ideas on how this will take place and wanted to get your thoughts on how this will shake out. As I understand it, Saturday the 19th is when the field is set. So does that mean we will have bumping on Saturday? Personally I think would be great to have bumping to get into the field and bumping to make the Fast 9. You want eyeballs and drama for qualifying? In my opinion, that would be an easy sell. Or on Sunday, will the bumping take place in the morning before the run for the pole?
Pat, Decatur, IL
RM: That’s the way I understand it. Any bumping would be Saturday, along with the Fast 9 being set.
Q: I’ve got a suggestion for Bump Day 2018. Let everyone who hits a certain speed race. In Formula 1 there is a 107% rule. In past years, the 500 has been filled by cars that couldn’t keep up. Marshall Pruett wants to see bumping but I’m on the fence, so lets determine a speed that cars 34-36 need to hit, and let them all race if they make it. (If you wreck in qualifying you get a chance on Sunday to hit the speed, or if your lap times before the wreck were sufficient, something like that). My alternative idea is let them all race next year and tell them bumping returns in 2019. I’m firmly in the camp of grow the series in any way that makes sense. More entries make sense.
Ryan in West Michigan
RM: I’m conflicted, because I hate the fact all you had to do was show up and make four laps and you were in the Indy 500 the past few Mays, but I don’t want to see any potential new teams that might be around for a few years get left on the sidelines, because it’s rare we get new entries like Harding, Carlin, Juncos and Shank. There was an 11mph spread between Scott Dixon’s pole run of 232 and Zach Veach’s 32nd slot of 221mph, but there are always cars that go off in the race that may have qualified well. There were 16 starters on the lead lap last year (obviously aided by a late yellow), but what we don’t seem to have at the moment are hopeless wankers who are always in the way. Add a row or bump three cars?
Q: In last week’s Mailbag you mentioned that A.J. Foyt had, by your count, escaped death 18 times, 10 in racing and eight outside of racing. Then you left us hanging. What are they? I remember a lot of them, but am struggling to get to 18.
Mike Bray, Flower Mound TX
RM: My math may be a little off, but A.J.’s first really serious injury came in the NASCAR stock car race at Riverside, California, on January 17, 1965, when the brakes failed and he flipped the No. 00 down an embankment in turn nine to avoid crashing Marvin Panch and Junior Johnson. He broke his back, fractured his heel and sustained a bruised aorta.
- The next injury came the following year when he was burnt in practice for the June race at Milwaukee. He sustained burns on his hands, face and neck.
- He was burned again in 1967 at Phoenix when he spun on the front stretch to avoid another accident and Mario Andretti hit him. Foyt was burned on his face and hands.
- He broke his leg and ankle the day after the 1972 Indianapolis 500 in a dirt champ car race at DuQuoin, Illinois. His car caught fire during a pit stop and, trying to escape, he jumped out of the car while it was moving and was run over by his own race car. He also suffered burns to his face, hands and neck.
- He fractured his arm severely when his car crashed into an Armco barrier during the Michigan 500 in July 1981.
- He broke two vertebrae in his back when he hit the wall in practice for the 1983 Firecracker 400 at Daytona. His injury wasn’t diagnosed until after he had won the Paul Revere 250 sports car race later that night.
- He broke his left knee, dislocated his left tibia, crushed his left heel, dislocated his right heel and suffered compartment syndrome in both feet after plowing through a dirt embankment when the brakes in his Indy car failed at the end of the mile-long front straightaway at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, in September 1990.
- He broke his left shoulder twice: first in a Daytona 500 qualifying race crash in February 1992. He broke it again when he crashed while practicing for the Phoenix Indy 200 in April.
- Since retiring from driving cars, Foyt has had several medical emergencies related to operating his bulldozer. He was bit by a brown recluse spider on his neck while working on the bulldozer at his ranch in Del Rio in the late 1990s. He tore his rotator cuff on his right arm while stepping off a trac-hoe in October 2004, which required surgery to repair. In August 2005, he was attacked by a swarm of killer bees that nearly killed him when he went into systemic shock. Over 200 stingers were lodged in his head alone.
- In June 2006, he underwent knee replacement surgery for his left leg.
- In 2007, he nearly drowned in his bulldozer when the lake’s banking gave way and the bulldozer (with Foyt inside its protective cage) went upside down into the lake.
- In January 2012, he contracted a staph infection in his artificial knee after surgery to remove bone spurs.
- In 2013, Foyt underwent back surgery (April), a left hip replacement (July) and a right knee replacement (December).
- In November 2014, Foyt underwent triple by-pass heart surgery. Post-op complications resulted in his being hospitalized for over six weeks.
- In 2015, Foyt sustained a staph infection in his right artificial knee. The knee implant was removed and a cement spacer was installed; two months later, his new knee was put in.
What this list doesn’t include is when he almost drowned in the Galveston Bay when out on his small boat with a couple of friends in January.
Q: Robin, you and Marshall fooled me on your views on bumping. I would have bet on you to be the strong defender of tradition and Marshall being more concerned about the paddock. I applaud your stance. I too see no reason to send one or two cars home. I don’t understand where people think a sponsor gets big value even if the car is bumped. Isn’t all about making the race? Assuming an owner has a car and support equipment from last year, what would it cost to update the car, lease an engine, and put in a solid effort this May?
Bob from up North
RM: I think a couple owners spent $1 million getting the new aero kits and making upgrades, and that’s a big investment since some of them are only running for $200,000 because they’re not full-timers in the Leader’s Circle. Marshall made some good points in his commentary so I’ve kinda straddled the fence on this point lately, which really bothers me (smile).
Q: I agree with your thought to let every car that can get an engine be on the grid for the 500, I don’t think the sport can afford to tick off sponsors by having them not be in the race. But has IndyCar made any comment that they are considering the possibility, or is this just wishful thinking?
RM: I believe IMS president Doug Boles said there would be bumping, so I’m pretty sure that’s going to be part of the PR pitch going into May. But what happens if Danica has an engine issue on Saturday? Or a big name hits the wall on Saturday and doesn’t have enough time to get his backup car out? Is it better for the show to start everyone? Or better for the history books to stick with 33?
Q: Just read your new Mailbag and had to respond to something you said: “F1 is about as far away from pure racing as it gets, and listening to engineers tell drivers what to do during the race is comical. Can you imagine somebody telling A.J. or Parnelli how to drive?”
I would remind you that a couple of years ago Alexander Rossi won the Indy 500 because he was listening to Bryan Herta telling him how to drive. No one thought it was comical. Most thought it was tense and dramatic. A fuel-mileage win is supposed to be the dullest outcome in motorsports, but not that day. Even on TV you could head the cheering and yelling as Rossi crossed the line ahead of much faster chasers. I think that was because it was something different, something unexpected, not just the usual half-dozen cars buzzing around each other on the last lap until one noses ahead and gets the win.
It used to be that such a tight finish was unexpected and exciting – none better than ’89 in my opinion – but with the specs and the cautions, etc., both NASCAR and IndyCar are designed to deliver such “excitement” week in and week out. But once you come to expect it, it’s not exciting anymore. And you can’t measure excitement by the number of passes. That would be like judging a baseball game by the number of runs scored. A pitching duel can be much more exciting than a 16-15 game.
That’s what motorsports used to deliver, and unfortunately rarely does now. You would show up at the track wondering what was going to happen that day, watching, as Dan Gurney put it so eloquently, “gladiators wrestling barely tamed beasts.”
Michael Hill, Baltimore
RM: True, Bryan was schooling Rossi on how save fuel and who to run with (his teammates), and was as much a part of that victory as if he were still driving. But that was a rookie in his second oval race, so the circumstances are a bit different then somebody telling Vettel or Kimi or Fernando when to push. And, to your point, there were Indy 500s with two cars on the lead lap that were as memorable as the past few years when there was a gaggle up front at the end. But without innovation, the close racing in spec cars has become Indy’s mantra, and that’s OK too. I just don’t understand why the TV ratings keep doing down with such good racing.
Q: Regarding possible bumping this year, if there are 34 cars trying to make the field, one needs to go home. Fans have been complaining since the mid-90s that bumping was a thing of the past, then as soon as we have more than 33 cars, out come the participation trophies and everyone makes the field. It would no doubt suck if a driver (and/or team) spent a lot of hours/days/months/years putting together a sponsor package for the Indy 500 and didn’t make the race, but bumping is bumping. And just like in the old days, the sponsor that did not make the race usually would rotate to a team that did. On a side note, my son and I have been driving over to Barber last few years for the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama, hopefully we see you there. Oh, and my wife is now a Rossi fan because of ‘The Amazing Race’, so it does work, but my son was unswayed and is still a Hunter-Reay superfan.
Zack, Atlanta, GA
RM: The reason Bump Day (which sometimes started on Saturdays) was so dramatic and so sadistic is because there were so many drivers and cars vying for the 33 spots. If 50-year-old Buddy Lazier gets bumped in his family’s car is that going to sell five more tickets? I think not. Now if a big name has a problem that would be a story, but is it good for a race whose ratings have continued to go down? I think not. Be very careful about wishing for “bumping.” At best it’s elimination. Look me up at Barber and we’ll try and get your son to meet RHR.
Q: Isn’t having Mad Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk as race stewards a lot like letting the fox guard the hen house? This alone should make for some good racing just like St. Pete.
Pat in Kansas
RM: I like the fact IndyCar has ex-drivers in Race Control and I think Max and Arie try to be fair and consistent, but it’s a thankless job. There was a lot of good racing at St. Pete (from what we could detect watching ABC), but a no-call at the end on Rossi left a lot of us scratching our heads. Ditto for the difference between what Dixon did and what Rahal did. One got penalized and one didn’t, but it looked like the same avoidable contact to me.
Q: Saw a news clipping about a recently-scheduled test day being cancelled at Indy because Firestone has a minimum track temperature of 50 degrees for ovals? If true, what would happen at Indy (or other ovals) if the track temperature was below 50 degrees F, Like in 1992?
RM: No, the road course test started a little late because it was so cold, but the oval test was postponed to early May because of the weather forecast – not Firestone. But after Indy of 1992 it is a combination of ambient and track needing to be at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with a 45 degree minimum on either ambient or track.
Q: Following the announcement of upgrades at Portland, I watched the 2007 Champ Car race just to get a refresh of the course, as it has been a while. It was pretty much a snooze-fest with the DP07. Are the teams, IndyCar brass, etc pretty confident about the product Portland can produce? Bobby D ended up third that race, which made me wonder what he as well as Keith Wiggins is up to. A quick internet search brings up Bobby D co-founded a company that is… adult oriented. Nothing about Keith. I give him credit. His tenure as a F1 team owner, IndyCar team owner, CEO of Lola, all very impressive and he was always very approachable in the paddock if you were able to catch him.
Brad in the “Nati”
RM: I’d say based St. Pete with all the passing bodes well for Portland with the new aero kits. And they’ve changed the course a little, so that could help to with overtaking. The two most exciting races were when Mario passed Michael at the start/finish line on Father’s Day and Mark Blundell (on slicks) ran down Gil de Ferran (on rain tires) as the track dried and it was a photo finish. But there were quite a few snoozers too. Wiggins was a resourceful racer that put his money where his mouth was for decades before finally giving up. IndyCar needs guys like Keith.
Q: Your column is always the high point of my day. I have written to you and to Jay Frye, ad nauseum, about a “Garage 34” entry for some car with the Dallara chassis but with a “different” propulsions system. As you suggested, I sent an email to Jay Frye eons ago about this, and I did not even get the courtesy of a reply. Every tradition of Indy has been stepped on. I agree that everyone that shows up and makes minimum speed should be allowed to compete in this tight economic environment.
Why, oh why, can’t we have one more position available to “optional” forms of propulsion as long as they make minimum speed and will not be in the way? If Danica getting a ride can generate some interest in the Indy 500, why couldn’t an innovative drivetrain spark everyone’s interest into rooting for the extreme underdog? The innovation of Indy during the 1960’s got me hooked and I haven’t missed an Indy 500 since 1964 when my father took me to see a closed circuit telecast. Yes, the “spec” cars give great racing. However, a little innovation can go a long way to spur further interest in this event. How do I go about promoting this idea beyond Jay Frye? Does anyone even care?
Kent Taylor, Destin, FL
RM: I think after they get the first year of this new car out of the way and see where the engine formula is headed then maybe Jay, Bill Pappas and Tino Belli can look at something like Garage 34. But it really is better suited for Le Mans, with all of its classes, than Indianapolis. I wanted to see the DeltaWing go around IMS, but not necessarily in a pack of IndyCars. Maybe one for a little exhibition, but we figured Paul Tracy is the only driver brave enough to drive it. Or maybe Katherine Legge, who ran well in it several times. But to answer your question, I don’t think it’s something that has any urgency at the moment.
Q: Now that Mark Miles has locked down the future IndyCar TV contract, it’s time to bring-back your Month-of-May weekly (behind-the-scenes, Hot Poop, & oftentimes not so politically correct) TV Broadcast from Georgetown Ave (this year)! Since Dave Dispain’s “Wind Tunnel” is no longer On Air, we need your weekly Month of May Miller’s Insights, more than ever. This would be more dynamic than your Great Racer content, if anyone could believe that. It may be too much to ask ABC to support it. Who knows, NBC might pick it up as a lead-in to their IndyCar coverage next season (and possibly complimentary on NBC Gold this Season). What thinketh you?
Bill Sanders, a Robin Miller Fan in California
RM: Well NBCSN covers Carb Day and the Pit Stop competition next month and ABC wouldn’t use me if I was the last person standing, but I understand that. However, I think in 2019 we’ll have a chance to do some cool features with qualifying and the race on Now Better Coverage. How about a weekly podcast with Despain and I titled: Son of Wind Tunnel? Thanks for your support.
Q: While it’s great for Americans that NBC will carry the mail for IndyCar for the foreseeable future, I’m still waiting with baited breath to see what happens internationally, particularly in Canada. Currently Sportsnet here does a fine enough job, carrying the races live, and Carb Day and the ABC coverage of Indy500 qualifying, but nothing else. We get to see sessions on YouTube when IndyCar streams them, but when NBCSN shows a session live there’s no YouTube feed. So now that what was formerly streamed on YouTube is going behind an NBC Gold paywall, what happens for Canada and the rest of the world? I’d gladly pay for this content (whether via Sportsnet streaming it, or a direct offering from IndyCar or something else). Just take my money! Alternate suggestions would be to partner with Motorsport.tv or, dare I say it, DAZN (who botched their NFL rights internationally). These sites can region-lock content (as can YouTube, even though IndyCar can’t figure out how to do it, and I’ve asked) and have apps on all the major platforms. Any news on this front?
Gord Smith, Ottawa, Canada
RM: I asked Hinch and he thinks things could stay status quo this season, but change next year with NBC taking over.
Q: The remaining holes in the schedule are a hot topic right now as we wait for the second round of 2018. It is obvious to everybody that one or two weeks after the season opener at St. Pete, there should be a race. That means mid-to-late March. At best, it would be an addition to the schedule. And the weather must be OK, which rules out a lot of places. Of the few remaining, Fontana wants a fall date so that’s not going to happen in March. Homestead may be too close to St. Pete to draw much of a crowd right after that race.
But for those who still dream of a January race like the old IRL had at the “Mickyard,” Homestead/Miami Speedway is probably the only option. Do you know if in March, even Houston might be too damp? I’ve read suggestions online of maybe moving Sonoma to springtime to fill this gap, but IndyCar has lost so many races by moving their dates around, sometimes even back and forth, which is why I would be reluctant to try this. Would you as well? Yet, there is another candidate that would be a great venue, an untapped market and fit the weather requirements of the March time slot, and that is Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City. It was nice to find out last year that IndyCar was actually looking at making a comeback there. Now, Telmex, the biggest motorsports sponsor from that country is about to be backing an IndyCar driver again. Was it a surprise to you too that it’s not a Mexican driver but Brazilian Pietro Fittipaldi? I guess the Mexican crowd would rather cheer for a hometown hero. How did Esteban Gutierrez’s performances go down with IndyCar fans from Mexico last year? Did they even take notice?
RM: When Mike Lanigan promoted Houston he had Shell and it was the title sponsor for the PGA tournament, so there was no chance of running it in the spring. Sonoma in the spring might make sense because I think IndyCar wants to end the 2019 season on an oval (can you spell Gateway?). Mexico City would be gangbusters with Perez or but I’m not sure how much of a following Gutierrez had, so that’s the key to selling tickets because those fans are very loyal.
Q: The pic of IndyCars coming straight at us is terrific. But, it has some clues for better promotion. Why are so many of the cars painted in such a way you can’t tell them from each other? Forget the numbers. Back in the GoDaddy days, one could always find THAT car on the track because of its color and brightness.
Going back further, that red of Granatelli could always be found, even at the Speedway. Someone said it looked like it was doing 180 sitting still. Vince was right on! His red was brighter than even Andy’s! I congratulate the PNC Bank people on Dixie’s car for giving us something to look for – that bright orange. Even though it’s only half the car, it’s noticeable. The Penske yellow, and silver cars are pretty noticeable. Their black under white looks like several of the other cars. Where’s the imagination? Where’s the can of Olsonite Blue?
Fort Worth Dan
RM: I’m colorblind, but I can always tell Pagenaud when he’s in Menard’s green, and Power and Newgarden are pretty easy to identify. Seabass has a black and yellow that’s catchy, and I like Ed’s colors, and AJ’s ABC cars are pretty identifiable. I’m not sure how much clout the sponsor has with the colors, but PNC reminds me of the old PacWest/Motorola car of Mark Blundell [above].
Q: Was the St. Pete’s race last season? Way too long between races. Hopefully IndyCar fixes this huge gap in the schedule. Need to keep the momentum going. I also think IndyCar could add a few more races. Bring back Cleveland, MIS and Fontana.
RM: OK, repeat after me: Fontana only wants a race in October and that’s not likely to happen. Cleveland needs a title sponsor. MIS has zero interest to my knowledge. But you are right, the early and mid-summer gaps need to be filled. Or, start later.
Q: A lot of rumors about new engines in 2020. Are they thinking about getting rid of the V6 and going back to the V8 2.65 turbo? Any news on Cosworth getting a partner to badge their engine?
Steve C. Lebanon IN
RM: Not heard anything about getting rid of the V6. Maybe a larger displacement V6, but the easiest way to get 150 more HP is more cylinders. Of course, Honda and Chevy favor the V6 for promotional purposes. No partner yet for Cosworth.
Q: I attended the St Pete Grand Prix and loved every minute of it. The only thing that bothered me was the numbers on the cars. With the new livery, it was very difficult to see and read the number from the grandstands. Since it was the first race, I did not have all the colors and cars memorized, so it was hard to tell which car was which. The obvious teams and drivers were not a problem, but with so many new faces, especially towards the back of the field, it was hard to remember who was who. Has anyone else mentioned this?
RM: Oh yes, many fans have written in because it’s very difficult to distinguish the numbers in person or on television. And that’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
Q: If Steinbrenner backs Colton Herta when he goes to IndyCar, would it be a new team or an arm of Andretti Autosports?
RM: I would certainly think the latter, they’ve worked together nicely and George Michael is a smart young man that understands the business and knows Andretti is a good home.
Q: What direction are teams taking on shocks this season? I’m out of touch: Do they have the development freedom they did back in 2006, when a driveline component supplier told me Penske had 24 team members assigned solely to shock development/design? Also, what are the guidelines for gear ratios for this year’s 500? Looking at the number of competitive cars, I’m thinking that there is less flexibility in both those areas than in many past seasons.
Rick Wilson, California
RM: Marshall Pruett reports that both areas in question are open this season.
Q: Hey Robin, love the Mailbag! Ken Stead wrote you saying that he was doing a trip to Indy and asked for things to do leading up to the race. I noticed that you missed the Little 500 at Anderson, probably the coolest short track race I’ve ever seen! Most amazing part of that race for me is the flagman! His command of 33 cars on a quarter mile track is amazing! Keep up the good work Robin, and enjoy Indy Ken, can’t wait until I can make it back!
RM: Thanks, I think that man wanted to know about Wednesday-Friday action, but of course if he’s game the Little 500 is a must for an open -heel fan. I ran midgets there and it seemed crowded with 22 cars, so watching 33 sprinters is a sight to behold.
Q: I know that you were not in love with the Australian GP, but I want to mention the Virtual Saftey Car (VSC). The Haas car parked it, the VSC came out and the pits were open. The leader, Hamilton, got hosed, no-one seemed 100% clear on what was going on and lots of people complained. Total opposite of IndyCar, same outcome. Personally, I thought that the IndyCar method seemed better. I would love to read your comments.
Peter, Melbourne, Australia
RM: Somebody usually gets hosed on a yellow so I’m not sure there’s any surefire solution to avoid it. IndyCar as discussed a virtual safety car but that was a couple years ago.
Q: Will the new IndyCar/NBC relationship eliminate the archaic blackout of the 500 in Indiana? It’s past time for it to go. Second question: I have been advocating for years that the popularity of the series could be improved if drivers have more of a presence beyond sponsor-centric activities (trade shows, employee programs, etc.). It was refreshing to see James Hinchcliffe appear on television in a Honda commercial. Are team and sponsor contracts preventing such participation? It does little good to only promote to the already-converted (IndyCar fans).
Dennis, Bloomington, Indiana
RM: All depends on ticket sales. I imagine if IMS was 90 percent sold out, a blackout could be possible for the state. And no, there are just very few sponsors willing or financially able to crank out national TV advertisements and Honda has always been at the forefront, whether it was Alex Zanardi or now with Hinch.
Q: I welcomed the move from ABC to NBC. I for one hoped the return of F1 to ESPN would do no harm to coverage given their history… boy was I dumb! First, using the in- house F1 TV team proved Churchill’s quote that the U.S. and Britain are two countries divided by a common language. Despite the three amigo’s dialects on NBC, I never struggled to understand them. Then the many references only a European F1 fan would understand left me asking WTF are they talking about. Most of all, I failed to understand that ESPN and ABC are corporate cousins, and expecting that ESPN would perform better than ABC was ill-founded. I lost interest in the broadcast and switched stations long before it was over. The glitches were some of the worst I have seen, or in this case, did not see.
RM: When you give somebody something for free (Liberty giving ESPN the F1 feed for free), you often get what you pay for. It’s been obvious for a long time that auto racing was not a priority, or even in the Top 20 for ABC/ESPN, so why would anyone expect a finely-tuned product? But please read the answer below yours, because last week I was way too kind to ESPN’s part in that debacle.
Q: I have been a fan of open-wheel racing and you for a long time, and while IndyCar is my favorite, I do like all open-wheel racing including F1. But Liberty and the FIA are combining to destroy the sport. The ESPN disaster has proven to me that as bad as ESPN/ABC coverage has been, it could actually be worse. In the Australian GP broadcast we had delayed programs messing up attempts to record. Technical issues with no sound. Huge commercial breaks, missing what happened during those huge commercial breaks including cars going out, safety cars, changes in car positions and of course the restart. And that’s to name only some of the issues. It makes the coverage of the others weeks IndyCar race look GOOD. Add in the horrible F1 rules that result in ugly cars that can’t even attempt to pass, safety car rules that make IndyCar look good, and of course drivers that are spoiled brats, and I think I have finally been chased away from F1. Please tell me that IndyCar is going to do SOMETHING to try and take advantage of this mess. Or at least tell me Liberty is never going to get NEAR Indy. I actually think USAC would do better.
Doug M., Michigan
RM: My NBC colleague Kevin Lee explained this to me the other night at dinner: “ESPN is airing the Sky Sports broadcast as part of their arrangement with F1. ESPN then avoids production costs (and they are reportedly also not paying a rights fee). Sky Sports is a pay channel in the UK and does not have commercials during the race. The lack of commercial breaks is one of the biggest obstacles with taking their feed. To air commercials, ESPN must abruptly break away – often in the middle of conversation – and rejoin midsentence. Any story or explanation covered during the break will also be missed by the U.S. audience. The clumsy breaks are not the fault of the Sky broadcast. ESPN could make this more palatable, but at some expense and effort. They could have a host in studio to take it to break, and bring it out and recap with highlights of anything missed. This is how others do it, including FS1 with Formula E. Even better, F1 could possibly work a deal with Sky to have the broadcasters pause briefly when it’s time for an ESPN break. ESPN and F1 may have tried this and Sky declined.”
Q: Love the weekly Mailbag! With the recent court filings over the bankruptcy of BK Racing [above], we got to see a bit about how the money works, such as running a two-car NASCAR team for $18 million even though they only had about $10 million coming in. All for a team to finish in the back each week! But what about in IndyCar? What kind of budget does the typical team have? How much comes in (generally) and how much do they spend?
RM: Thanks for reading and participating. Budgets in IndyCar have changed dramatically from the old CART days when Marlboro, Target, Texaco and Kmart spent millions. I remember Mario giving the CEO of either Texaco or Kmart a ride in the two-seater at Laguna Seca, and I think he then signed on for $92 million for three years. We always heard Target gave $10 million a car annually, and Marlboro was right in that ballpark, if not more, for Team Penske. Nowadays, I think a good sponsor is $6-8 million, and I think ABC Supply is one of the best. Bobby Rahal’s team has sectioned their sponsorship out for the season among various partners, and that seems to be a popular trend because it’s so difficult to get huge money.
Q: A quick note to say thank you for your terrific tribute to Dan Gurney in RACER’s latest issue. Wonderful! Heartfelt, very emotional. The same thing cannot be said about Car & Driver magazine’s tribute. One page! Miss you and Dave Despain and the old SPEED Channel. Keep up the great work!
Rick Koressel, Evansville, IN.
RM: Thanks for subscribing to RACER. It was such a privilege to be able to call Dan a couple times a month and just shoot the breeze about history, and his passion still rang true. I think you’re going to love the next RACER, many more stories about The Big Eagle and the mark he left on racing worldwide.
Q: Many are writing in complaining about the lack of advertising for IndyCar racing and wondering how the series will grow. I would like to submit Major League Soccer as an example of success without mainstream media coverage. The league started in 1996 with 10 teams, and now has 23 teams with a waiting list of cities trying to get a franchise. Two clubs averaged over 40,000 spectators per game last season. This success was achieved without any mainstream media coverage. U.S. soccer fans made the same complaints as IndyCar fans do. Can’t get on ESPN Sports Center, my local newspaper doesn’t ever mention soccer, no commercials on network TV, games are on TV but the ratings are dismal. Yet the league is doing well, and it still isn’t covered in most newspapers or given much coverage on sports shows. The league grew by using their own website, social media and giving the spectator a good game day experience at the stadium.
IndyCar is doing well and is poised for some good growth. The cars are great to watch, the racing is close, and there is a good mix of international drivers and American drivers. I just hope that all the track owners are adapting to the new style race fan. Walking around a road course through dust, hot sun, lousy hot dogs and cheap beer just doesn’t cut it any more. The successful track owners have upgraded their food offerings, added craft brewed beers and added hospitality tents open for an extra fee so that spectators can sit at a table in the shade and enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail. Free Wi-Fi at the track is also a must-have. By adapting to the younger race fan, the series and the tracks will share success. All those people buying the performance coupes and sedans are the new market.
RM: Soccer is a puzzle to me. There were 17,000 at Lucas Oil Stadium last Saturday night here in Indianapolis to watch a 1-0 game in the remains of NASL. And most of the crowd was young, high school, college age or a fraction older, the kind of demographic that IndyCar desperately needs. But the main difference I see between soccer and IndyCar is money and funding, and IndyCar needs national media to appease it sponsors. I think a lot of tracks have gone to pre-race or post-race concerts in an effort to give fans more bang for their buck, but I think at old IndyCar bastions like Road America and Mid-Ohio there is still a grassroots spectator that loves camping, walking around and enjoying the many views while munching on a brat. But you are right that Wi-Fi is a must to attract anyone under 30.
Q: Just watched your video on John Martin. I had the pleasure of John working on my crew on occasion when I was an SCCA hack driver. John is not only a very interesting guy, he’s probably forgotten (although I doubt he forgets anything) more about racing than most of us will ever know.
Dennis Goughary, Irvine, CA
RM: What a worker, and what a racer. He just built an Offy engine from scratch after rescuing it from the rust heap, and it sounded awesome. He was one of those spirited guys that made Indy such a cool place May after May.
Q: Growing up on CART in the 90s, I knew the heroes from the bums. Watching your tough guys series is great to hear about the heroes from years before me but what about the bums? You’ve never been one to mince words. Who were some of the flops, jerks, goofballs, buttheads, and bums of yesteryear?
Kevin S, Lindenhurst, IL
RM: Oh my god, we don’t have enough space for that answer. Let’s just say there were some guys like Steve Barclay, Judge Harry Sauce and Tony Turco a “little” out of their depth in an Indy car, but it might make a good wintertime read to revisit some of these categories.
Q: Seems a lot of folks like to trash Formula E. Formula E is just another form of auto racing – albeit quieter. When I saw the race in Long Beach, it reminded me of slot car racing as a kid in the 60s. Any chance IndyCar and Formula E would share a weekend at a short street circuit, say Toronto?
Jonathan & Cleide Morris, Ventura, CA
RM: I’m not sure how Formula E is structured in regards to sharing a weekend, but the Mazda Road to Indy is usually packed at Toronto so not sure there would be any time. The cars look better than F1 cars, but I have trouble watching a race with no noise. Also I think they usually run on shorter tracks – they used a shortened layout at Long Beach – so that would make it tough to do a double-header.
Q: I’ve been binge-watching your Tough Guys videos on YouTube and kept hearing about Texans (A.J. and Rutherford in particular), and that got me wondering, what happened to drivers from Texas? Was there just a dying interest from the Lone Star State, or was it the decline in American open-wheel racing that did it?
RM: Good question. We’ve got Christopher Bell and Brady Bacon from Oklahoma, but it’s been a while since Texas was well-represented in the Indianapolis 500. I guess Greg Ray (five wins and a pole at Indy in the IRL) was the last Texan I can think of that had success. But think about Rube, McElreath, A.J. and J.R. (even though he was born in Kansas) as the Texas toughies.
Q: Why does Indianapolis Motor Speedway not have statues? Fisher-Wheeler-Allison-Newby? Foyt-Mears-Unser? Tony Hulman? Your piece on the Hall of Fame accepting NASCAR guys got me thinking about it…
Matt, Marshall, MO
RM: Not sure, but it’s a good idea. What IMS really needs is a new museum so it can show off all the treasure in the basement and honor its Indy 500 heroes – not tin-toppers and F1 drivers from the USGP.
Q: I wanted to ask you about your overall perspective of the state of motorsports, especially in the USA. I love reading your analysis about IndyCar, and while I enjoy IndyCar, NASCAR was my first love and I became enamored with it after I got my first video game as a kid – NASCAR ’99. From that point on, I watched all the races. I am concerned about the challenges that NASCAR faces now in wake of recent sponsorship departures. I know a lot of people hate NASCAR and see it as a fraud next to the “pure” racing of IndyCar, but I identify with the sports history, its roots, and the emotions it shows.
I know most of your comments don’t pertain to NASCAR, but do you feel that NASCAR is a motorsport worthy of being in that category? And do you think IndyCar and NASCAR can potentially work together given their comment interests in a) securing financial footing; b) finding a secure, longer-term title sponsor (fitting under item (a) above), and c) with a shared network in NBC, some dual/cross promotions that could lift all boats with a rising tide?
Certainly trends for IndyCar are very positive, while NASCAR is still trying to catch up with the downhill cost-soaring snowball, but it seems to me that both sports are fun, worthy icons that could stand to gain a lot. I question many in NASCAR media who assume that NASCAR has been a “mainstream” sport and need to try to maintain its “mainstream status.” I think it is more of a niche sport than the leaders recognize, and the sooner they embrace that reality, the better their marketing and financial decisions will be. In any event, as a NASCAR-first fan, I am interested in hearing your opinions on the health of U.S. motorsports and any agreement/disagreement with what I have said here.
Jeremy, Oxford, NC
RM: Let me try and answer backwards. NBC and NBCSN’s coverage of NASCAR has been good for IndyCar because its given stock car fans a little taste before or after a NASCAR race or qualifying or practice session. And NBC will be the best thing that’s happened to the Indy 500 in decades. NASCAR is still the big dog in TV ratings, so it’s more mainstream than anything else in this country on four wheels – at least with the general public.
I do think Phoenix and Bryan Sperber have gone out of their way to try and promote this Saturday’s IndyCar race, and Fontana was a good partner for IndyCar – ditto for Texas (a Bruton Smith track). But I don’t ever see NASCAR and IndyCar sharing a weekend because NASCAR doesn’t need IndyCar. People say NASCAR and IndyCar should share Watkins Glen. What? You can’t put another person in the Glen at the Cup race, so why would it want to share? And I don’t think NASCAR wants to share an oval where an IndyCar is 30-50 mph faster per lap and puts on a much better race.
The overall health of most racing is troubling (except indoor supercross) because it’s so expensive for competitors and fans alike, and it’s just getting easier and easier to sit home and watch it on television. As for a niche sport, that’s IndyCar right now and the challenge is to try and regain all those people who quit watching or going to the races.
Q: I was just wondering where the Jim Hurtubise Mallard roadster is these days?
RM: There is a replica somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, but I’m not sure where the original is, or if it still exists. I need to call Pete Hurtubise.