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 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: McLaren/Indy. Why would a team/company (despite its current malaise in F1) that is at the forefront of engineering, both in terms of racing and its successful road car business, wish to compete with a Dallara plus a Honda or Chevy engine? Despite the genuine upturn in the series, I just don’t get it. Track attendance and TV numbers are still below what it should be. Is this a case of Zak Brown trying to fulfill a lifelong dream of being an IndyCar owner and have someone else pick up the tab? From the outside looking in, it seems that he’s he only person at the McLaren company who wants this to happen.
On the subject of Zak, he seems like someone who loves the sound of his own voice. Almost daily there’s a story quoting him about another series he’s looking at, his opinion on something completely irrelevant, or making some embarrassing excuses as to why he can’t land a sponsor in F1 (despite being the self-proclaimed sponsor guy). He’s now the undisputed boss at McLaren, has nobody else to blame and sadly he appears out of his depth.
Mike Hull was on the Marshall Pruett podcast not long after the Santino Ferrucci thing blew up post Silverstone. Mike was scathing that Haas as an American team might even contemplate dropping him from the development program, and was also not complimentary about Haas’s general lack of support for American drivers. All valid points, in my opinion. However, Mike and Chip are some of the worst offenders for not supporting U.S. talent… that’s been the case for 20-plus years, and doesn’t look like changing.
RM: McLaren wouldn’t be building a car or engine, it would simply run a Dallara if it was to field a car for Alonso and then use a Chevy. (It won’t be a Honda if McLaren signage is on it). And yes. the whole project is Zak’s baby but we understand it’s not all that popular at McLaren. He does like to be quoted and it seems like he’s all over the map right now, but he’s made Indy happen in 2017 so we’re hoping there is still some life in running full-time in 2019 – but I’m thinking Fred’s best chance to is run Indianapolis only. Brown has found some big sponsors in F1 and NASCAR in the past, but McLaren ain’t what she used to be, so it’s tough. As for Chip, he said a long time ago he favored foreign drivers over Americans. Even though Jimmy Vasser won his initial CART championship, he got brainwashed by the success of Zanardi and Montoya.
Q: Want to bet a St. Elmo’s dinner that McLaren and Fred end up SPM? Open seat. Jon [ED: Flack, SPM president] used to work for ZB [at JMI]. Honda tie-in. Sam probably needs the money, as the best driver he’s gotten in years is in the hospital. Zak is whispering sweet nothings in Schmidt’s ear to convince him. Oh, and there’s a global tech partner on the No.5 car, which could pass along some branding to the F1 deal. Makes a whole lot of sense, and to those of us kicking the can around 16th & Main, the chatter is getting louder and louder. ZB and McLaren pulled the ultimate smoke and mirrors. Can’t believe they are going to pull this one off with no one even paying attention. Just wait until the USGP in two weeks. Tell me I am wrong.
RM: Won’t be a Honda regardless of which team it is, so I will bet you a double cheeseburger at the Workingman’s Friend that Fred doesn’t drive for SPM. We all want Alonso in IndyCar full-time, but it won’t be this scenario. Sorry, you’re wrong.
Q: I am surprised by your comment to Curt from the October 3rd Mailbag regarding races in New Zealand and Australia. You stated, “I know, I know, don’t open the season outside the USA”. That does not make any sense to me, and it has already been done – Sao Paulo and Monterrey, right off the top of my head. I think that would be a great idea. Having two races in February would be amazing! Especially if they draw like you suggest because of Dixon and Power. Then get things rolling a couple weeks later in March back in North America. For the finale I am fine with a road course or an oval, but it should be at least the end of September. Now, if we can just get rid of double points – no single race should be more important than any other, even Indy. There, I said it.
Jeff, Orangeville, Ontario, Canada
RM: The eventual feeling 25-30 years ago was that opening the series outside North America got CART no U.S. media coverage and no TV ratings, and it was true. And when you don’t have a race for six months, opening your season on the other side of the world isn’t exactly a great coming out party. But if IndyCar could get back-to-back races in New Zealand and Australia and everyone could make a little money, then it’s probably worth trying it again.
Q: I am sick and tired of this Scott Dixon love fest. Is he a really good talent? Yes, but this recent nonsense of calling him the G.O.A.T. and “best of his generation” is a bunch of crap, and insulting to the other drivers that deserve to be in the conversation. From a statistical standpoint, Sebastien Bourdais has a better winning percentage (20% for Seb, 14% for Dixon) despite Bourdais not having a top tier drive since 2007. He also has a higher championship winning percentage (29% to 28%). Seb has also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans. Juan Pablo Montoya can easily be in this conversation as well. CART and F1 titles, two Indy 500 wins and a 16% win ratio in IndyCar racing. He was out of the sport forever, came back and was still ultra competitive. Gil de Ferran, Dario Franchitti, RHR… so can we stop this nonsense please? Yes, Scott Dixon is an amazing talent. No, he is not the best driver of all time.
Paul in Bradenton
RM: I don’t think its crap to say Dixie may be the best of the past 25 years – just check his record. No doubt JPM would have been a multi-time champion and racked up as many if not more wins than Scott had he stayed in IndyCar, but he didn’t. (Nor did he win an F1 title). And Seabass is always a good argument for that category, even though Champ Car’s competition wasn’t real stout from 2003-2006. Dario most certainly rivals Dixon, but the fact remains that the Kiwi is almost 40 and still kicking ass. But he’s not the G.O.A.T., and I think he’d be the first to admit it. When you throw in dirt tracks, road courses, ovals and the volatility of the ‘60s, the G.O.A.T. conversation is all about A.J. Mario and Parnelli. Not Vuky or Ted Horn or Rex Mays or Rick Mears or the Unsers – just that trio.
Q: I just saw a story that said IndyCar and NASCAR are talking about a joint race weekend at Chicagoland for 2019. Have you heard anything about that? Also one thing on the Russian GP team orders controversy – there was a comment made on one of the articles on RACER.com by a reader that IndyCar has team orders as well, just not on the same scale as F1. Is there any truth to this?
RM: Complete fabrication, because there isn’t going to be a race at Chicagoland in 2019. Any team orders in IndyCar would depend on the situation, but you saw Michael Andretti’s quote in last week’s Mailbag when he said he would never tell a driver to give up the lead.
Q: Thank you for responding to my previous post in your most recent Mailbag, and thanks for your recommendation of tracks to visit on the IndyCar circuit. I hear that there are rumors going around that NASCAR and IndyCar have discussed possibilities about a future shared weekend together. I feel like if it were to happen that the best track could be Gateway as night races! I say this because NASCAR is better to watch on shorter oval tracks like Gateway, plus I watched the Truck race at Gateway, and the stands looked packed compared to almost everywhere else that the Trucks run at. The IndyCar crowd there has looked outstanding as well.
Perhaps if we were talking about the Cup Series sharing a weekend together with IndyCar it should be Gateway, with one series on a Friday night and the other on a Saturday – whoever gets the top billing being up to executives with both series, as well as NBC. Not sure how it could shape up or affect the Truck dates there, and I have heard that tire compounds from Goodyear/Firestone could cause trouble with the racing surface. But it would be worth a shot to do Cup and IndyCar on a same weekend, or maybe even on a same evening
RM: I know Jay Frye has mentioned exploring a doubleheader with NASCAR because it makes sense with NBC televising both series, and it would give an oval-track something special to promote. But all it is right now is an idea for something down the road. I suggested a twin bill with stock cars and IndyCars at COTA some day but I think IndyCar prefers an oval, so it could race on a Saturday night and NASCAR could still be the Sunday afternoon show. But I think it’s a great way to create some interest, and I hope it happens.
Q: I am wondering if Homestead is ever on the table for an IndyCar return? It’s a great track, and the new cars would probably have a competitive race.
RM: It was several months ago because there was talk of the season finale and spring training at Homestead, but all went quiet. Homestead has never drawn well for IndyCar except the first couple CART races whenthe house was papered by Marlboro, Honda and Toyota.
Q: Do you have any update regarding additional online coverage since Verizon is no longer a sponsor? Hoping everyone will have access – I would be willing to pay for it!
RM: There is going to be an NBC Gold service for IndyCar fans that will cover all facets of the race weekend, plus features and other extras. Stay tuned because there should be details in a couple months.
Q: First, I just want to say you were quite coy on your answer (in fact, there was no direct opinion from you except for Sam Schmidt being a savvy businessman) from my question last week regarding Munoz subbing for Wickens, and these pay-to-drive guys coming in, and whether it is truthfully a product of helping the teams keep the doors open or allowing these owners live the life that they want. There isn’t one ounce of me that doesn’t think these owners aren’t making money. Are they making the same money from the CART days? No. However, they aren’t hurting by any means. And again, shame on SPM for disrespecting Wickens and his crews wonderful season by taking in a pay guy that is middle of the pack, at best.
However, kudos to Michael Andretti for trying to get Allmendinger in for the car after Justin died, and when that didn’t work he went and got Servia. This was out of direct respect for Justin and his career, and not a paycheck. Wickens didn’t pass, thank goodness, but the concept is the same. This segues into Hinch’s column, which was great! Lay it out there, tell us what’s really going on and bring this *&%^ to light. I didn’t agree with his take on using the dreaded word “Union” however. Union now has a negative connotation because of the rhetoric being passed around this country by our fearless leader in DC. That being said, good on Hinch for getting this out there and try to help the guys that make nothing, have no insurance and are just trying with everything in their being to live the life that they love. Hinch is a good guy and deserves a lot of credit for standing up.
After this article it is amazing to me and should be to others that these owners don’t at least provide the most basic necessities: life insurance and medical insurance. Another cost saving move by the teams? Definitely. These should be required. Period. I am a diehard IndyCar/CART guy and have been since my first race in Portland in 1994. However, maybe now with age I am finally stepping back and seeing the “men behind the current.” You have always jumped on the owners and how their dictating things throughout the years have ruined a lot of good things, and it was all self-serving. IndyCar is currently riding a good wave, which is great, but maybe now is the time to enact change for the drivers and especially those that have nothing but their desire and their helmet. Change starts by standing up, and Hinch stood up.
Josh R., Salem, OR
RM: Let’s get this up front so there’s no confusion: without owners there would be no IndyCar. Are they all making money? I imagine some are and some are breaking even, but I can’t say which is which, and neither can you. Can they be greedy and self-serving? Of course. The Leader’s Circle cut the drivers and mechanics right out of the equation, and pay for those two groups is lower than it’s been in a long time. That’s why Hinch’s thoughts were so timely and spot-on, but until there is some kind of organization, the owners will continue to take advantage and good mechanics will continue to leave for sports cars or get out of racing. And some drivers will continue to run without insurance, a paycheck or any kind of retirement fund. But as to my opinion on Sam selling Wickens’ ride to the highest bidder? It didn’t surprise me or infuriate me, because Munoz is a good racer (check his Indy record) who found some money, and good for him. And we don’t know how expensive 2018 was for SPM, and I don’t think Wickens felt any disrespect because a former full-timer took over his ride.
Q: Just read the piece on Ferrucci nabbing the full time seat at Coyne for 2019. Just curious as far as his rookie status is concerned. Since he ran four races in 2018 will he be eligible for Rookie of the Year honors, or is he considered a verteran in 2019?
Ryan Ward, San Jose, CA
RM: As long as it’s under five races, a driver is still considered a rookie.
Q: Looking forward to the 2019 IndyCar season. What is the status of the return of the LED position lights on the race cars? I found them very helpful, especially for the Indy 500. I sit right across from the pit exit, so the pit timing display was cool!
Jim Bryan, Fenton, MO
RM: IndyCar is working with new vendors, and hopeful things can be worked out for 2019.
Q: I’ve been watching IndyCar since 1992, and I can’t remember as deep a field in terms of quality drivers as 2018 had. What’s your opinion?
RM: Certainly a quality group from top to bottom the past several years, but in 1993 we had three world champions (Mansell, Mario and Fittipaldi, plus two-time F1 king Nelson Piquet also ran Indy that year) and four Indy 500 winners (Big Al, Little Al, Sullivan and Luyendyk) running full-time with a few wankers scattered in there. But the mid-60s there was a melting pot of heroes from USAC (Foyt, Andretti, Parnelli, Gurney, Rutherford, Johncock, both Unsers, Ruby, McCluskey, Leonard, Ward), F1 (Clark, Stewart, Hill, Rindt, Hulme) and NASCAR (Yarborough, Yarbrough) at Indy, and the late ’50 and early ‘60s had midget and sprint car champions saturating the starting lineup for the USAC Championship Trail. So, yes, the 2018 lineup only had one or two weak sisters and lots of young and old talent spread throughout. But it’s not better than some of those ‘60s lineups.
Q: I’ve travelled well over 7,000 kilometers driving to three IndyCar races this year and have enjoyed every minute of it. While I couldn’t find anyone to come along on the long haul trips, I did take some friends to Portland. They were blown away by everything they experienced – the cars, the speed – they bought t-shirts and are now IndyCar converts. We will be back at PIR next year, but we all agreed we want to see the Indy 500. So in 2019, three crazy Canucks are going on the ultimate guys’ road trip. We’re driving from Vancouver to Indy, with a few tourist stops on the way, in what will be a ridiculous 10-day, 8,000 km round trip. So my question is hopefully a simple one: where should we sit? I called the Speedway and we can’t buy anything yet, they said at the moment we can only put in a request with three options. We don’t want to have the ticket office make the choice; this is a “bucket list trip,” so based on what will be available when general admission sales start, what can you suggest?
David, Maple Ridge, BC
RM: I suggest you let me get your tickets from a ticket broker that owes me a favor. I want to get you guys as high as I can in one of the corners, because that’s where you can see all the best action and there are big screens to keep you informed on pit stops, cautions, etc. You are the kind of fans that IndyCar cherishes.
Q: Big fan since the days when you could subscribe to The Star for the month of May! Happy to see IndyCar returning to Laguna Seca, but a little leery of the facilities. I attended the Rennsport Reunion last weekend and loved hanging out at the Corkscrew. However, the facility itself is looking pretty outdated, almost like a club track. Parking was atrocious, the grandstands were a joke, and food services were limited. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful setting, but I wonder if it’s major league. Are there any upgrades planned for IndyCar’s return? For reference purposes, I’ve been to Indy for the past 40 years, and have attended various series’ races at Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, Gateway, Bristol, Sonoma, and Road Atlanta.
Mike in St. Augustine
RM: Thanks for the note but rest easy, Laguna is planning a bunch of upgrades for 2019 and there’s plenty of time to get everything done to meet with IndyCar’s approval.
Q: Will Ed Jones have a ride next year with Carlin or SPM? Plus, could we see IndyCar race at Charlotte in 2020?
RM: Neither to my knowledge, because as RACER’s Chris Medland wrote last week, F1 regular Marcus Ericsson is in discussions with Trevor Carlin about 2019, and I know Sam is looking at a potential replacement for Robert Wickens, but it isn’t Jones. There are a lot more drivers than rides at the moment and Ed is likely scrambling. As for Charlotte’s Roval, it sounds like they want to keep it a once-a-year event just for the Cup boys and that makes sense, considering the good TV rating.
Q: Would you ever make a driver sacrifice a win or a podium for their teammate? I never would. (Probably why I’ll never own or run a race team.) While I completely respect the business side of the decision, it is also a sport. The damage to the team can never be undone. I think it’s a disservice to the fans of the drivers, team, and sport as a whole. Teams should have clear rules of engagement to race each other clean and to respect the position earned by each driver and their respective teams in each race, which everyone can trust. I would only ask a driver cede a position when the following car is demonstrably faster and the leading car is not following the rules of engagement or a battle would put them both at risk – as long as a podium or win was not in contention. The trust has been broken again at Mercedes. It was a disappointing day for all F1 fans.
Aron Meyer, Tucson, AZ
RM: My response would be it all depends on the circumstances. If the IndyCar champion earned $8 million like NASCAR pays, then hell yes I would politely “suggest” to my leading driver that he needs to let his teammate by to win the title and I would reward him for his loyalty. IndyCar only pays $1 million so obviously that’s a consideration, but I liked Michael Andretti’s response when I asked him last week: “I would not ask anyone to give up the win.” He then said he’d leave it up to the teammates. But it many ways it is a disservice to the fans as well the driver in front, so I hate team orders unless it’s a really special situation like I prefaced.
Q: Mildly amused by all the consternation over the TV coverage of Sonoma. The folks distressed must be too young to remember the Heidi Bowl and the resulting kerfuffle. It’s understandable that the gorilla in the room is always going to get the lion’s share of attention. It’s just good business.
Brad Powers, Tulsa
RM: I understand all the frustration, especially for people who DVR’d the race, but NBC didn’t spend all that money on NASCAR not to show the finish, and it was just unfortunate the IndyCar race had to be juggled for a few laps.
Q: So how about getting Zanardi and Herta up top of the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca for a RACER video interview now that IndyCar is going back there?
RM: That’s a wonderful idea, but we’d have to figure out how to get Alex back because he’s a busy boy these days.
Q: Where do we stand on getting a replacement sponsor and engine supplier for the Road to Indy? People keep talking about growth in Indy Lights and such, but that’s gonna be hard if there’s no money or engines.
Max Camposano, Bethlehem, PA
RM: Work in progress is the best way to answer your question. I know Jay Frye had a good meeting with one potential OEM last week and has another scheduled today so he’s optimistic. Title sponsor? No news yet, and it’s obviously getting late.
Q: Name five people that you would love to see write a book about their experiences in IndyCar racing. These people can be anybody: drivers, owners, mechanics, executives, or journalists.
Ron, Buffalo, NY
RM: Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell have great stories to tell, and I think both would be very truthful about their battles and WoO’s history. Gordon Kirby has written several good books and is working on the history of open-wheel racing so that will be a must-read, and Evi Gurney is finishing up the two-part autobiography of The Big Eagle and a career that has no parallel, so I can’t wait for that one. I think my pal Tim Coffeen could write an interesting book because he worked on shoestring IndyCar teams, hopped trains to work for Doug Wolfgang, stooged for Bubby Jones all over the country, spent 20 years with Newman/Haas and raced sprinters himself. And my limey brother E.P. Fullalove (aka Chalkie) started with Lotus at Indy, went to Brabham, got hired by McLaren, left England for Texas to help Super Tex on the Coyotes, and built the Atlanta cars with his buddy Rabbit before becoming became the “Wing Commander” while working with Jackie Howerton, and is still building parts today for vintage F1 cars from his shop in Old Windsor. He probably doesn’t remember a lot of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but he could tell some great stories.
Q: I would like to ask you a question about Grant King. Looking through my 500 yearbooks through the 1970s, it looks like he copied everybody’s car that was doing good. And they look like very good copies. Any stories you can tell me about the man and how he did it?
RM: I was standing next to Dan Gurney at Trenton when Grant rolled the “Kingfish” by, and The Big Eagle went crazy because it was basically an Eagle copy. Not sure I ever saw Dan get so worked up. But those were the days when talented guys like Bill Finley, A.J. Watson and King would simply copy the hot car of the moment. Grant had excellent fabricators like Jerry Weeks, Gordon Barrett and Steve Chassey helping him, and his copies were spot on many times so we always figured Ted Hall (his chief mechanic) had a lot to do with their success. Tom Sneva put that Kingfish on the front row at Trenton and that helped him get a ride with Roger Penske. Gary Bettenhausen, Bentley Warren, Sheldon Kinser, Phil Threshie and Sneva all made Indy in a Kingfish, and John Martin qualified another King copy called the Dragon. Finley laid out his Fleagle in his garage floor on Patricia Avenue with Howie Ferland doing the machine work and son Tom Finley building whatever was needed, and Johnny Parsons qualified it in 1974 at Indianapolis. Barrett went to Watson and drew up a car from scratch that Kinser put in the 1979 Indy 500. No computers, no wind tunnels, no aerodynamicists – just good old American ingenuity and a good eye.
Q: Watched your video on George Follmer. Only saw him race once. It was a CanAm race in the early ‘70s at Mid Ohio. Mark Donohue and George in two fire-breathing 917s, nose to tail for 200 miles. George looked like a really serious man and a very deep thinker. As I only saw him race once, what type of driver was he? Was he a wheelman, a set-up guy like Donohue, or someone who won through race craft?
Jonathan and Cleide Morris, Ventura, CA
RM: He was vastly under-rated according to Parnelli Jones, so that’s a pretty good endorsement right off the top. But Roger Penske obviously thought quite highly of him as well, and George was savvy and fast in everything (he won his first oval race in an Indy car at Phoenix) from sports cars to F1 to Can-Am to Indy.
Q: Just finished watching the “Yellow, yellow, yellow. IndyCar Safety Team” documentary on Amazon. A huge shout out to those guys for the work they do to help the drivers. It was very interesting to hear about James Hinchcliffe’s crash at Indy 2015 practice, and what they had to do to pry him out. They probably saved his life. And I can’t believe James is back in the car and racing after that crash. The film really helped explain what happens during a crash, so now when I watch race I can now pick out what each safety team member is doing. With the season over, and needing an IndyCar fix, I hope all your Mailbag readers get a chance to watch it. Thumbs up to Mike Yates and the crew.
Mark, Altadena, CA
RM: Mike and his men most certainly helped save Hinch’s life, along with the IMS and Methodist Hospital medical staff, because every minute was crucial and they all responded flawlessly. Starting way back with Carl Horton, Steve Edwards, Steve Olvey and Terry Trammell, to Lon Bromley and Dave Hollander, to today’s IndyCar group, open-wheel safety is unparalleled anywhere. Alex Zanardi and Hinch are living proof.
Q: I took my girlfriend to the IMS museum for the first time and it was fantastic. She’s not really an IndyCar fan, but she is now excited for our first trip to the 500 next year – tickets are all paid. While touring the museum we checked out the Unser exhibit. I’m a big IndyCar fan and I was surprised that I had never heard of Robby Unser, and even more surprised to learn that in ’98 he finished fifth in the 500. Seems like he must have been pretty fast. What ever happened to Robby?
Russ Webster, Indianapolis
RM: Bobby’s youngest son finished fifth in 1998 and eighth the next May, but never really had proper funding so his IndyCar career didn’t last long. Today he works with Speedway Motors and does ride and drives, plus some consulting work.