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: Now that we know Mark Miles seemingly missed an opportunity to be a part of a great cross-sporting promotion in order to handle overseas business and he and Jay Frye seem fully invested in working with a European OEM, the question has to be begged: Why? Is the international revenue that good that he can ignore the opportunities in the U.S.? Are those TV rights and the exposure from an Italian or German marque going to point that needle where it needs to be? IndyCar isn’t going to race in the Middle East anytime soon, at least to the point of finding an audience that cares. There have been no rumors about a race in Europe, and only one European driver has turned the needle since 1994 – and it was only for a month. There have been plenty of American flashes in the pan over the last few decades, only to fizzle in the spotlight.
But no-one is suggesting that a partnership between George Steinbrenner IV and Mike Harding is going to make an instant powerhouse. However, marketed well, this could be an opportunity to leverage a much larger brand to help create a brand for two young drivers who have the potential for many years of successful racing into the future. It seems to me that IndyCar doesn’t have much desire to market individual drivers to the masses, but marketing the racing hasn’t exactly brought sponsors in droves or the international motorsport community to its knees. Good for the increased car counts. Good for F1 drivers seeing value while waiting for their delusional chances at a world championship. Good for owners in other series seeing the value in IndyCar. But where is the love for the young American drivers, and particularly owners, who want to win races, championships and ultimately, the pinnacle of motorsports? The series just doesn’t seem to care.
Dan W., Dubai, UAE
RM: Miles and Frye had overseas meetings that were booked weeks before the Steinbrenner presser at Yankee Stadium, but I can assure you Jay spent lots of quality hours with Hank and George last year and both he and Mark understand how important it is that famous family is now part of IndyCar’s paddock. The key is making sure IndyCar’s marketing and PR departments take advantage of having one of American sport’s most iconic names in the paddock, and think of some good cross-promotions with baseball in 2019.
Q: Living in Southern Cal, I’ve seen the end of Fontana, the end of Phoenix, and the end of Sonoma. Not that I don’t understand why. I went to every race, and kept being hopeful. Fontana had its moments, especially with Graham Rahal winning in 2015; that was one hellava race! Many, many passes for the lead. Sonoma and Phoenix are picturesque settings for a race track. Unfortunately, other than Long Beach (thank God for Long Beach!) it was always just close friends and family at these races. Very unfortunate.
I harken for crowds of the 80s and 90s; yet I wish the racing fans of the world realized how great the talent and racing is in today’s IndyCar. It is top notch! IndyCar has so many positives going for it. New teams, new drivers, and another new (old) track at Laguna Seca. Full-time, one-network coverage with NBC. The best announcing team, and the best pit reporters and great racing will lead to new fans! Very excited about the future, and am personally excited to go back to Monterey, to a historic track, for some great racing (Yes, I know it could be a parade with no passing, which I hope they will correct with some additional testing). IndyCar is such a exciting sport with great athletes, great personalities (which need to be marketed) and growing with new teams/drivers. The future is so bright! I hope Laguna Seca can be successful, because I’m running out of west coast tracks to go to. Do you expect Laguna to out-draw Sonoma? Kudos to Scott Dixon for not only being a champion again, but for his 2019 Oscar nomination!
Tom, San Diego
RM: I would hope that after a decade’s absence that Laguna will embrace IndyCar – it worked at Road America and Portland – and I guess my only concern is the sports car race two weeks before. I always though John, Diana and the Sonoma staff tried their best to promote IndyCar, but the Bay Area just never seemed to care so not sure what to expect at Laguna. I remember leaving at 7 a.m. back in the CART heyday because it was so crowded and then attendance dived in the Champ Car era, so maybe IndyCar’s revitalized look will bring people back.
Q: I’ve heard rumors that IndyCar and NASCAR are in discussions to combine forces and host a doubleheader weekend at Chicago. Do you have any info on this coming to fruition? If so, what is the reasoning behind this somewhat random development? Given the addition of multiple rides for 2019; who are a few drivers to keep an eye out for to snatch a seat come next season, and with what team? IndyCar fans are always fantasizing about possible tracks added to future schedules, myself included. That said, do you see any possible additions for 2020? And why is IndyCar still staying within the North American market? What is wrong with a European race, return to Brazil, or even Mexico City?
RM: There’s been talk about IndyCar and NASCAR sharing a weekend on an oval in 2019 or 2020 but right now it’s all talk. As for drivers, Marshall Pruett’s story earlier this month pretty much said it all: “Among the regular entries that completed the 2018 season, only Carlin Racing, Juncos Racing, and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have full-time rides to fill. And after the full-timers, Ed Carpenter Racing is sitting on its prime part-time road and street course opportunity. That’s a modest 3.5 unassigned drives to secure. And who’s trying to get into those seats? From those who competed last season, it’s Charlie Kimball, Ed Jones, Jordan King, Gabby Chaves, Conor Daly, Pietro Fittipaldi, Zachary Claman De Melo, Stefan Wilson, Carlos Munoz, Kyle Kaiser, Rene Binder, and Alfonso Celis Jr. That’s 12 for 3.5.” And that story was written before Marcus Ericsson threw his hat in the ring for the other Carlin seat. There could be a couple new venues in 2020, but IndyCar can only go where people want them, not where people want them to go. Mexico City could be a possibility with the emergence of Pato O’Ward, and we always hope New Zealand or Australia wants to play, but nothing so far.
Q: You probably think I am writing in response to the reader saying that every IndyCar owner is making a ton of money doing this, but honestly, that’s not worth my time. Have that fan talk to Fred Treadway, Tom Kelley, Ron Hemelgarn, Carl Russo and at least 20 more who would still be doing it if they could figure out how to make money at it. And these were smart guys!
The real reason I am writing is what you missed about Robby Unser last week. When Mike Long of Arrow and Phil Anschutz of AEG came up with the idea for me to drive the Corvette up Pike’s Peak (obviously after many drinks), I only said yes because I absolutely knew that someone in risk management or legal would stop it from happening. Apparently when Mike says to do something, it happens. Next step, everyone who had been volunteering to ride with me for the previous two years would not answer the phone. So, at PRI 2015 I happened to run into both Robby and Al Jr. talking to Clay Smith from Speedway Motors (remember, I am a diehard Nebraska native), told them both the story, and asked who was man enough to do it. Well, Junior practically tripped over a display vehicle backing out of that offer, but Robby signed up immediately.
From that moment on, the development of that Corvette improved radically because Robby is one of the most engineering-minded drivers I have ever met in my life. And, you have no idea how damn difficult it is to tell engineers what you want if you can’t use your hands! He immediately improved the seating, safety, electronic systems and single-handedly directed and willed us up that hill in less than 15 minutes in a stock Corvette. I am telling you I would be dead (again) if not for Robby Unser! That was ridiculous! He is one of the ones (many) that should have made it no problem in the big time! I would appreciate you clearing that up with your readers. I’ll go back to printing money.
Sam Schmidt, proud IndyCar team owner
RM: Thanks much Sam for enlightening us about young Unser’s contributions to your memorable run up the hill. It’s no surprise Robby’s got a sharp mind when you consider his father was a “self-taught engineer”, and one of the smartest chassis men to ever strap on an Indy car. As I wrote, he had two good finishes at Indy and finished second in 1998 at Texas when he ran eight IRL races. He ran a full season in 1999 with a second at Atlanta but only made three starts in 2000 and that was it despite his obvious ability. Please print me some 50s, and I’ll meet you at Caesar’s Palace at the crap table.
Q: Looking forward to this week’s aero test at Indianapolis. Is there any possibility of windscreens making an appearance? Six veteran drivers in a pack seems like a good opportunity to get feedback on the effects of turbulence. If not, do you have any updates on where IndyCar stands with windscreen development?
RM: No windscreen tests this week, because IndyCar is doing another phase of testing away from the track and still working with prototypes.
Q: Just read in the Track Forum link that Indy track surface has been completely seal coated. One might think that this seal coat would have a negative effect on traction (and safety), and could possibly reduce speeds until such time as the seal coat is scrubbed off the track by racing vehicles and the bare track surface is then returned to racing condition.
Bruce from Western Masachusetts
RM: From IMS president Doug Boles:
“Much of this work is an extension of what we learned when we did the core samples of the track in the fall of last year. Last year we did hand sealing of developing cracks around the track as well as grinding work that we completed this spring.
“The current application is a penetrant that we applied to the race track that is designed to work into and under the surface to seal any small cracks in the asphalt we cannot see or get to in order to keep water from causing issues under the surface. This process is helpful in prolonging the life of the surface. Last resurface was in 2004, and this is longest we have been with one surface since full resurfacing began about 40 years ago. We put it on this September as it gives the longest amount of time for the sun and weather to allow it to cure. In addition, once it was applied, we started tire dragging to knock off any residue on the surface, and this week we began friction testing to compare to how it was prior to the penetrant being applied.
“So, far, all indications are that friction levels are nearly identical to the surface prior to the application. First actual cars testing will be tomorrow. We did to testing of the penetrant along Shaw (behind golf course hole 10) in the spring and monitored it all summer. It is important to note that this is not a sealant like you would have done on your driveway. It is a penetrant. So, it should also eliminate the concern that one grove wears differently than another and creates different friction levels.
We have been in contact with our asphalt engineers, Goodyear, Firestone, NASCAR and IndyCar and all entities are supportive of this application. We will likely do some additional hand sealing later this fall in a few areas that were not large enough last year but through the course of the past year of Indiana freezing, thawing, heating and cooling are able to be treated this year.”
Q: Over the past couple of weeks I have seen complaints about Mercedes invoking team orders in Russia. I just want to state that Mercedes has two goals: winning the Constructors’ Championship first (that is where the money is)’ and then taking a Drivers’ Championship. Lewis, for really the entire year, has been the only Merc driver capable of accomplishing that second goal. Also, with team orders, Mercedes has set itself up to win the championship in its best market: the United States. Tit will have its big customers at COTA, and will want to impress them. My question is, if IndyCar was back in its prime time days, wouldn’t a manufacture like Chevy have one of its drivers move over for the championship-favored driver at a season finale?
RM: It would depend on whether said team and driver were on the manufacturer’s payroll. Back in CART’s heyday, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes gave out engines and money (don’t think Ford paid for any drivers), so it would have been possible to have some kind of team orders (although Barry Green wasn’t given any in 1999 when Tracy and Dario finished 1-2 at Houston). And Goodyear and Firestone spent a fortune on drivers and teams in the ‘60s and never hesitated to try everything to win the title (see Riverside finale in 1968). But I don’t think Chevy or Honda would interfere nowadays. Like I wrote, if it was for $8 million like NASCAR, hell yes I think there would be cause for some team orders, but not for $1 million.
Q: I trust your opinion more than any of the other IndyCar reporters. What is Dixon’s place in history? Every race weekend there are two races. The race to have the fastest car, and the race to cross the finish line first. That race to cross the finish line first can be influenced by strategy, a driver’s ability to manage tires and save fuel etc. I don’t think there’s anyone in the series since the merger better than Dixon at all of the intangibles that contribute to crossing the finish line first. I’m not even sure anyone else is in the conversation. However, when I think of Dixon and being the fastest car or being fast in qualifying, I just don’t see it. What have you got, Miller?
RM: Saving fuel, driving smart, seldom crashing, being quick and taking what the car has are Dixie’s strengths, and I think he’s the best of the past 20 years (although Montoya, Franchitti and Power are certainly in the conversation). But to call Scott the best ever would be wrong, and a disservice to A.J., Mario, Parnelli and the Unsers. They drove everything and excelled on pavement and dirt, while Dixie is a specialist because that’s all there is, other than a couple of sports car races. Could he have been good on a mile dirt track or a stock car or a sprinter? I’m sure he could have but we’ll never know, and that’s why comparing drivers or eras is so fruitless. I think of Scott as a combo of Rick Mears and Big Al so that’s pretty heady company.
Q: My sister Kathy, a huge Robin Miller fan, sent me a copy of “Born Racer.” While not quite “Senna,” it was very good nonetheless. My wife and I didn’t move for 1 hour and 39 minutes. I have to say, the film left me a bit depressed. I’ll be honest, I’ve never been Scott’s biggest fan, but I have tremendous respect for his accomplishments. What I found sad is the following – could a kid with Scott’s determination and talent succeed from a family of such limited resources and income? Perhaps I’m old and cranky now, but there are young drivers in the series that are only there because of family money. I suppose it’s always been that way…
Jonathan and Cleide Morris, Ventura, CA
RM: There is no better person or racer than Dixie, so I’m glad you liked his story. Kanaan, Hinch, Seb, RHR, Power, JoNew, Simon, Rossi and Wickens didn’t come from big money and made it – ditto for Kyle Larson and Chris Bell – so it’s still possible.
Q: Perhaps it is a little early to call it so (and a little presumptuous on my part to do so), but next season seems poised to deliver one of the most exciting rookie classes in recent memory – which is saying something, given how deep the talent pool already is within the sport. By your reckoning, what would be the closest recent IndyCar rookie class to compare?
Garrett from San Diego
RM: Rossi and Pigot in 2016, Karam, Hawksworth, Aleshin and Huertas in 2014, Pagenaud and Newgarden in 2012, but how about this for a rookie class in 1984: Michael Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Tom Gloy, Al Holbert and Roberto Guerrero. Or 1974: Tom Sneva, Pancho Carter, Jan Opperman, Johnny Parsons, Tom Bigelow, Bill Simpson and Larry Cannon. Or 1968: Gary Bettenhausen, Bill Vukovich, Mike Mosley, Sam Sessions, Jim Malloy and Ronnie Bucknum.
But I’m a little partial to the class of 1965: Mario, Johncock, Big Al, Joe Leonard, Jerry Grant. George Snider, Billy Foster, Masten Gregory, Bobby Johns and Mickey Rupp.
Q: Do you know who is funding the new “W Series” for women and whether it has any direct connection to Formula 1? Also, what are your views on the concept of a women-only series? Does it help aspiring female racers, or are there negative connotations, as some female drivers have suggested?
Clive, Vancouver, BC.
RM: It’s got the backing of ex-F1 star David Coulthard, designer Adrian Newey and former McLaren team manager Dave Ryan, so obviously they’ve raised some major money because they’re all too smart to spend their own on a racing series. I imagine it could help get female racers noticed, but not compared to what Simona, Sarah and Danica did against the men in their careers.
Q: With Marshall Pruett’s recent comment about IndyCar adopting methanol as an easy power boost toward the quest to reach 900 BHP in the next few years, the question of safety inevitably arises. Robert Wickens’ Pocono accident and Zach Veach’s thankfully very visible 2018 ethanol Indy 500 refueling fire serve as all too obvious reminders of the ongoing dangers of the sport, and in Zach’s case, the avoidable invisible daylight horror of methanol fires. If IndyCar returns to methanol in its quest for more horsepower, is there an additive that can be introduced to methanol that will make it burn bright orange, like ethanol, during daylight should the unfortunate case arise?
Mike Kelly, Peoria, AZ
RM: IndyCar says it has no plans to switch to methanol at this time, so they aren’t researching any additives to make it visible.
Q: I know an IndyCar return to Michigan has been brought up before in Miller’s Mailbag. I recently watched some Michigan/Marlboro 500 races on YouTube, and have to say that for me as a TV viewer, there is no more visually exciting racing than IndyCars on this track. Anything at all brewing for a return of IndyCar to this fabled, ultimate speed, banked oval?
Steve Sicklick, West Hartford, Ct.
RM: Nothing brewing at MIS, but no better memories than Montoya and Michael in 2000 or Moore, Zanardi and Vasser in 1998 ,or John Paul Jr.’s win in 1983.
Q: Just read your article “Crew Chief by Name” and really enjoyed it. It did so much to show the difference in how the sport has changed and how the crew chief is more of a manager or coach now. I love the stories around the old guys like Brawner and the fact that he spent the off- seasons building the Hawks by hand in a backyard shop, and went out and did what he had to do to keep those cars running and winning. It seems like now the crew chiefs just have to make sure all the people are in the right spot and then they can focus on keeping the driver happy. With that being said, they still have a massive amount of stress and responsibility – when things go wrong, they are usually the fall guy. We have talked about Clint Brawner before and you told me about an interview that you had, and the tapes from said interview have been lost. I still think we need to get a search party together and find those tapes so we all can reap the benefits of hearing those stories. Can you locate it?
Tony, Providence, Utah
RM: It’s the same tape I recorded interviews on with Duke Nalon and Freddie Agabashian, and I’ve looked everywhere but to no avail. Brawner, Watson and Finley could do it all, while Bignotti was more of a thinker that didn’t have their fabricating skills. Or at least didn’t use them. Today’s chief mechanics would have loved those old days because there wasn’t any engineers or debriefs – Happy Hour and softball games started at 5 o’clock every night.
Q: The IndyCar civil war ended 10 years ago. I’m curious if you still think there’s any bad blood or hard feelings between any of the parties involved, or have all those memories gone away?
Alan, Portland, OR
RM: Not among the competitors or officials. Racing has been too good to dredge up the past, and half of today’s drivers and mechanics have no recollection anyway.
Q: Great to meet you in St Louis. Thanks for the photo and the chat. What can I say about that weekend except that it was well worth the 22-hour flight from Australia, especially with our boy Will Power winning and Dixon second – nice evening for our small corner of the world. My buddy who came with me is now hooked. The entire experience was fantastic. I met Indy 500 winners, broadcasters, drivers, everyone. Could not have had more fun if I’d tried. Bobby and Graham Rahal were really cool guys, and the few minutes I spent with the IndyCar radio guys were also amazing. I love that people took the time to reach out to me on Twitter to give me experiences that I could not have dreamed of otherwise. The whole paddock was great. I’m brining three blokes to Indy and want to take in some of the USAC races around the place. Definitely going to not rest until I meet Paul Tracy (my first-ever favorite IndyCar driver). Is it May yet? What do you suggest we do when we hit town?
RM: Go to Gearheads out by Lucas Oil Raceway in Clermont for old IndyCar treasure, hit the memorabilia show at IMS the Saturday before the race, go to the Little 500 in Anderson on the night before Indy, eat breakfast at Charlie Browns but don’t bother A.J. while he’s devouring his eggs, visit the IMS museum and take a lap in the tour bus, eat dinner at Dawson’s on Main Street, go to the Indiana State Fairgrounds and watch the USAC dirt cars, eat lunch at the Workingman’s Friend, go to Bloomington on Friday night to watch sprint cars, and take a bus or Uber to the race – don’t drive. And we will ambush Tracy on race morning.
Q: I have been a fan of Indy since I was a little kid in the 70s, sitting with my father watching Mario Andretti discover new ways to not win. My father will be 88 by the next Indy 500 and he has listened on the radio or watched on TV every Indy 500 since immigrating to the U.S. as an 18-.year-old, except the year he was in Korea on Heartbreak Ridge during the war. I am thinking
about taking my father to see the Indy 500 this year.
We saw it in 2002 the year your co-worker won (and don’t get my dad started on that). That year we were given tickets on the inside near the pits. Not the greatest, but they were free. So my question is, can you give me any advice? Please keep in mind that my father, while pretty active for his age, will be 88 and has typical health issues for his age (knees and heart), so walking and climbing are something he has to take his time doing. And I seam to remember a lot of both last time. The walk in from parking in some lady’s front yard. The climb up to our seats, and then the walk back after baking in the sun. Then, a long drive through a huge traffic jam back to our hotel.
As a second question, being born in 1969, I can’t remember any Indy before about the mid-70s, so is there any race I should look into or any books I should read? Perhaps about the Novi Special, as I was born and raised in Novi, Mich.? Any advice would be appreciated. I would normally not bother you about this and just try and figure it out on my own and take my chances, as if I mess up I just have a longer walk or I can come back another year, but if I do something dumb with my father along, it could ruin his trip – and who knows if he will have another chance?
RM: I might have a friend with tickets who will let you park right across the street (Georgetown Road) from the track and those seats, so give me a month or so. As for reading material, I’d suggest Bones Bourcier’s book on Parnelli Jones, Bob Gates’ book on Jim Hurtubise, John Lingle’s book on Lloyd Ruby, Gordon Kirby’s book on all the guys who finished second at Indy, and any and all of Carl Hungness’s yearbooks plus Donald Davidson’s and Rick Shaffer’s official history of the Indianapolis 500. Go to Coastal181.com and spend an hour browsing.
Q: I enjoyed your response to the question in the 10/10/18 Mailbag relative to the strength of Indianapolis 500 fields in various eras. My vote is for the 1967 starting field, which was ultimately responsible for 20 Indianapolis 500 wins, 10 F1 championships, seven Daytona 500 wins, and multiple wins in such diverse events as the U.S. GP, Monaco GP, 24 Hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours of Daytona, Can-Am, Trans-Am, IROC and the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Add in the fact that the greatest technical diversity that has ever occurred in the sport took place in the 1960s, and there has simply been no other era like it. By the way, though he was not in the 1967 500, three-time F1 champion Sir Jack Brabham should be on your list of F1 stars who ran the 500 in the 1960s.
Steve Passwater, Anderson, IN
RM: Sir Jack started the rear-engine revolution and even put a Repco-Brabham in the show.
Q: They were talking on Trackside about Santi Urrutia being the best Uruguayan driver in the last 20 years, and it got me wondering about Gonzalo Rodriguez, and whether the cause of his accident was ever determined?
RM: It was first believed a stuck throttle caused the 27-year-old native of Montevideo to slam into the wall (protected by tires) and then catapult over the fence at the infamous Corkscrew corner. But that was ruled out even though you can see his brake smoke as he approached the turn, and all we know is that he died instantly of massive head and neck injuries.
Q: A few years ago I read that somebody wanted to resurrect the old Can-Am series and either supply the field with spec Can-Am cars, or offer custom-built racers based on blueprints from some of the original designs. Had you heard of anything like this?
RM: The Historic Can-Am Association staged three races in 2018 – two at Laguna Seca and one at Road America – and I believe those were original cars or copies.