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.
Questions for Robin can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the high volume of questions received, we can’t always guarantee that your letter will be printed, but Robin will get to as many as he can. Published questions have been edited for clarity. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of RACER or Honda/HPD.
Q: In your last Mailbag someone asked what lay ahead for Scott Dixon. Retire soon, sports cars, keep plugging away for a while longer? Why is it now that if a driver is about to turn 40, it’s about time to hang up the driving shoes? A.J. was 42 when he won his fourth Indy 500, Gordy Johncock 45 when he scored his second win in 1982, Uncle Bobby was 47 in 1981 and Big Al 48 in 1987. One thing I always liked about racing is that unlike the stick and ball sports, if you turn 40 you still have a lot of racing left in you. It’s sad that has seemed to have changed. Do you agree?
Rick Owens, Fort Wayne, IN
RM: We’ll likely never see the longevity we did back in the era you referenced with those legends (plus Mario and J.R.) because they were very special and today’s drivers start so much younger, so the good ones make enough money to either go to sports cars early or walk away. Helio, JPM and Hornish were all still plenty capable but got an offer from The Captain they couldn’t refuse, while Vasser, Brack and de Ferran cashed in when CART’s engine wars paid them handsomely. Dario also broke the bank before having to quit, and P.T. would be loaded if he hadn’t been married three times. T.K. has done very well and is the rare example today of 20-plus years along with Dixie, who shows no signs of slowing down. But Power, Pagenaud and Seabass are rapidly approaching the big 4-0 and will likely be competitive as long as they have good rides. Not sure we’ll ever see another 50-year-old like A.J. and Mario still running Indy, but 40 isn’t the end, either.
Q: In the wake of Alex Zanardi’s recent accident, I wanted to ask a question that’s always been on my mind. Assuming the 2001 Eurospeedway accident had not occured, do you have any idea as to what Alex’s plans were for 2002? Did he have a multi-year deal with Morris Nunn? Were other teams calling in either CART or the IRL?
Victor from Toronto
RM: I believe it was for two years, but I never heard of interest from IRL teams and Alex had struggled in 2001, so it wasn’t like when he left after 1998.
Q: As an African American open-wheel fan for 50 years now, it was cool to see a couple of letters in last week’s mailbag from African American fans. I caught a fair amount of guff as a kid from my Black friends who questioned how I could be a fan of that “white sport.” As a kid who lived in Indianapolis for about five years, I was part of a group of guys, black and white, who were into racing, but since the family moved back to Texas years ago, it has often felt like I’m the only Black guy interested in IndyCar or racing in general. I’ve attended the Indy 500 six times, as well as several IndyCar and NHRA races and even an F1 race (well, it was the defunct Dallas GP in the early ’80s), and have never had any uncomfortable moments at the racetrack. A cousin who lives in Indianapolis has gone with me to the 500 a couple of times and was pleasantly surprised by the fun, welcoming vibe he experienced.
But with the exception of the NHRA, which has the most diverse fan base among the major series, and Lewis Hamilton, there are no high-profile black/minority drivers out there. For many, this may give the impression that it is purely a “white sport.” Do you know if IndyCar is considering any kind of diversity initiative to try to attract minority drivers or crew members? This could, in time, help grow the fan base of the series.
RM: I’m glad to hear your Indy experiences have been good and that doesn’t really surprise me, but you hit upon the key to any sport. Black people have nobody to cheer for, and that’s why CART dropped the ball on Willy T. and Bill Cosby. That was a huge missed opportunity to create a new fan base and marketing platform – especially with Cosby’s participation. I haven’t asked Roger Penske about any kind of diversity initiative, but he doesn’t miss much and he sees what NASCAR has done, so I wouldn’t surprised if he gets something going.
Q: In your opinion, how would Tommy Thompson fit in? I don’t hear much on him, but he sure seemed to have a desire to get to the big level when he was tragically lost at Trenton.
RM: I was at Trenton that weekend and I interviewed Tommy the day before his accident, and his number one goal was the Indianapolis 500. A Vietnam vet, he started in Formula Fords, moved to Super Vees and was driving the Mini Indy series in 1978. He had the backing of Black American Racers, although Viceroy cigarettes had pulled out as the primary backer by then, and the team was looking for more sponsorship. He won Super Vee races and finished eighth in the Mini-Indy opener at Phoenix before crashing over the wall on the last lap at Trenton when another car broke right in front of him. He was 35 when he died, so time was not on his side in terms of making it to Indy cars, but he had the desire.
Q: It’s time for Roger Penske to publish his autobiography. Beyond that, Robin Miller should be his co-author. When I was in my prime earning years, I searched for a book by Roger hoping I could learn some of the Penske ways to help myself succeed. I’m sure it will be fascinating.
Marcus Erickson, Snohomish, WA
RM: That would require The Captain to sit down for several hours for several days and go through his career, but that’s probably not going to happen – he cannot sit still and is always on the move. I think it would be an interesting read, regardless of who writes it, but thanks for the endorsement.