Q: Do you think IndyCar has finally made it back to the levels we all loved in the early ’90s? Grid size is way up and the new drivers coming up seem like a draw for the TV.
MP: There are definitely a few things that feel familiar to CART’s golden era, and having been there for all of it, trust me, there’s nothing that I’d love to say more than yes, we’re all the way back, but we aren’t.
We don’t have anything close to the amount of money coming into the paddock like we once did. That’s the biggest difference. And Dog The Bounty Hunter couldn’t find most of our drivers if $1 million was at stake. I’m not saying today’s driver lack support from passionate IndyCar fans, but the average sports fan just doesn’t know an Alex Palou or Josef Newgarden any more than they do the reigning American Cornhole League champion.
The bigger IndyCar names in the 1990s were legitimate sports stars with some form of mainstream crossover appeal. And with those names came heavy sponsors who wanted to be associated with IndyCar stars.
I’ll save the deep dive into The Split and all the other icebergs the USS IndyCar hit back then for some point in the future when I want to be depressed. But for now, there’s no mistaking how today’s series is rising, and has a lot of positive things taking place. But things were so good in CART’s golden era, that I wonder if it’s unfair to compare where we are at the moment in this perennial rebuilding process to the unbelievable heights we achieved back in the day.
Once upon a time, IndyCar was a big deal on a national level. Everything Penske Entertainment needs to do with the series revolves around bringing IndyCar out of the shadows and back to the kind of coast-to-coast awareness we once had.
Q: This isn’t much of a question but more of a story, and I think that speaks directly to Robin’s love of a good story. Thinking of the recent 10-year anniversary of Dan Wheldon’s death, I will always remember Nashville. Several friends and myself drove down to attend the race at the Nashville Speedway, which ended up getting rained out. So the only logical thing was to find drivers and bug them for autographs, pictures etc.
After sneaking into the Patron tent and enjoying some free beverages, we headed out to find some more drivers. We stumbled upon Dan Wheldon. After a few minutes of talking about the rainout, we asked for some pictures, which he gladly agreed to. After the pictures were done, I was almost walking away and he reached out and shook my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, ‘Thank you for being a fan.’ And he meant it. I’ll never forget it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard something like that from a driver, and it still resonates with me to this day. That guy was one in a billion. And as a fan, I miss him dearly.
Jason Morrison, Terre Haute
MP: I’m with you here, Jason. People don’t really change their personalities on the fly, so I’ve never expected other IndyCar drivers to magically start acting like Dan, but man, his need to treat fans, track workers, restaurant servers, and anyone else he came in contact with like they were important to him and mattered to the world was so unique. And important.
Some drivers make a great effort to be present and available to fans, and others still prefer to hide in the transporter or their motor coach and give their fans the bare minimum of personal connection time. As IndyCar tries to reconnect with returning fans and build a bunch of new ones, it’s going to need all of our drivers to help solve our awareness problem.
Q: For both your forgetful and new readers, please give us a rundown of the names of the various sanctions that presided over Indy-type racers, and the years they were in control. I volunteered as flagger or emergency services at a few events and was a rare spectator (1970-2008), and I’m not sure I remember who was in charge.
Wayne Hill, Houston
MARK GLENDENNING: AAA from 1905-1955 (with a few little gaps and asterisks along the way), USAC from 1956-1995, CART/Champ Car from 1979-2008, and the IRL/IndyCar from 1996 onwards.
Q: What would it really take to get IndyCar back at COTA?
MP: After the explosively popular USGP at COTA we just had, I can’t imagine the track would hold the slightest interest in bringing IndyCar back. Nobody showed up when we gave it a try in 2019, and even if 50,000 turned out for us at a future race, we’d look both lame and silly compared to the 150,000 or more F1 just drew at COTA. The last thing IndyCar needs is to go to places where the grandstands are barely half-full and the series looks small and unimportant.
Q: I love that IndyCar is gaining so many young talented drivers, but like any long-term fan, I have some favorites among the older drivers. How much is the signing of the Lundgaards and Kirkwoods about talent, and how much is due to sponsorship they can bring for a season or two? And are the Hunter-Reays and Bourdais at a big disadvantage only due to age, or are they perceived as having lost their competitive edge? With the fields being so closely bunched for time, it seems that on any given week any driver in a solid team can earn a top 12 starting spot and finish. Thoughts?
Mark Savage, Milwaukee
MP: As I mentioned earlier in reference to Lundgaard, he’s the unicorn that every team owner chases, but he’s also a rarity. A kid like Kirkwood is the more normal scenario where he’s faster than a bullet but doesn’t bring money to the relationship. Winning the $1.3 million that comes with the Indy Lights title is a huge help, but that will only get him a couple of races in IndyCar, and it’s a one-off prize.
The answer here, in most instances, is about how much a team covets someone like Kirkwood, and how much they are willing to chase sponsors for months and months to see if they can find the rest of the budget required for a full season. Even if they find the other $4.7 million, what happens in Year 2 when the one-time Indy Lights money is gone? It’s a struggle when new money needs to be found.
That’s why prime vacancies, like what Andretti created with the decision to end their relationship with RHR, is where a Romain Grosjean or a Kirkwood gets a shot when a paying seat opens up. Andretti had one paying seat to offer and chose Romain, leaving Kirkwood on the sidelines with his $1.3 million and no immediate answer on where he’ll take it.
On the age question, it’s all about what a team needs. Drop an RHR or Bourdais into a seat where the team needs immediate results, and they’ll get it done. And if it’s a team like Arrow McLaren SP, where they are more interested in grooming young talent, having a long runway ahead, and making their own stars, those veterans aren’t getting calls.