Welcome to the RACER Mailbag. Questions for any of RACER’s writers can be sent to email@example.com. Due to the high volume of questions received, we can’t guarantee that every letter will be published, but we’ll answer as many as we can. Published questions may be edited for length and clarity. Questions received after 3pm ET each Monday will appear the following week.
Q: I really enjoyed this year’s Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup. Seems like a lot of bang for your driving buck. Is there a lot of “liberal interpretation of the rules,” aka cheating, or is it as tightly policed as is advertised? In my experience, it wouldn’t be racing if someone wasn’t looking to bend the rules as much as they thought they could get away with. What do your paddock spies tell you?
David Kincaid, Vancouver, BC
MARSHALL PRUETT: It provides the closest racing you’ll find, which should offer a guide to how it’s policed. When you have insanely close racing in a spec series, it usually means its rules are being upheld. The series takes technical compliance as seriously as any other professional organization.
I was fortunate to field an entry during the MX-5 Cup’s inaugural season in 2006 with my friend and co-owner/driver Larry Webster, and it was a blast. As soon as I can find a 3XL MX-5 seat, I’m driving in the series.
Q: It’s been reported by you and others that Colton Herta’s contract extension includes a huge rise in his salary, supposedly making it twice as much as the next highest-paid IndyCar driver’s. It’s no secret that IndyCar salaries have been rising over the years and now every driver on the grid can honestly say they’re getting paid some amount — something that couldn’t be said just years ago. But for Andretti to give Colton such a high salary jump in such a short time… does that mean trouble for the rest of IndyCar?
In the NFL, if a player becomes the highest-paid person in his position, it won’t be long until someone else tries to top that amount. This also raises the salaries of not only the stars and starters, but backups and third stringers as well. Can something like this happen in IndyCar? Or will it be like F1 where there are those who make huge boatloads of money and those who belong on smaller teams that don’t even make a million dollars a season?
Tom, Milwaukee, WI
MP: Thanks, Tom, yes, I believe we were the first to share that little nugget on Herta’s big salary bump. The $7m per year I’ve heard for Colton is closer to a CART-era Michael Andretti Newman/Haas Racing/Texaco than any other drivers that come to mind since. But I’m not worried about it breaking the bank elsewhere.
It should, hopefully, lead to increases for all of the best drivers who are currently in the $2m-$3.5m range, but Herta’s rumored salary is a serious outlier for what the Penskes and Ganassis and McLarens are going to pay. I’d frame Herta’s salary around his unique value to the Andretti team. For all he represents to them, with the added possibility of becoming Andretti’s lead F1 driver if that comes to pass, this is a wise investment.
Looking to the future, Andretti Autosport has just one proven front-runner within its ranks, and that’s Colton. We hope Grosjean and Kirkwood and DeFrancesco find their way to podiums and victory lanes, but for the coming years, Herta’s the only one of the four to prove he’s capable of leading Andretti to the places where the team’s reputation belongs.
Q: I thought that your response/comment(s) in the previous Mailbag to the question regarding Roger Penske’s reduction of the Indy Lights champion’s prize money was on point. Yes, by all means, open-wheel fans need to thank Penske for his purchase of IMS and the series and his stewardship through the pandemic. The upgrades at IMS were great. But frankly, I enjoyed the race just as much when I had to pee in a wooden trough lined with roof shingles inside an old wooden shack in the infield as much as I do now in the newly-upgraded restrooms.
Penske runs a corporation with 60,000+ employees that generates somewhere between $14 and $17 billion a year in income. Inarguably, a damn successful businessman. But like you, in his IndyCar management, I had hoped for a lot more at this point.
Why haven’t we seen a long-term plan from Penske Entertainment for taking IndyCar to the next level? Or as you commented, where is the mission statement for growth?
The fact that nearly every other major racing series seems to have emerged from the pandemic with aggressive plans, new venues and exciting announcements reflects negatively on IndyCar’s apparent status quo positioning. Upgraded bathrooms are nice. Cutting prize funds and racing the same old schedule once again doesn’t instill a whole lot of excitement, nor growth in the fan base. Thus far, I’m thankful for the great racing, but increasingly disappointed no one knows about it.
MP: In recent months, I’ve thought back to former IndyCar president Derrick Walker and how he was given the freedom to develop a long-term plan for the series. Sitting in on his post-Indy press conference at Detroit in 2014 where the introduction of aero kits for 2015 was made, it was a refreshing take on where IndyCar could head. It had speed increases at Indy, engine developments, and all manner of high-aspiration items on the menu spread out for the next six or seven years, I believe.
The series told us what they wanted to be and spelled it out in clear, year-by-year increments as a road map for us to follow. I’m not saying that I believed every item on that timeline would materialize, but at least it spoke to the type of boundary-pushing spirit that propelled IndyCar forward since its formation in 1911. Granted, team owners soon turned on Walker and the support he had from the Hulman George family disappeared, but that was normal back then.
So, who are we, what are we, and where are we going today? I know IndyCar president Jay Frye is always full of big ideas. But will the new series owners get behind him and let him produce an aspirational road map of his own?