At the recent Chris Griffis Mazda Road to Indy Memorial Test, one of the big items on the agenda was the testing of the paddle shifter element as a possible prelude to having added to the Firestone Indy Lights car. With Team E doing the testing for the paddle shifter all weekend, we were able to catch up with Lights driver Joel Miller, who was able to give us some feedback on how the new shifter test went. We also asked Joel about the other elements of the test and his plans for 2012:
Thanks so much for the interview, Joel. You recently tested the paddle shifter at the Mazda Road to Indy Test. For the uninitiated, how does a paddle shifter work and what is its potential significance for a driver?
JM: The paddle shifter in the Indy Lights car allows shifting to take place by the touch of a finger in which the driver does not have to take their hands off the wheel. The paddles are attached to the cars steering wheel hub thus they rotate with the steering wheel and are located about 3cm behind the wheel. In order to upshift you pull on the right side paddle and downshifts you pull on the left side paddle. This particular system performs the necessary blips of the throttle on the downshifts to match the RPM for the next lower gear as well as allowing for flat upshifting with an ignition cut. Overall the piece is a treat to drive on the track, lets the driver focus more on driving by hitting their marks, and is definitely safer because both hands are always on the wheel.
You tested the paddle shifter with Team E during the Chris Griffiths Mazda Road to Indy Memorial Test a couple of weeks back. Did you have any involvement with the test leading up to it, or was it more of a “show up and try it out” sort of deal?
JM: I was asked by Neil Enerson to come and test the system in order to give feedback to any teams or IndyCar officials who may have questions. We were all hoping that during the last session of the day on Saturday that we could see what the entire package could do with new tires and a proper setup which I was given the duties, but unfortunately we had a fuel pressure problem straight from the beginning of the run. In order to get more feedback for the paddle shift system we powered through the problem but the timing/scoring results were not reflective of the possibilities.
What were your overall impressions of the paddle shifter versus no shifter, and how do you think its test went?
JM: During the two days of testing and 3 different drivers the paddles performed without a problem. Each driver had their preference on how much blip per downshift was needed so that was the only change over the course of the test to the actual system. My first impression while driving was how smooth the shift takes place and how clean each downshift is performed. The shifting process never upset the balance of the car which it could before using the regular hand operated shift linkage.
Is this something you’d like to see on a Firestone Indy Lights car in the near future?
JM: I absolutely think the paddle shift system is a great addition to the Firestone Indy Lights car. Most of the junior formulae classes now have paddle systems so this is a great upgrade for the car and bring it to a more technical level. The price of the system nearly pays for itself when looking at the status of the gears after a day full of running (I know some drivers could buy 3 of these systems for how much they spent on broken gears during the season). Apart from the performance benefits it is safer as well and since there is an increase in safety with the product that should be enough of a reason to perform the upgrade.
Do you feel adapting the paddle shifter would bring Firestone Indy Lights more in line with more top open wheel series?
JM: This goes along with the preceding question, so yes, I think it would raise the status of the Firestone Indy Lights car. The comparable formulas in Europe and South America have paddle shift systems so we should as well. Also, the IZOD IndyCar Series uses paddle shifters and since the Firestone Indy Lights championship is the training ground it should prepare us for that transition to the big car with the use of paddle shifters.
Paddle shifter aside, how did you feel the test weekend went? You were sharing the car with Rusty Mitchell and (Star Mazda champ) Tristan Vautier, right?
JM: Yes, all three of us (Rusty, Tristan, and myself) tested the car on Friday which made for short 12 lap runs during Friday. It was more of a show up and test the paddle shift system type of day. On Saturday Rusty had the morning session while I had the driving duties in the afternoon. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, the time charts did not reflect our potential in that session due to a fuel pressure problems. Other than that the test went as planned and everybody who wanted to ask questions or view the paddle shift system on the car could which was the reason for the test.
You’ve been able to run a few in Firestone Indy Lights over the last couple of seasons now. What do you see on the horizon for your involvement with that Series for 2012?
JM: Well first and foremost I have to thank the team owners who asked me to drive in those one off races: Dan Andersen, Bryan Herta, and Neil Enerson. Surprisingly the laps that I had on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course are my first actual test miles in the Firestone Indy Lights car as before it has only been the race weekends. Ideally for 2012 I would welcome an opportunity at a proper program in which I could get a few test days before the season then go after that championship. The financial support is my limiting factor, but I will not give up on trying finding the needed support even if it means staying up night after night day after day trying to make new contacts.
Has the fact that VERSUS has been televising many of the Lights races made it any easier to find sponsorship?
JM: The television package definitely opens the door further in the sponsorship talks. The biggest thing that needs to happen sooner is the announcement that the TV package is happening. This way it would give each driver more time to propose plans to sponsors instead of announcing the TV plan a few weeks before the first race. Companies set budgets for the next year during the previous Fall/Winter and that is when we need the confirmation that the season will be televised. So to answer your question: yes, TV drastically helps the sponsorship talks but if announced to late will only help to a smaller degree.
You’re not just a racer, you’re also been attending college. I think last time we checked in with you, you were going for a degree in Mechanical Engineering. How are things going on that front?
JM: I am happy to say that I am in my last year at University for the Mechanical Engineering degree and will be graduating in June. The good news is once the race season starts back up I will have a reduced schedule so if an opportunity presents itself I will be able to devote my full attention. It has been a long road but light is at the end of the tunnel now for graduation!
Lastly, how will you be spending the offseason?
JM: I will be trying to do as many in person meetings and/or calls as I can with local companies to find funding for next year. A small miracle needs to happen with the budget, but to be ready for that I will be staying in the go-kart to stay sharp on driving (I will be running in this week’s SKUSA SuperNationals) as well as running in the 25hrs of Thunderhill with my good friends at Mazda in the RDR RX-8. Other off track duties include finishing up my Mechanical Engineering degree. I do not want to sit out another season and will be working extremely hard to secure a race seat in something for 2012.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate.