The Firestone Indy Lights Series, the final run of the Mazda Road to Indy, is theoretically the best way to get into the INDYCAR Series. Lights gets to visit many of the same tracks that the larger, more powerful indycars get to run, and the drivers are showcased in front of the big teams. Support for the MRTI is not a universal idea with many teams opting to look in other places for new talent. Just two teams; Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Andretti Autosport, are heavy hitters in both series’. Davey Hamilton Racing as well as Bryan Herta Autosport also field teams in the lights division. Although these two teams are not huge in the INDYCAR Series, they are two more that have exposure in other parts of the ladder.
The Mazda Road to Indy is a wonderful program on paper. Karting and the Skip Barber program are often the first step on the rung, earning some sort of USF2000 drive, and starting the young driver on the long and arduous climb to the top. The rungs are well defined, and there are many points, at any age, that a driver can step into a car and attempt to make a profession out of racing. This is all wonderful news after many years of no easy, discernable way to make it into an indycar, as even Indy Lights was, historically, not a place that top teams went to farm new talent.
For a long time, the open wheel development ladder was a head with no body. That all changed when in 2009, Mazda signed on as title sponsor, and INDYCAR decided to pool the many junior series into one, cohesive ladder system. This would be the first time that a defined path from karts has been created by the top level series. The IRL has always had some form of lights, and ChampCar always pulled out of the Atlantic series, but now there is a full path from top to bottom. In an attempt to reconnect with the historical feeding system to indycar, the USAC national champion is also given a ride on the ovals in Lights.
After the first year in 2010, things were really looking up for the newly formed ladder. There were guys who were looking at not getting a chance to ever make it to the big cars who finally got the call. Year after year it seemed that good graduates were getting an honest shot at Indy, maybe not in the best equipment, but a shot nonetheless. The recent influx of graduates was helped by the unfortunate weakening of the Atlantic championship following the demise of ChampCar in 2008, and the ultimate shuttering of the Atlantic Series by early 2010. The unification of the top level of open wheel racing, plus the loss of Atlantics made it very easy for young drivers to choose how they were going to make a living in racing. By 2010 it seemed like the ladder was working, and we continued to see new lights drivers in INDYCAR throughout 2011.
Entering 2011, excitement was high for a really good fight in Lights. We had Brian Clauson who won the USAC scholarship and was given an oval drive all season. We also had Connor Daly, the Star Mazda Series champion, who gets to drive the twistie counterpart to Clauson’s seat. The ladder seemed to be working. The only real surprise was JK Vernay, the 2010 Lights champion, not moving into an indycar seat. In my eyes, the ladder was finally starting to work. Even with the missing Vernay, there were still a few Lights graduates who made their appearance in an indycar this year. Unfortunately, Lights has started a slight downhill run and seems intent on self destruction.
The big boys are not the only rung that has had its share of controversy this year, the Lights are suffering, and possibly more so, from shoddy officiating and questionable calls by Race Control. The problems really came to light at Milwaukee. O2 Racing Technology’s withdrew from the Milwaukee event after “inconsistencies” were found in the pre race inspection process. What ensued was a really bad case of he said she said, with the final outcome being the teams banning from the sport. For a series with only a handful of talented, full time teams losing just one was a huge hit. Even if the suspension was warranted, this kind of press is not good for a struggling series.
Grids have been sparse all year, and the rumblings in the garage say that integrity of the series is at an all time low. Reports of unpenalized tech infractions are rampant. There is not even a “proper inspection crew.” The chief stewart, Tony Cottman, has a huge plate in front of him. His NZR Consulting firm, designing the new indycar technical regulations, and being a part of INDYCAR race control all take priority over his job in Lights. I don’t blame him, there are far bigger fish to fry right now, new car and all, than a development series that is on life support. Most of the recognizable talent has been plucked from the series by the big boys, 2011 is not a showcase of drivers who I have been watching for a few years hoping to make it to the 500; talent is a little thin and shallow right now. There are also reports that in 2012, after the debut of the new INDYCAR chassis, the Lights chassis will be more expensive to buy than its bigger brother.
Indy Lights is a series with a real identity crisis. Currently, the series has the feel that it may have graduated its most talented drivers. Its newest super star, Connor Daly is on a fast track to F1 and there is not a huge amount of talk about the remaining drivers. There are stand out names, Newgarden, Guerrieri and Wilson who all have a huge chance at making the jump at the end of the season. My worry is if they don’t, there will be no series left to fall back to. A ten car grid is not the place to make a splash. Unfortunately, the problems of INDYCAR must be solved before setting out and truly fixing Lights; a strong feeder series with nowhere to go is worse. Remember, Atlantics only survived two years without ChampCar. The systemic self destruction of the lights grid must be stopped if we are attempting to eliminate the nameless European ride buyer in indycar. I love the Freedom 100, and want it to be a showcase of young talent, but I fear we may have witnessed the golden age of Lights already.