Does Indy Lights Need Fixing?

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Last week, I received an interesting e-mail from the reader that posts comments under the name of “redd” (why it’s spelled that way, I don’t know). Redd was asking me how IndyCar could do a better job in managing the feeder series that make up the “Road to Indy”. He also wanted to know my thoughts on using the various ladder series to market young drivers and ultimately use them to promote the IZOD IndyCar Series. He thought that the whole system could use quite a bit more than a tweaking since a lot of fans weren’t that familiar with the lower levels of open wheel racing.

In my response to Redd, I told him I was the last person that needed to comment on that topic, since I don’t follow any of them at all. I know nothing about them. I would be doing good to name five current drivers in the Firestone Indy Lights Series. I know even less about the Star Mazda Series or US F2000. I generally just wait until they make it all the way to the top level before I make an effort to learn anything about them. That may sound lazy, but I see no need to tax my brain any further by learning the names, faces and backgrounds of drivers who may never drive in the series I follow.

Redd wrote back with a response that sort of hit me in the face. He said (paraphrasing) that that was his point. If the die-hard IndyCar fans know little to nothing about the top feeder series – Firestone Indy Lights, how do they ever expect to generate any interest? Many NASCAR fans follow the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series fairly closely. Across the pond, any Formula One fan worth his or her salt follows F2. Minor league baseball is still very popular in most of its markets – due in part to local promotions.

The whole thing got me to wondering if I was alone in my ambivalence toward Firestone Indy Lights. I know some follow it, because I hear them calling in to Trackside on Thursday nights.

This isn’t a problem that is isolated to the present-day IndyCar. When CART had their own version of Indy Lights in the late eighties and throughout the nineties, I didn’t follow them either. Nor did I follow the Atlantics Series, before or after it was acquired by CART. I can recall watching Franck Fréon battle it out with a young Bryan Herta in a tape-delayed Indy Lights race one night, while flipping the dial in either 1992 or ’93, but I couldn’t tell you who won. I remember Herta’s name for obvious reasons, but I’m not sure how or why I remember the name of Franck Fréon. Although he made four forgettable starts in CART and tried his hand at Le Mans, Fréon did not go on to greatness.

Maybe I’m just a snob, but ladder series or farm systems have never interested me very much. I live less than four miles from Nashville’s Triple-A ballpark, such as it is – but I have never been to a game there. In fact, I haven’t been to a minor league baseball game since 1987. But I can’t begin to count how many major league games I’ve been to since then. On a spring Saturday, I may stumble upon a Nationwide Series race and watch some of it, but I never seek one out. Then again, I’m not what you would call a big NASCAR fan.

One thing that probably holds my interest with a Nationwide race is the fact that there are many Sprint Cup regulars that drive in Nationwide. That’s an interesting phenomenon that happens occasionally in baseball, when a player is on a rehab assignment. Even a moderate big league player will draw a huge crowd in Jackson, TN. Remember the crowds the Birmingham Barons drew when Michael Jordon was trying his hand at baseball?

Those that know far more than I do say that will never happen with drivers from the IZOD IndyCar Series. They say the Firestone Indy Lights cars are so dissimilar to the bigger and more powerful IndyCars that nothing transfers. It does a young driver like Simona de Silvestro no good to drive an Indy Lights car on Saturday. I believe that to be true, and if it is – make them more similar. If names like Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart can drive in both NASCAR series on a given weekend, why can’t IndyCar drivers? The reverse logic explains why Indy Lights drivers have such difficulty moving up into IndyCars. Nothing that they learned in the developmental series applies. It sort of makes you wonder what they are developing in Indy Lights.

One thing I really liked about Lola’s chassis proposal last spring, was that the same tub would be used for both series. This presented benefits on several fronts. First of all, it made it a lot easier (read: cheaper) for an Indy Lights team to transition into IndyCars. Secondly, if an IndyCar team ever chose to dabble in Indy Lights, they already owned the bulk of the equipment needed. Most importantly, chances are good that the same tub that undergoes moderate modifications (and engine changes) between series will perform similarly in either circuit.

At a quick glance, most fans can’t tell the difference between a Sprint Cup car, a Nationwide car or even an ARCA car. It doesn’t take much of an expert to tell an Indy Lights car doesn’t look, sound or smell (they burn gasoline – not ethanol) like an IndyCar. Making the cars similar in appearance, as well as driving and handling characteristics; could go a long way in ultimately helping the Firestone Indy Lights Series as well as the IZOD IndyCar Series. It would make the feeder series more appealing to the fans because the cars would look more like IndyCars. Plus, the drivers would actually be developing skills needed to move up to the top series. Who knows…maybe some mid-level drivers may choose to hone their skills and drive on Saturdays also.

Look at the long list of drivers who have won the championships in these current Indy Lights cars; AJ Foyt IV, Mark Taylor, Thiago Medeiros, Wade Cunningham, Jay Howard, Alex Lloyd, Raphael Matos and J.R. Hildebrand. The last four have driven in some races this year, but with little or no success. Prior to Howard, it’s a virtual “where are they now?” grouping. Had the Lights car been better suited to develop driver skills, we may have seen different results. On the other hand – Simona de Silvestro trained in the Atlantics Series, which has always had a better reputation for developing drivers, and look how well she has done as a rookie this season. The trouble is, Atlantics no longer exists.

So what can be done to strengthen the Firestone Indy Lights? I think the current car and engine both need to be scrapped. Hopefully, Tony Cotman is looking at a way to incorporate the new Dallara “safety cell” into use between the two series. That way, Indy Lights would truly become a developmental series for the IZOD IndyCar Series. From there, I’d like to see some cross-participation from drivers between the series. I’m not saying that Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves need to be driving in Indy Lights, but I don’t think it would hurt Mario Moraes to brush up on his skills. The possibilities are endless. Now, the only question is…will I start watching then?

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “Does Indy Lights Need Fixing?”

  1. Hi George,
    Good question. I think the first thing to come to mind – GP2 and GP3 are broadcast live on cable over here (UK and Europe), so it very easy to follow.
    Right now, the Light’s races are just on indycar.com and while it might be wishful thinking for Lights to get a good television slot, it would not hurt it if it had a 5 minute short segment in an IndyCar race build-up show. Wishful thinking, but why not? As for Star Mazda or USF2000, good luck trying to find them anywhere.

    Other European based formulae (such as F3 and World Series by Renault for example either support other forms of racing (mainly touring cars and GT racing) or run their own events for free.
    For example, the recent World Series race at Silverstone (paired with British GT) attracted around 60,000 people (great race by the way…) with a gate price of zero. Not sure how this works financially, but I believe there is some support from Renault and deals between the circuits and vendors to make it work – 60,000 is no small audience.
    This did not happen overnight, but rather took time to grow – a lot of patience was required to make it work.

    On the other hand, I believe motor racing over here is a lot less politicised than in the US, so spreading various junior formulae may be a lot less troublesome as we do not have battles across different variations of the sport.
    You won’t see much infighting between Prototype Sportscar racing and Formula 3 – it would be illogical. However, should one wish to raise the profile and popularity of Star Mazda or USF2000 in the US, it may mean pairing it with more localised events (like USAC run events). This may also be beneficial for the IndyCar Series long term, as it may help get US drivers back on the single-seater ladder.

    You are right about one thing though. If the Indy Lights cars are so dissimilar to IndyCars, then what is the point of Lights. Right now, Formula 2 has little standing in Formula 1 circles because the cars are generally irrelevant to what F1 runs; however the GP2 rules are being tailored to F1 and GP3 in turn is partially tailored to GP3 – it’s a steady progression that readies drivers for the top level.
    Formula 3000 fell by the wayside in the early years of the last decade – one of the reasons was the lack of cohesion between that and F1. In fact, GP2 was started by Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore to realign the junior series principles.

    Somewhere along the line, someone will have to take a financial hit to get these programs really off the ground and it will take a good deal of compromise as well. The major problem for the US feeder series’ right now is finding someone that will make the first move.

    (p.s. – I follow IndyLights and do cover the races from time to time on my site, but then again I watch far too much motor racing for my own good)

  2. Something to note is that all levels of racing must be funded and at the lights series (and star mazda and usf2000) it is relatively more affordable and are often paid for by scholarships paid by being the champion of a lower series. The scholarships stop after Star mazda and the financial jump to bankrolling an IICS program is not affordable if personal finances and college funds are involved. Atlantics worked in getting young drivers up the ladder into Champcar because of the scholarship involved. Lights has no scholarship, no significant financial prize to helps it drivers get to the next level.
    RB has recognized that as an issue and has said he would like to offer a $2m scholarship prize to the lights winner. A little help from series partners would go a long way to helping the jump, if firestone offered free tires to the Lights champ next year in IICS or Honda provided a complimentary engine lease to the lights champ the same way it does for drivers like Hideki Mutoh in its own driver development program the lights champ becomes an attractive option for a smaller team.
    A scholarship would also result in marginally funded, but talented IICS drivers like a Mario Romancini or JRH to return to Lights after partial seasons in the big cars. Right now it is not on the radar for either of them because the only thing they can do by returning to lights is to not do as well as the prior season that propelled them to the IICS. They can only fail by going back, there is no proportionate reward for returning.
    I think changes are afoot. Mazda is the engine provider for the two bottom rungs of the ladder and has agreed to sponsor the entire series. I suspect Mazda power could be coming to lights, but the cost would be turning away the current engine provider, that is partially owned by Davey Hamilton. But until Mazda is in the big cars, they would have to pay the lights champ a cash scholarship as opposed to an engine program in a factory car. With the new car having a stressed engine, mazda can’t simply drop its existing inline 4 racing engine into the IICS cars and would have to seek a badging arrangement with someone like Cosworth to be involved. Issues abound, but Mazda seems comitted. In recent race broadcasts, they have had as much of an advertising presence as Honda.
    One thing I do think is good it that RB has pretty much acknowledged that the Road to indy needs to fork. That both road racers from Star Mazda and Oval specialists from USAC need to feed into the lights program. The USAC drivers would bring fans and a TV deal and more butts in seats would accompany them, perhaps making scholarship sponsorship a more compelling investment.
    Fixing this step in the ladder is one of the three biggest issues RB faces to grow the series.

  3. Its a pointless series.

    Has no sponsorship. Has very few teams. Cars aren’t relatable. They don’t have pitstops. Has no TV contract. Its all ride-buyers. Its champions and “best” drivers, have mostly been flops in Indy Cars.

    The REAL talent in junior series, are in other series around the world and in USAC. Indy Lights is basically a dumping ground for rich kids/rich parents, who have nowhere else to go talent-wise and young kids whose checkbooks aren’t big enough to pay into Indy Cars or top Euro series.

    Every-now-and-then, you find a real talent that finds their way in. Its just a coincidence though, when that happens. If people think Jean Karl Vernay and Sebastien Saavedra are great young talents, they are sadly mistaken.

  4. Thanks for throwing it out there, George. I heard Randy Bernard on Mike King’s radio show talking about the feeder series. I was just curious because there’s been talk of increasing the presence of the smaller series at race events in order to provide more “bang for the buck” to the consumer. There’s been talk of scholarships to move drivers thru the ranks and financial encouragement to get USAC drivers into Lights.

    I was curious as to how you and your readers might organize the lower tiers? Right now there’s three levels that nobody knows anything about. Should there be 2 levels? What about Madza or Cooper tires? What would be the best way to organize the “minors” to promote drivers and provide entertainment for the race fan? And to drive interest in the Izod Indycar series?

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Indy Lights very obviously needs fixing. Most ladder series do at some point or another, that’s why they tend to be short lived.

    It needs television.
    It needs more sponsorship money.
    It needs more teams and cars.
    It needs to graduate its best drivers to IndyCars consistently.
    It needs a field of drivers deep enough to produce multiple IndyCar graduates each year.
    It needs a new car that is more relevant to the 2012 IndyCar.

    Addressing these needs is a daunting task, maybe even an impossible one. At the very least, though, the Lights champion needs to be in an IndyCar the following season. If even the champion doesn’t graduate, it defeats the intended purpose of the series.

    I’ve never cared for the NASCAR model because it also defeats the purpose of having a ladder series.
    Nationbusch has become a warm-up or practice for the Cup stars and Trucks is a series of wash-ups and field-filler.
    However, both series have drivers that fans recognize and that is why both series are on television every race. As much as I don’t like the idea of IndyCar regulars in Lights, if it swung a television contract I’d bite my tongue and watch.

    • Why does the Indy Lights Champion automatically have to get a ride in Indy Cars, the next season?

      The facts show, that most of the Indy Lights Champions had no business in a Indy Car, when they moved up.

      What has JK Vernay done this year to earn a spot? He still hasn’t won a oval race in his life. He only has to beat about 5 or 6 cars each week (since the bottom 6 or 7 of Lights, are embarrassingly inept either at the driver spot or the team/equipment spot). He never has to make a pit-stop. He never has to communicate changes to the car, during a race. All he basically has to do at the majority of the races, is qualify in the front row, get the lead into the first corner and keep the car on the road until the checkard flag.

      We need drivers who have actually accomplished something (like Rice, Scheckter, Tracy, Hildebrand and Bell) in a Indy Car before we turn one over to some green rookie, who won a few Indy Lights Club Races.

      How does Lights become relevent?

      -Need more then 14 cars in these races. Need at least 22-24 in each race.

      -Cars need to resemble Indy Cars. Hell, use old Panoz’s if you have to. These slow, over-engineered Dallara’s that Lights use, don’t teach a proposed Indy Car driver much of anything.

      -Teams have to be able to hire some talent. When its 100% ride-buyers, you don’t get enough real talent. And when SSM clearly has the best team/equipment, it makes the job pretty easy for any driver who jumps into one of those cars. Find some better teams, and get the prices under control (to draw more teams).

      • billytheskink Says:

        You don’t think guaranteeing (or at least providing the means to get) the Lights champion an IndyCar ride the following season could help draw more talent into the series? Doing so might not guarantee a deeper Lights field, but it would provide more incentive to young talent than the series provides now. At the very least it gives the series a purpose and gives fans a little more of a reason to follow Lights.

        Good up-and-coming drivers don’t want to become the next Lee Bentham or Wade Cunningham and they won’t race in a series that has proven to be a dead end for too many.

  6. Thesmartestguyintheroom Says:

    Interesting question, George. I do follow the lower rungs on the “Road to Indy” a bit, and some-with the exception of Indydude and Chad Paff, who bring nothing to the table-have some good ideas.

    What I would like to see is a mix between the ideas of Leigh O’ Gorman and JP. I like the idea of possibly remaking Indy Lights to using the same chassis/engine combination-perhaps with the engines detuned-as IndyCar. GP2 uses Dallara chassis and Renault engines with Bridgestone tires for all of its cars. It would also be helpful to have scholarships and incentives to move up, as financial reasons are one of the primary reasons careers in motorsports stall out.

    What I would not like to see is IndyCar drivers racing in lower rung “Road to Indy” series the way NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers do in Nationwide/Camping World Truck Series do. The lower rungs are supposed to be developmental series. How does it help develop drivers to have the top-level drivers take seat time away from younger drivers who need it?

  7. Money not being an issue, if I’m an owner, I get my young driver from GP2. Ovals can be learned with practice. GP2 I so freaking competative. Often times it’s a better race than F1. The drivers definatly learn how to overtake. Much better at developing than IL. See Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Timo Glock, and Nico Hulkenburg.

    I expect (hope?) two American to be in the series next year for those of you who are afraid of non-americans. Jonathan Summerton and Alexander Rossi are two names I hope Indycar grabs after they prove themselves in GP2. Perhaps they could enhance their oval skills in Indy Lights while they drive in Indycar.

  8. StephenP_83 Says:

    When Indy Lights was on Versus on Monday’s last year following a race weekend, I watched every race. This year since it’s only online, I haven’t seen a single race. If someone makes the decision to broadcast it on TV again, even tape delayed a day, I would watch it without question.

  9. I went last year to Chicagoland Speedway for the IndyCar weekend. The Indy Lights race was really fun…sadly not so much cars, but really really fun… a lot of fights, somtimes four-wide…I really enjoyed…i like Indy Lights and it’s sad to watch the poor interest around it and the the current poverty of cars…I wish this series was re-launched…i agree with the article: 2012 Lola’s project (same chassis for both series) was really interesting…

  10. Drivers coming from USAC can’t be competitive at non-ovals. Drivers coming from the Road to Indy ladder can quickly learn to drive on ovals.

    Ok, Indy Lights doesn’t properly develop drivers. But changing cars would only do worse for teams, who already struggle to get money to race. That can wait. Getting television broadcasting for 2011 to get more sponsors should be priority.

  11. “Ovals can be learned with practice.”

    Mario Moraes, EJ Viso, Mike Conway and Takuma Sato think otherwise.

    For you road racing snobs, road courses can be “learned” too, with practice. If you actually paid attention to NASCAR, some of their best road racers are from USAC backgrounds.

    Yes, we need more GP2 drivers. Like a hole in the head, we do.

    What we NEED, are drivers you can build a sport with and drivers who the American fan could actually root for/give a damn about. Right now, we have very few. And we predictably have very few fans too.

    There HAS to be a place for the Hildebrand’s, Edwards’s, Daly’s, Kimball’s and Karem’s to go against the Clauson’s, Boat’s, Jones’s and Swindell’s of the world. Indy Car doesn’t draw from either right now.

    If Indy Lights wants to be taken seriously (which it isn’t right now), there have to be more of THOSE type of drivers in the series. And less of the Adrian Campos’s, Rodrigo Barbosa’s and Carmen Jorda’s, who bring absolutely nothing to the table.

    The main problem is, Indy Lights has no money. They have teams that have no sponsorship and have no way to sell themselves. In a troubled economy. Not sure what they do. But if it went away, would anyone really care?

  12. Dan wheldon, Danica Patrick, Will Power, and Dario Franchitti are some drivers with European backgrounds that learned ovals rather successfully. None of these of course raced in GP2 since it is so new. Ernesto Viso and Mike Conway did. Not only were they not top GP2 drivers, but they are on terrible Indycar teams. Of course they aren’t too good right now. It’s also funny how commanders on F1 sites rip me for liking Oval racing. Seems I alienate all forms of racing. Thanks for the attack.

  13. great article…

    [...]Does Indy Lights Need Fixing? « Oilpressure[...]…

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