Does Indy Lights Need Fixing?
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?