Developing A True IndyCar Farm System
Over the years, I’ve never hidden the fact that I don’t follow the various ladder series for the Verizon IndyCar Series. One reason was that in the past, it was too fragmented and had no direction. In recent years, it’s been all consolidated under the Mazda Road To Indy program, or MRTI. This consolidation gave the entire ladder system the clarity that it needed. USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights is now the clear path to the Verizon IndyCar Series…or is it?
A few years after the old IRL first split from CART, they formed what was then called the Infinity Pro Series. Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti-Green, AJ Foyt Enterprises, Panther Racing and John Menard all had entries in the fledgling series which was designed to be a feeder series into the IndyCar Series.
Nowadays, the only IndyCar teams that participate in what is now Indy Lights are Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. This past season, Sam Schmidt had four full-time entries, while Michael Andretti had one. That’s hardly what I would call a farm system.
The idea is to grow talent within the framework of the MRTI and promote through the ranks. It’s a pretty simple concept. Yet so many teams pluck their talent from many of the obscure global feeder series, even though the results have been mixed. Why that is, I have no idea. When you look at the plethora of current drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series that came out of Indy Lights, you would think more teams would opt to harvest their future talent from the MRTI.
Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, JR Hildebrand, Carlos Muñoz, Gabby Chaves, Jack Hawksworth, Sage Karam, Tristan Vautier, Sebastian Saavedra, Pippa Mann and James Davison are all drivers that drove in 2015 and are all fairly recent graduates (since 2010) of Indy Lights, having spent at least one full season there. Ed Carpenter drove in the Infiniti Pro Series in 2002 and 2003, but I don’t consider him a very recent graduate. I’m also not counting Marco Andretti’s partial 2005 season. Of course, if you really want to get technical Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Townsend Bell are also Indy Lights graduates; but that was under the sanctioning of CART.
Yet so many teams look outside of the MRTI for young talent. Conor Daly has driven in a handful of Indy Lights races, but the bulk of his recent experience has been in GP3 and GP2. James Jakes dwelled in GP2 Asia and GP3, before moving to IndyCar in 2011. Simon Pagenaud was in Formula Renault 3.5 before going to Atlantics and Champ Car and a detour to ALMS, before settling into IndyCar. Will Power also spent time in Formula Renault 3.5 and A1GP before Champ Car and ultimately IndyCar. In the nineties, Juan Montoya cut his teeth in Formula 3000 before being plucked by Chip Ganassi for his CART team. Graham Rahal spent time in Formula BMW, Star Mazda, Atlantics, A1GP and even one Indy Pro race before starting his career in Champ Car. Ryan Hunter-Reay spent three years in the Barber Dodge Pro Series and one year in Atlantics before moving to Champ Car in 2003.
This little history lesson is not to bore you with the alphabet soup of all the various support series that have existed and changed names over the years. Instead, it’s to demonstrate that after the old Indy Lights under CART went defunct and the name switched over to what had been known as the Infinity/Indy Pro Series under the IRL – there was not a ton of respect given to drivers coming out of that series.
Champions under the old name included AJ Foyt IV, Mark Taylor, Thiago Medeiros, Wade Cunningham and Alex Lloyd. Of that group, Alex Lloyd probably had the most successful, albeit a short career in Indy cars – finishing sixteenth in the 2010 season while driving for Dale Coyne, which included a fourth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500. Foyt ran for his famous grandfather for a few years and spent two seasons at Vision Racing, but never finished better than fourteenth in the points despite running five fulltime seasons in IndyCar. Mark Taylor was dropped from Panther Racing halfway through his rookie year in IndyCar in 2004, but was quickly picked up by Greg Ray’s fledgling Access Motorsports – but was never heard from again. Medeiros, Cunningham and Howard each combined for eighteen total starts between the three of them.
But from the latter part of the past decade, Indy Lights started gaining attention and a little more respect. Since 2008, every Indy Lights champion has had at least one fulltime season; with the exception of 2010 champion Jean-Karl Vernay and 2013 champ Sage Karam who still opened plenty of eyes this past season. It remains to be seen what becomes of this year’s champion, Spencer Pigot.
I mentioned that Chip Ganassi at one time had an Indy Lights team. It was actually under the Indy Pro banner in 2007 and was a partnership with Integra Motorsports. It was not a success. One driver, Pablo Pérez, was severely injured at the opening race at Homestead and was not replaced. Their other driver, Chris Festa, did not win a race and finished tenth in points. After the 2008 season, Ganassi abandoned the Indy Lights project.
But now comes word that Chip Ganassi is exploring the idea of another foray into Indy Lights. It’s about time. In my opinion, this is the time to do it. Now that IndyCar no longer owns Indy Lights or any of the MRTI, it seems healthier than ever (imagine that). Since Dan Andersen took over Indy Lights, they have added new events (Laguna Seca) and a new car that is far better looking than any version of the DW12. Apparently, this new car drives and handles much more like an Indy car than the previous version Indy Lights car that had been around for more than a decade.
I’m hoping that if Chip Ganassi Racing does create an Indy Lights program that they make a long-term commitment – much longer than the two seasons they gave it last time.
Sam Schmidt and Michael Andretti have both elevated drivers from their Indy Lights program to full-time rides in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Tony Kanaan will be forty-one when the next season starts, and Scott Dixon is thirty-five. Some speculate that Kanaan’s seat will be filled by Josef Newgarden by 2017. But what about Scott Dixon’s seat when he decides to hand up his helmet? What if there are no top-notch drivers available that are also a good fit when Dixon retires?
Chip Ganassi is smart to realize he can have a hand in developing and grooming a worthy successor. They can go ahead and immerse a young driver into the culture at Ganassi along with allowing them to hone their skills under their own eye. Imagine a nineteen year-old hot shoe getting direct tutelage from Dario Franchitti and Mike Hull while also observing Scott Dixon as he wraps up his outstanding career.
Why more IndyCar teams don’t invest in their own futures is beyond me. As much of a Roger Penske fan that I am, I always thought that they were missing the boat by not grooming their own talent. They follow the model of letting the smaller teams develop talent and then poaching them, just as they did with Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish and Simon Pagenaud. Overall it has worked for them, but I’ve always wondered if they wouldn’t be more successful by starting drivers out in their system at a lower level.
For the MRTI to truly work, the ladder or feeder system needs to have a true destination. For a while, it didn’t. For the last few years, the MRTI has provided a much clearer path to the top of the ladder – the Verizon IndyCar Series. Perhaps if Ganassi becomes a key member of the MRTI, other IndyCar teams will follow suit and help turn the ladder series into a true farm system for teams to develop their talent.