PRUETT: Ladder talent on display from Le Mans to Toronto

PRUETT: Ladder talent on display from Le Mans to Toronto

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Ladder talent on display from Le Mans to Toronto


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Motor racing gave us many reasons to smile last Sunday, and two drivers in particular stood out as shining examples of all that’s right in the world of road racing.

On the streets of Toronto, it was CFH Racing’s Josef Newgarden continuing his rise in the Verizon IndyCar Series after winning his second race in a span of two months with the No. 67 Chevy. The 2011 Firestone Indy Lights champion also affirmed his place as the most successful driver to take his advancement prize from the Mazda Road To Indy and forge an enduring career in IndyCar.

Four seasons into a leadership role with Sarah Fisher, Wink Hartman, and Ed Carpenter, Newgarden holds eighth place in the IndyCar standings and continues to serve as a perfect representation of what young racers can achieve on the open-wheel ladder.

3700 miles away at Le Mans, Corvette Racing’s Jordan Taylor was also making a statement over a 24-hour span in his No. 64 Corvette C7.R where he stood on the top step of the GTE-Pro podium with teammates Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner. Taylor, whose career centered on sports cars, wasn’t as fortunate as Newgarden to have a formal ladder system and advancement prizes to ease his path to the top.

But he did have the next best thing a young endurance driver could ask for – the support of General Motors.

Whether it’s the 24-year-old Newgarden earning his breakthrough IndyCar win in April and adding another in June, or fellow 24-year-old Taylor, whose domestic sports car championship at 22 now sits in the shadow of his international achievement at Le Mans, we have a mix of formal and informal farm systems to thank for their elevated positions in the sport.

“The ladder does work,” Newgarden said after Toronto. “I think it’s worked for a while, and there’s been more structure put in place over the last four or five years for sure. It’s really solidified what the ladder is, how the ladder works, and what you’ve got to do to get to the top step of IndyCar.”

The kid from Tennessee is, to be fair, somewhat of an exception among Indy Lights champions making the move to IndyCar. His title came with a little bit of money to offer teams, but it wasn’t enough to secure a full season ride. The timing was right with Fisher and Hartman in 2012 as the small team embarked on its first complete championship run, and Newgarden wasn’t asked to bring an armored truck full of money to drive. An emerging team took a shot on a rookie driver, and with the recent merger with Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden is hitting his stride.

Unlike 2012 Lights champion Tristan Vautier who struggled to pay for his IndyCar seat with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2013 (and didn’t have the funds to return in 2014), or 2013 Lights champ Sage Karam, who was mostly idle before a part-time drive with Chip Ganassi Racing materialized in 2015, Newgarden’s Mazda Road To Indy story has been straightforward.

He won the title, was hired to drive, and has gone from strength to strength – looking every bit the future IndyCar star. Without the ladder, Newgarden says he could be little more than a footnote in the annals of Indy Lights.

“I think the ladder is what got me hired, to be honest,” he declared. “From everything I know, the reason Sarah and Wink hired me originally was because of what they saw me doing in Indy Lights as part of the ladder. That is the reason I got hired.

“Without the ladder being in place, maybe I would never have gotten hired. I don’t think any other IndyCar owners out there were really interested in me. The ladder gave me an opportunity to perform on a big stage, and I might not have done that if the ladder wasn’t around. There’s probably a lot to be said for that.”

If Vautier and Karam represent the more common “money first” side of the ladder, 2014 Lights champion Gabby Chaves could be an indicator of a more positive direction taking hold.

With the same modest advancement prize in hand, and a smaller cache of personal sponsors to ease the transition, Chaves graduated directly to IndyCar with Bryan Herta Autosport and currently leads the Rookie of The Year standings. It’s too soon to tell whether the 21-year-old will have the means or opportunity to stay in IndyCar after 2015, but his immediate leap to the big series says a lot about the value of Mazda’s Road to Indy.

In Taylor’s case, it took faith and interest from GM to safeguard his formative years in sports car racing. In the absence of cash prizes and guaranteed free rides at each level, Taylor was placed in factory-assisted GM programs where he could develop at his own pace. As Taylor reached his peak within each team or class, a new challenge was presented to the Floridian, and as the second-generation driver has repeatedly shown, GM made a wise investment.

“It all started in 2010 in Grand-Am; I was supposed to do a full season with Racers Edge and their Mazda RX-8, the season had been going up and down, we had three poles, two podiums and I qualified in the front row seven times, but we weren’t getting race results,” Taylor said.

“At the second to last race of the season we had an engine blow, we weren’t going to make the race, and we weren’t planning on making the final race at Miller Motorsports Park (ABOVE). Then Jim Lutz, who represents GM at the track, came up to my dad and said that Autohaus Motorsports was bringing their Pratt & Miller Camaro back to Miller and asked if I was interested in joining them. That’s where it began.”

Playing the role of talent spotters, Lutz, GM Racing boss Mark Kent and others within their team noticed Taylor’s stellar performances driving for a low-buck rival in Rolex GT, then stepped in to ensure the 19-year-old’s career wasn’t derailed by a lack of opportunities. Five years later, GM has a Bowtie-branded champion in the family who played a crucial part in capturing the Corvette C7.R’s first win last weekend at the world’s biggest race.

“That race at Miller turned around my career because I’ve been with Pratt & Miller and GM ever since,” Taylor noted. “I stayed with Autohaus Motorsports, then they added me to Corvette Racing…and I had just turned 20. It was extremely intimidating going into a team like that with only one full season of GT racing under my belt.

“Now I look back and driving with my brother in a Corvette Daytona Prototype, driving for the Corvette Racing team, and being part of the Le Mans team where every year has gotten better and better for me – fifth the first year, then fourth, second last year, and winning it this year. It has been like a dream come true. I wouldn’t be here doing what I am today without GM.”

Making sure the next Newgardens and Taylors are the rule, rather than the exception, will require improvements in open-wheel racing and in sports cars.

Mazda spends millions each year to provide free rides to kids working their way into USF2000, Pro Mazda, and the top of the ladder in the Cooper Tires-shod Indy Lights series. The Japanese manufacturer handles every level of tuition for open-wheel’s college ball, but when it comes time to hit the big leagues, the Verizon IndyCar Series takes over the scholarship baton.

Mazda commits considerable sums to provide the USF2000 champ a free seat in Pro Mazda (LEFT), and the Pro Mazda champ a cost-free drive in Indy Lights, but when it comes to forking out the $6 million needed to secure a top IndyCar ride, IndyCar’s financial aid – a moving target that comes in below $1 million each year – is in dire need of help.

The series must place a greater emphasis on bringing sponsors to the Indy Lights graduation party. Current Indy Lights points leader Jack Harvey, Spencer Pigot, or Ed Jones could earn the championship this year, and while their contemporaries in college stick-and-ball sports wait and wonder where they’ll go in the draft, or how many millions of dollars will be contained within their rookie contracts, they’ll be searching for millions to continue their careers in IndyCar.

Become the top amateur, then scramble to find a small fortune to continue as a pro…it’s a bizarre phenomenon reserved for the best young drivers that isn’t found in other sports. Despite the flawed nature of this pay-to-work dynamic, it exists, and acts as a barrier that knocks too many drivers off the ladder after Indy Lights.

Knowing the troubles some recent Lights champions have encountered on the way to IndyCar, and with many of IndyCar’s leading drivers edging towards retirement, the series would be doing itself a favor by bolstering its Indy Lights stipend to at least 40 percent of an annual budget. A free season of tires from Firestone? A free engine lease from Chevy or Honda? Give a kid some money to offer and the ability for a team to eliminate two major expenses, and the graduation rate would soar. And why not look to expand the support to the top two or three in the championship, with decreasing tiers of financial support?

IndyCar has plenty of problems to solve at the moment, and most are bigger than the shortfall in support for the next wave of Indy Lights champions, but in the bigger picture, it’s another core concern to be addressed.

Mazda has a similar ladder system in sports car racing where drivers can win their way to drive bigger and faster Mazdas, but a proper, equal opportunity “Road To Sebring” or “Road To Le Mans” does not exist within IMSA. The Porsche GT3 Cup champion isn’t awarded a free season in a TUDOR Championship GT Daytona Porsche, just as the IMSA Prototype Lites (RIGHT) champ isn’t placed in a free PC or Prototype seat.

The lack of an official sports car ladder is less of a concern due to the lower costs to compete and the greater number of open seats, and as a result, the influx of sports car talent into IMSA on an annual basis far exceeds IndyCar’s rookie class. Between the two series, IndyCar has the bigger graduation gap to fix, but IMSA also has work to do.

Taylor’s fortuitous position within GM should be the blueprint for IMSA to develop inside its manufacturer-rich series. If half the automotive brands competing in the TUDOR Championship adopted their version of a Jordan Taylor and made sure he or she had a chance to earn their way to the top, sports car racing would add a missing piece to its foundation.

IMSA lacks star power among its drivers, and has far too few young stars to promote. The Joey Hands and Dane Camerons fell off the open-wheel trail years ago and had no other options to consider, and at present, the brightest talent tends to come from Mazda’s Road To Indy. Developing purebred sports car talent from top to bottom is the only option for IMSA unless it wants to continue its reliance on young open-wheelers to claim most of the paying drives.

Merit-based opportunities are becoming increasingly rare in road racing. We have Mazda and GM to thank for the drivers that stood atop podiums in Canada and France last weekend, and provided IndyCar and IMSA build upon the efforts of those manufacturers, more Newgardens and Taylors will follow in their footsteps.