The good news is Mazda’s Road To Indy, and Indy Lights, its top step of the open-wheel training ladder, is working. Coming out of the 2017 season, champion Kyle Kaiser, plus race winners Zach Veach, Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman De Melo, will find themselves on the grid to open the Verizon IndyCar Series championship at St. Petersburg.
The bad news is with approximately 25 percent of last year’s drivers graduating to IndyCar, plus fewer Lights seats available in 2018, the car count for next week’s season opener at St. Pete will be lower than optimal.
As Indy Lights embarks on its 33rd championship run, Andretti Autosport is back with its four cars (one run in conjunction with Steinbrenner Racing), Belardi Racing has two confirmed so far, and Juncos Racing – the defending title winners – have three drivers set for the full season. Those nine will hopefully be joined by Carlin Racing, which ran four cars last year but have yet to confirm its return.
Team owner Trevor Carlin, whose Florida-based squad made the jump to IndyCar for 2018, recently stated his intent to field two Indy Lights cars, and Team Pelfrey, which ran a pair of entries in 2017, is known to be actively seeking championship-caliber drivers to fill one or more of its semi-funded seats.
Add in Indy Lights drivers like Neil Alberico, Shelby Blackstock and Nico Jamin who are exploring options to continue, and getting to a dozen drivers for St. Pete is possible, but many details would need to be sorted with the first event just over a week away.
“I’d be happy if we had 10 cars at St. Pete, but that might be optimistic,” series owner Dan Andersen told RACER. “We’ve had a pretty amazing record of moving drivers into IndyCar, and this year is one of them – a high-water mark, but IndyCar has also, in an interesting way, become our toughest competition.”
Whether it’s Lights drivers passing on making a return in order to use their budgets for a partial IndyCar season, or young drivers coming to the U.S. from other open-wheel categories and bypassing Lights for similar part-time IndyCar rides, Andersen hopes the trend does not become routine.
“We have some IndyCar teams making sweetheart deals for a lot of young drivers who’d otherwise be in Indy Lights this year, but I think it’s going to turn out to be more of a short-term thing than a regular occurrence,” he said.
“There are some new teams looking to come together for 2019, so I don’t think car counts will be as much of a worry. And we’ve had our teams this year doing a phenomenal job to go out and find young talent, but we need more.”
Andersen is confident the $1 million prize from Mazda for winning the Indy Lights championship will draw more drivers to the series.
“Even if we have a dip in entries right now, I expect more to be in the field shortly, and we have team owners like Dale Pelfrey and Brian Belardi and Ricardo Juncos who have winning cars available for drivers to jump into and go for that million dollars,” he added. “It’s the only championship like it in the world to offer a big prize like that, and there’s value here that our owners can offer than no one else can. We just need to get more people to recognize it.”