Who will step up and take Mazda’s place with the Road To Indy?
Until we have the answer, the Verizon IndyCar Series, Andersen Promotions – the company behind the junior open-wheel series – and all of its USF2000, Pro Mazda, and Indy Lights teams will be in for a stressful offseason.
As the title sponsor since 2010, IndyCar’s training series has thrived off Mazda’s annual investments in the three-tier ladder system. Critical to the growth and survival of IndyCar’s farm system, Mazda has awarded more than $12 million in scholarships to the likes of Josef Newgarden, Spencer Pigot and dozens of other college-age drivers pursuing their IndyCar dreams.
To its immense credit, Mazda’s exit strategy will honor its plans to hand out approximately $2 million in advancement dollars to this year’s MRTI champions. New USF2000 title winner Kyle Kirkwood will move up to Pro Mazda, the Pro Mazda champion will get a free ride in Indy Lights, and the Lights title winner will have $1 million to bring to an IndyCar team.
But starting in 2019, the responsibility will fall on new shoulders. In a sport where car manufacturers are incredibly territorial, the best outcome for the Road To Indy would be to identify a new sponsor whose business is far removed from the automotive world.
As IndyCar’s official pipeline for next-generation talent, a brand that skews more towards the youth who populate the RTI would be a perfect fit, but can a company be found, signed, and introduced before we reach St. Petersburg in March?
The timeline to get it done, not to mention the general timing for this new need, is a significant concern. With just over a month left in the current MRTI season, teams and drivers are looking for signs of stability before committing to a return. And for a new wave of drivers who are considering a move to the MRTI, a strategy of wait-and-see could become the norm. Strip a school of its scholarships, and it’s only natural for the student body to think twice about enrolling.
An immediate gesture from IndyCar to guarantee 2019’s scholarships while the sponsor search gets under way would settle the paddock in a critical period. Considering the undeniable importance of what Mazda and Andersen Promotions have built; 80 percent of today’s IndyCar field came up through the MRTI or its predecessors, IndyCar cannot afford to let confidence wane as the offseason approaches. If a new sponsor is found prior to 2019, the scholarships would be their responsibility to supply.
And with IndyCar working through the final stages of a sweeping cost-cutting plan designed to increase Indy Lights’ car counts, it’s also the perfect time for the series to take a greater stake in the ladder system it handed off to Andersen earlier this decade.
IndyCar’s success is interlinked with the Road To Indy, and vice versa. Having operated just outside IndyCar’s control and relied on the extreme generosity of Mazda – a brand that doesn’t compete in IndyCar – this change in title sponsorship should come as a wake-up call to the big leagues. Leaving the RTI to succeed or fail on its own is not something IndyCar can afford.