PRUETT: A new dawn for Indy Lights

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PRUETT: A new dawn for Indy Lights

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PRUETT: A new dawn for Indy Lights

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IndyCar’s Rookie of the Year in 2021 might be a 27-year-old Mustang GT racer from New Zealand or, if he opts to add ovals to his calendar and complete the full season, a 45-year-old stock car veteran. Talk about unusual times.

In any other year, the names of the rookies would be far less familiar than Australian Supercars triple champion Scott McLaughlin, who’s tipped to become a full-time Team Penske IndyCar driver next season, and seven-time NASCAR Cup title winner Jimmie Johnson, who is expected to race for Chip Ganassi on IndyCar’s road and street courses.

And in normal times, their ages would preclude most from buying alcohol, but with the cancellation of the 2020 Indy Lights season, the pipeline of next-generation talent headed for the big series has been temporarily interrupted. With 2021 likely to serve as an outlier for RoY competition, the good news is found in the upcoming return of Indy Lights with a variety of enhancements and enticements to grow its diminished grid.

Announced last week, the new plan for Indy Lights includes a number of small details that, on their own, would not be expected to have much of an impact on improving the series’ health, but together, they represent something important from promoter Andersen Promotions, and Penske Entertainment.

From the 25-percent increase in IndyCar advancement prize money for the 2021 Lights champion, to awarding the top three a free IndyCar test, to adding a titanium safety halo to the cockpit, teams have been given more to offer young drivers while negotiating with their parents and sponsors. Another initiative, which is far from finished, involves an effort by Roger Penske to offer financial incentives for IndyCar team owners to branch out into Indy Lights with new programs, or form partnership deals with existing teams.

Altogether, the work put in and the investments made by the Road To Indy and IndyCar have delivered heightened optimism for the series’ future at a crucial time in its existence.

“It’s all very, very significant,” reigning IndyCar champion and 2011 Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden told RACER. “And if I know Roger, this is only the start. When he starts something, he sees it through to the end, so he’s going to make sure to follow up all the way to the finish line. It’s super encouraging for the next generation of open-wheel drivers that are looking to reach the IndyCar Series. When I was involved in the Road To Indy, it was the place to be that offered a vision to the younger generation.

“So, I’m not surprised whatsoever to see the increased support coming from Roger and IndyCar, because they understand the value of having that Indy Lights championship intact and functioning properly.”

Like Newgarden, the announcement was met by Indy Lights team owners and managers with a significant level of optimism.

“Indy Lights has been such a phenomenal program for drivers who want to be IndyCar drivers, and if you look at the field right now, four of the top five in the championship came from Lights, and three of them are Lights champions,” said Brian Belardi, owner of the Belardi Auto Racing outfit, whose team won the 2014 championship with Gabby Chaves.

“So, we’re ramping up. We’re getting the band back together, if you will. We have two confirmed drivers. We have a third car, we’re looking to fill that, we will be looking immediately. And we’re looking forward to the future. And I’m glad Roger Penske and Dan Andersen came to an agreement, because I think the new enhancements do help. The IndyCar test for the top three is pretty big, and I know that that alone will bring attention from drivers.”

Having captured the 2015 Lights title with Spencer Pigot and the 2017 championship with Kyle Kaiser, Ricardo Juncos is another team owner whose annual plans are built around the Road To Indy. And with a new championship in hand after Sting Ray Robb earned the 2020 Indy Pro 2000 title last weekend, along with the Indy Lights advancement prize that comes with it, there’s a hope to continue with the young American, and others, in a multi-car Lights program.

Two-time Indy Lights championship-winning team owner Juncos thinks that the latest overhauls are exactly what’s needed to kick-start the series again. LePage/Motorsport Images

“It’s great news with Indy Lights and exactly what we needed,” Juncos said. “The prize money, the tests, and the updates to the car are all good. We are talking to drivers and intend to go back to Indy Lights. With Sting Ray winning the championship, hopefully he stays with us, but that is his decision. But we are working hard to go back, no matter that.”

The plans and stability presented by Penske and Andersen have also led to a quick commitment from the back-to-back Lights champions at Andretti Autosport.

“Happy and relieved that we can all move forward,” said Andretti COO Rob Edwards. “We’ll actually be back with four cars. A lot of the drivers that were in the cars at St. Petersburg (in March) have agreements to continue and want to continue and are excited to get going. And with the announcements we’ve heard, they’re all positives. I think the safety aspect with the new halo, has obviously been on everyone’s mind as something we’ve needed.

“And look at the gains in IndyCar this year and in other similar series around the world to Indy Lights, that’s clearly something that you can get addressed with the safety improvement coming to Lights. And with the other increases in money and tests, and all of that, I think that helps every team in what they’re trying to do with putting more cars onto the grid. The prize has always been very focused on the guy that wins the championship getting some help to move forward, but that’s about it, and only one person can win.”

Edwards is particularly keen on the free IndyCar tests that await the top three finishers in the 2021 championship.

“That genuinely will help,” he said. “Because it takes away the winner-takes-all approach, in that more people will get the opportunity to show what they can do in an Indy car. When there’s only one prize for all, it has the ability to limit things in ways that aren’t favorable. Now, there’s more things for drivers to earn, even if they don’t win the championship, and who knows, some new relationships between (IndyCar) teams and (Indy Lights) drivers could develop from those tests. We’ve seen it happen before.

“I think that enough (IndyCar) team owners are cognizant enough of, whilst the Indy Lights field may not have been plentiful in car count over the last few years, the talent amongst the top few drivers has been fantastic, and I think that’s shown by how they’ve been able to make the transition.”

If all of the current Indy Lights teams, and some that are said to be considering returns, appear at the season opener, launching the season with a double-digit field is more than possible. But if the car count is going to have a noticeable increase, more IndyCar teams will need to follow Andretti’s model and connect with the Road To Indy.

Chip Ganassi’s first foray into team ownership came in 1988 with Indy Lights. He’d return to the series for a second stint in the mid-2000s, and says the idea of partnering with an existing team for a third spell could, if the new plans bear fruit, be worthy of future consideration.

“We won the first Indy Lights race we entered with Michael Greenfield at Pocono as our driver,”he recalled. “I’d never say never. I’m open to the idea, but I’d want to see some more progress with the car counts going up before I’d really look at it seriously.”

Prior to its exit from Indy Lights, Sam Schmidt’s team captured seven championships from 2004-2013, and established itself as the top program in the series. With its recent focus on IndyCar under the Arrow McLaren SP banner, AMSP is not expected to rejoin the Indy Lights paddock in the short term, but general manager Taylor Kiel says it’s on the team’s radar.

Sage Karam delivered Schmidt its seventh Lights championship in 2013 before it withdrew. Might the new rules be enough to tempt the team back? Road to Indy

“There’s a lot of positive news coming out of Indy Lights,” he said. “Our foundation is built upon Indy Lights success. Is that a part of our immediate-terms plans? We’ll keep an eye on it. It’s a great proving ground for drivers, and mechanics, and engineers, and has been a really important tool to expand our profile in racing and strengthen ourselves from within.

“When we pulled out a few years ago, it was starting to drain things financially, and we’ve kept an eye on it every since to hope it becomes a place to return to when the time was right. Having Roger Penske’s influence is a great first step, and we’ll keep looking for any opportunities that arise.”

For Juncos, whose IndyCar effort has declined in favor of his Road To Indy offerings, creating a link with a full-time IndyCar team to give it a presence in Indy Lights would be welcome.

“I’m open to anything,” he said. “IndyCar is too difficult sometimes, and we hope to put some money together do a few races next year, but I’m open to whatever, if a IndyCar team wants to work with us in Indy Lights, and Indy Pro 2000. The whole program is here, and very successful.”

Belardi worked with Schmidt and co-owner Ric Peterson in 2017 through an official alliance between the IndyCar and Indy Lights teams. He’s also branched out into co-entering an Indy 500 effort in recent years, including August’s race where Belardi Auto Racing was involved with James Davison’s car at Dale Coyne Racing. Whether it happens as a formal program instituted by IndyCar and Indy Lights, or he concludes an independent deal of his own, Belardi intends to form a new relationship that serves as a bridge that serves both parties.

“I would certainly welcome it, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen in a formal way; I’ve heard rumors one way or the other,” he said. “I’ve actually, when I was at the Indy 500 this year, started discussing that with a couple of team owners there. I don’t know how committed they are to actually getting into Indy Lights, but we’ll see, and I think that’s a great idea, honestly.”

With more to offer young drivers at the negotiating table, Edwards believes Andretti Autosport and the rest of the Indy Lights paddock will start to look like its former self in the coming years.

“I think the increased prize money is important, but I think the more important thing is that there will be Indy Lights next year and everyone can see there’s real commitment behind it from motivated individuals,” he said. “So, I think the car count will increase incrementally. But we have to be reasonable with our expectations; isn’t going to double overnight. But even if it’s incremental, and say, we start with 10 to 12 cars in 2021. And then I think you could realistically see it being 12 to 14 the following year, which is certainly possible, and then you start to turn the corner.”

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