For winning the 2014 Indy Lights championship, Gabby Chaves was awarded $1 million as a scholarship to secure a guaranteed seat in the 2015 Indianapolis 500 and two other races on the IndyCar calendar. The advancement prize initiative was initially conceived by Mazda Motorsports, and was taken to a new level in Indy Lights by IndyCar and Andersen Promotion, its then-new Indy Lights administrator for the Indy Lights series.
Through 2021, the final year of Andersen Promotions’ control of Indy Lights, IndyCar contributed $500,000 to the scholarship and Andersen — along with partners such as Mazda and Cooper Tires — covered the rest of the prize, reaching $1.2 million for 2021 Lights champion Kyle Kirkwood.
Linus Lundqvist, the new champion of the Indy Lights series now owned and solely run by Penske Entertainment, and a number of those in the Lights paddock, were surprised last weekend to learn his scholarship fund to try and reach IndyCar next season was slashed to $500,000.
The former guarantees of competing in the Indy 500 and two other races were also dropped, leaving the talented Swede with less of an advancement prize than new Indy Pro 2000 champion Louis Foster, who received a package from Andersen Promotions worth $614,425 to make the step up to a season of Indy Lights. He duly signed with Andretti Autosport for 2023.
From a year-to-year basis, the reduced Indy Lights graduation package represents a 58 percent cut in support for the new champion. As well, with the price of one-off Indy 500 rides climbing to $800,000 or more last May, the $500,000 would not be enough on its own for Lundqvist or any future champion to participate in IndyCar’s marquee event. RACER understands that Lundqvist will be able to defer his prize until 2024 if he is unable to land an IndyCar ride for next year.
The step backwards comes at an awkward time as the series is set to go racing next season with its largest field of entries in more than a decade. The $1 million-plus scholarship and guarantees of racing at Indy and other rounds has been a significant draw to date.
According to those in the Indy Lights paddock who recounted a meeting with the new series leadership at the end of October last year during the Chris Griffis Memorial test, team owners were told that while the exact contents of package was still to be determined, the $1.2 million champion’s advancement prize would either stay the same or increase in 2022.
In January, a memo was distributed to teams confirming the return of prize money being paid to the top four finishers at every race along with the $500,000 that would be committed to the upcoming champion’s IndyCar scholarship. Based on the meeting from October, those who spoke with RACER said there was an expectation — albeit undefined in the memo — for other the entitlements, possibly in the form of a free IndyCar engine lease and/or a free Firestone tire lease, to complement the cash prize for the champion.
In the form of free engines or tires, the total scholarship would have exceeded $1.2 million, but as last weekend’s IndyCar and Indy Lights celebration at the IMS Museum confirmed, Lundqvist received $500,000, and a painting from renowned IndyCar starter and artist Jim Swintal, as his advancement package.
Speaking with Indy Lights director Levi Jones, he says the decision was made to take the rough equivalent of what was handed to the champion by the former series promoter and give it to its teams.
“My understanding is while it was under Andersen Promotions, IndyCar always contributed $500,000 to the championship scholarship,” Jones told RACER. “And that is still the same. The team that would receive the scholarship is paid $500,000 from IndyCar.
“The other side of that, which I think gets lost in the shuffle, would be the race purses. There were no race purses before we took the series back. So this year, we had $735,000 paid out in the 14 races. So that that number of $735,000 and the $500,000 is where that money is at.”
Under the new plan, teams received $20,000 to win, $15,000 for second, $10,000 for third and $5000 for a fourth-place finish. If drivers received a percentage of those winnings, those negotiations would have taken place with their respective teams beforehand.
Asked why the series did not follow its equal-or-greater champion’s scholarship message to teams from October, Jones said, “As a series, we’re always looking at where we need to evaluate, where things are good, where things need to be looked at. So, that’s where we’re at on that.”
Andretti Autosport president JF Thormann, whose team has been committed to Indy Lights longer than any other entrant, has been the prime mover with the outfit’s Road to Indy programs and is struggling to find the positives in the series’ new method of rewarding its champions.
“I was very surprised by it,” Thormann said. “We’ve been such advocates for Lights; we were there with four cars when there were only seven total in the series. Michael [Andretti] has been really the biggest supporter of the series and a firm believer in developing young talent. And now, all of a sudden, to some of the champions that don’t have much, this new approach makes it more challenging, I think, to slot the champion into IndyCar.”
Andretti’s team — like the other entrants — has used the possibility of winning the sizable advancement prize and three guaranteed IndyCar races as a major enticement to attract young talent and their parents/sponsors to fund their participation in the Lights series.
“It used to be one of our biggest selling points — the fact that we had an IndyCar team and that winning the [Lights] championship would help get you into IndyCar,” said Thormann, whose team produced three of the last four Lights champions.
“So yeah, there’ll be a new challenge for us. It seems as if there are going to be more people on the grid next year, although I don’t know if they committed before learning of this new prize system or not.”
Although the loss of $720,000 for the Indy Lights champion has created an unwelcome complication in delivering next-generation talent to IndyCar, the redistribution of those funds to teams through prize money has helped in one regard.
RACER has learned that in select instances, one or more teams are open to offering a slight drop in the $1-1.5 million needed to do a full season of Indy Lights. Depending on the caliber of driver, this willingness to offer a modest discount is based upon the projection of receiving increased income from prize money if numerous races are won.