Open Wheel Wednesday · Matt Stallknecht · Wednesday August 8, 2012
It is no secret that the sport of racing has a number of fundamental differences from the stick and ball sports that we all know and love. One of these chief differences that often gets overlooked is the fact that, unlike a sport such as football which has a very clearly defined ladder to the elite leagues, racing doesn’t have a singe path to the top. In stick-and-ball sports, you start out playing for the local pee wee team, you move on to play in high school, and then, if you’re a standout, you play at a top college, and then finally, that 1% who are truly exceptional moves on to the NFL. Racing has no clearly defined path. You might start in go-karts, or maybe you run local street stocks or even do some SCCA club racing or start in the off-road or sprint car ranks. From there, money permitting, you might move on to a Skip Barber car if you fancy some open wheel racing or a late model if stock cars are you’re thing. After that, things start to get murky.
IndyCar racing, however, is a bit different. Unlike other pro racing leagues such as NASCAR and F1, INDYCAR not only has a clearly defined path to it’s main series, it also is set up so that the yearly champion of each series is guaranteed a ride in the next higher series on the ladder for the following season. This program is known as the Mazda Road to Indy, and it is, in this writer’s humble opinion, the best driver development system in all of racing. It certainly isn’t perfect, and to get in on the ground floor in the bottom rung U.S. F2000 Series, a driver is still going to need a good deal of experience and perhaps a little monetary assistance. But once you get there, you are guaranteed a chance to continue leveling up so long as you can win.
The Mazda Road to Indy program offers a scholarship for the championship driver to use for a ride in the next levels for the next season. The program starts in the U.S F2000 Series. The next step after that is the Star Mazda Series, then Indy Lights, and then, a driver finally progresses to the IZOD IndyCar Series. If done correctly, a sufficiently talented driver could reach INDYCAR’s top level in 3 seasons this way, perhaps even sooner if they earn a ride simply from getting noticed. Like I said, it’s in no way perfect (the drivers who don’t win championships have to rely on outside sponsorships and hope that someone in a higher series notices them), but it’s far better than what any other series is promoting (cough NASCAR cough).
The thing that boggles my mind, however, is that no one seems to really take notice to how brilliant this little system is and just how much it’s helping aspiring IZOD IndyCar Series drivers. In fact, I’m fairly certain that most fans and media members are not even aware that such a program exists. This is the next step for INDYCAR and their driver development program, they must find new and creative ways to bolster their promotional efforts for these junior series. It’s not enough to just boast that Driver X was a success story, they need to really promote this thing so that the sponsors continue to support the program and to ensure that each series remains viable.
Josef Newgarden and J.R. Hildebrand are the two latest drivers to find success via the Road to Indy program, and it is likely that neither driver would be where they are today had it not been for the program. Newgarden’s scholarship, which he earned for winning the 2011 Indy Lights Series, is what is primarily funding his ride at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Esteban Gutierrez and Tristan Vautier are the two drivers vying for the Indy Lights title this season, and the winner will get to boast about being the latest success story of the Mazda Road to Indy program. Vautier in particular has already benefited, as his championship run in the 2011 Star Mazda Series granted him a scholarship to run Indy Lights this year.
Driver development will always be murky and tough to streamline in a world of racing in which dollar signs often trump pure talent in furthering a driver’s career. I give big kudos to INDYCAR, though, for taking the bull by the horns and doing what it can to make sure that top performing drivers get to ascend the ranks. Other professional racing series ought to take a hard look at what INDYCAR is doing and adopt it in some form for themselves. INDYCAR has made a lot of mistakes over the years in an attempt to rectify it’s image in the eye’s of the racing community. The Mazda Road to Indy program, however, is a step in the right direction, and its about time someone took notice.
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