Why Don’t IndyCar Regulars Run Indy Lights?

I’m usually a brown-bagger for lunch, mainly because I’m cheap – but I’ll generally treat myself to lunch out of the office on Friday’s. This past Friday, a co-worker of mine, Randy, joined me at my latest favorite Chinese restaurant (Bo-Bo’s). As are most residents of the Nashville area, Randy is a die-hard NASCAR fan. However, since we have been working together, he is a regular reader of this site and has become (at least) a casual fan of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Randy has asked some good questions about IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 in the time I have known him. They are usually questions that most casual fans don’t know the answer to. Being the hard-core fan that I am – I usually know the answers, but will gladly answer the question. I’ve always been a proponent of being very patient with new fans. I learned that after my son played high-school hockey. The transplanted parents that had been following hockey all of their lives had no time or patience for me – a native southerner who knew absolutely nothing about their sport. From that point on, I vowed to always practice patience with those that were interested enough in open-wheel racing to ask questions. No matter how elementary the question, I will always take time to explain something.

On Friday however, somewhere between the hot-sour soup and the egg roll – Randy asked me a question that I really didn’t have a good answer for. I kind of muddled through a semi-explanation that didn’t satisfy him – but I couldn’t really come back with anything else. So I’ll pose the question to you.

With the Nationwide series making its first-ever appearance at IMS on Saturday, Randy asked why no regular drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series ever run in the Firestone Indy Lights as the Sprint Cup drivers that race in the Nationwide Series do. I tried to explain how there is nothing an IndyCar driver could learn in an Indy Lights car, but he countered with asking why they would even use a car that was so different than an IndyCar. He also said that surely they could learn little nuances about the track that they could carry over to the IndyCar race and give them an advantage.

Personally, I always thought that it was NASCAR that had things wrong. In the nineties, I constantly wondered why Mark Martin would waste time and risk injury running the No. 60 for Roush Racing on Saturday and then the No. 6 on Sunday. I told Randy that NASCAR was the only racing body that regularly practiced this. You never see it in Formula One or IndyCar. I even ventured outside of my comfort zone and included NHRA just to make my point. That was shaky ground because I know nothing about NHRA and as far as I know – they might actually have drivers regularly dipping down into lower series.

Randy then let me know how well he had been doing his open-wheel homework. He threw it out that Jim Clark was fatally injured at Hockenheim while driving in a Formula Two race. Hmmm. He was throwing too much reasoning at me. I tried to shoot it down that that was almost forty-five years ago and things are different now. But deep inside, I knew I didn’t really have a good answer to his original question other than “they just don’t”.

Randy then went on to say that he would be much more inclined to watch Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon mix it up in Indy Lights over Victor Carbone going at it against Carlos Munoz. He also used the NASCAR argument that the drivers in the developmental series would learn so much more racing against a Will Power than they would going up against a Peter Dempsey. It would be a win-win. The drivers would develop much better and there would be much more interest in the series.

I finally ended the discussion with the lame comment of “well, I can tell you that it will never happen” as I quickly changed the subject to something else.

But it bothered me throughout the weekend – especially as I saw Brad Keselowski win the Nationwide race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday – that I couldn’t come up with a good reason why they don’t other than the fact that it’s always been that way. Sebastian Saavedra has split time in both series this season, but that is only because he lost his full-time ride in IndyCar after last year. As long as I’ve been following this sport, I can never recall a time when an IndyCar regular ever dipped down into Indy Lights, Atlantics or any other development series.

So who does it right? INDYCAR or NASCAR? I’m not so sure. I can come up with arguments for and against the way each series treats their development series. I know I can tell you this – although I consider myself an IndyCar die-hard, I know more about the Nationwide series in NASCAR than I do the Firestone Indy Lights in INDYCAR. Let me know your thoughts?

George Phillips

20 Responses to “Why Don’t IndyCar Regulars Run Indy Lights?”

  1. This is horrible, this idea. How many other ideas do you want to copy from Nascar?

    • Oilpressure Says:

      Ummm….I didn’t say this was a good idea. I just couldn’t come up with a good answer why it wasn’t. Other than saying it’s horrible, can you?

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    Does anyone remember the Seinfeld episode when Kramer gets a black belt in a class of kids? Need I say more? Just another reason why I have little or no interest in Nationwide. Apparently som Cup drivers enjoy being a big fish in a little pond.

    Why would a Indy Lights owner, driver, and sponsor want to go up against a Will Power each week? In virtually every sport I can think of one works his or her way to the top by coming up through minor series or leagues. Perhaps you and Randy can simply agree to disagree.

  3. OrdinaryRaceFan Says:

    I am not sure, but I belive it would have a lot to do with budgets. IndyLights/GP2/F3.5 are very expensive, but barely attract any media coverage.

    Also, the cars are quite different to each other in IndyCar/IndyLights’ and F1/GP2’s cases, so there’s perhaps not as much to learn.

    Plus, there’s always the risk of injuries.

    In an ideal world I’d love to see IndyCar and F1 drivers drive IndyLights/GP2, but I see why they don’t/don’t want/can’t. It’s too bad anyway, because as your friend Randy mentionned, it would help the feeder series massively.

    I see that Pippa Mann mentionned this article on Twitter, It would be great to hear her take on this. Surely as a driver she would have the answer to this.

    PS1: Good point about Jim Clark, but it was an other era. Almost half a century ago. Whatever the reason is, F1 drivers stopped driving in lower series long ago.

    PS2: Also, it would be great to see more drivers like Saavedra, moving back to Lights after failing to secure another IndyCar season. But once again, I would imagine there’s a budget issue. Plus, people certainly wouldn’t give you the same amount of credit if you win the championship, because you would be more experienced than your rivals.

    Motorsports is a tough environment and you don’t always get second chances. Just look at Giorgio Pantano. Drove a partial season for Jordan in 2004. Things didn’t go so well for him, so he stepped back to GP2 in 2005. He won the GP2 title in 2008. Unfortunately, he never got a second shot at F1 afterwards.

  4. OrdinaryRaceFan Says:

    Why do people think it’s such a bad idea? Just because it comes from NASCAR?

    Keep in mind that IndyLights is in a very, very bad state right now. Only 11 cars showed up at the last 2 rounds in date.

    I’m not a big fan of “Busch whackers” situations myself, but whatever can improve Lights’ media exposure, and help it gain a better status would be worth considering, IMO.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      With all due respect, I think it is a bad idea on its own merits and not just because NASCAR does it. Others here have also listed some of the practical reasons for not doing it. While I share your concerns over the long-term viability of the Lights series, I just can’t imagine how having regular IndyCar drivers participate
      would help the situation, let alone “massively”. I might watch Nationwide to watch the progress of some former dirt trackers, other women in the sport, and drivers like the Dillon brothers. However, having the “Busch whackers” racing there ruins it for me.

  5. Let Indy Lights and the Nationwide Series build their own heros. Someone said that if it weren’t for the Buschwhakers then the Nationwide Series wouldn’t make it. As an example of making it, they lost TWO races year from Nashville and how about that crowd at IMS this past Saturday? Even the NASCAR fans can see that Nationwide is second tier and there isn’t much reason to attend, even at a discount. Build it! I watch Nationwide because of Sam Hornish. Some might think that isn’t a good reason, but he is my guy so I’m in. Danica WAS a reason but she now adds nothing to the races for me. Silly NASCAR.

    • The Lapper Says:

      NASCAR is an odd one but I think I understand their thought on this. As an example, Trevor Bayne wins the Daytona 500 with a third tier team, but in reality is a Nationwide driver. On the flip side, Indy Lights driver Sebastián Saavedra had his hands full coming in 26th place at this past year’s Indianapolis 500.

  6. Different reasons for different types of drivers.

    For those who have done some time in IndyLights and who are working on funding for IndyCar, they may be just scraping by to get enough funding for the IndyCar ride, any money they divert to a lights program is reducing their opportunity to fund a program in the big cars.

    Saavedra may set a new precedent however, he is keeping himself top of mind and I think had an assumption he could return to lights, win the championship, which would give him the scholarship and be a tangible Outcome to sell to sponsors. The combination of the two might get him into a much better seat than he had with conquest.

    For the funded drivers, Read Tim Cindric’s Twitter comments from the Freedom 100. It is a damn miracle we have never had a Lights driver killed at Indy or one of the mile and a halfs. IndyCar owners may have the belief that while Nationwide cars are as safe as cup cars, Lights cars are a risk their drivers do not need to take.

    IndyCar drivers race as many non main series events as do their cup bretheren, but most of those events are sportscar or V8SC events during the off season that don’t distract from the main events.

    Here’s a simple more tangible reason in general though…About half the Lights races are on the same day as the big race. Not the case in Nationwide.

    • OrdinaryRaceFan Says:

      Good point on safety issues, the big ovals have always been scary with Lights.

      However, they are racing something like 75% of the time on road and street courses these days.

  7. Hal Bush Says:

    I bet your NASCAR friend considers Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson winning 4 Brickyards on the same level as Mears, Unser and Foyt. NOT or do we need to state why this isn’t so?

    I didn’t see a lot of folks show up on Saturday to see Danica. The race was in the “wheel house” of open wheel fans who might have wanted to see her perform. Wha happin?

  8. Why doesn’t Derek Jeter play for the Charleston River Dogs on his off days? Why doesn’t LeBron James get in some extra games with the Idaho Stampede of the D-League? Why doesn’t Tom Brady play for the Montreal Alouettes in the off-season? Why doesn’t Harrison Ford do summer stock theater at the old library in Poolie, Oklahoma?

    Because it’s the minor leagues.

  9. Tha Lapper Says:

    Dario, Scott Dixon or Will power running against the Light guys is a dangerous notion. There are no fenders to protect them from a second tier driver’s error.

  10. Savage Henry Says:

    I never saw NNS as a developmental series or part of a ladder system, as such. I see NNS and trucks as just lesser NASCAR series where drivers can either prove themselves to move up or create a career for themselves at that level. Do NNS champions get automatic advancement into Sprint Cup each year? I don’t think that they do (although I actually don’t know). Its ok for Sprint Cup drivers to race in NNS because it’s just another series and another paycheck for them to be able to cash. They may not be stealing an opportunity for another deserving driver.

    I think that since Indy Lights is explicitly part of a ladder system it would be kind of silly for drivers in the big cars to be racing down there. That would kind of defeat the purpose of the ladder system (and they may be taking a seat from someone else). However, if someone like Saavedra needs to go back down for some more seasoning, that makes sense.

    Other reasons possibly IndyCar regulars don’t race down there may include 1) safety (as stated in other comments); 2) the physical stress on driver’s bodies are much higher in open wheel than in NASCAR, would an IndyCar driver be able to hold up to double-duty on any given weekend?; 3) time – IndyCar drivers spend a lot more time on car setup and sponsor commitments than in NASCAR (according to Danica’s interview with Curt Cavin last week), would IndyCar drivers have time to do both?

    In the end, none of those reasons may be valid. However, I just don’t like the idea of major-leaguers running in the minor leagues.

  11. Steve K Says:

    F1 has a rule against racing in another series in a given weekend. This affected Jaime Alguesauri a couple years ago. He still raced in Formula Renault on non-F1 weeks when he replaced Bourdais.

    The big reason has touched on a bit is Nationwide-Trucks-Pro Series E & W-ARCA are not development series. They do some development, but the are destinations. Ron Hornaday will make the NASCAR HoF as a truck driver. They put a Modified driver in the second class! An old man just won the ARCA Race in Clermont. The old man, Frank Kimmel, has made a career out of beating young kids. You do not see old men (or women) in IndyCar or European ladder season. Those are purely development series for kids.

    Should IndyCar drivers race in IndyLights? The way things stand, no. If the Lights car were closer to the IndyCar, I could see some value in younger guys like Newgarden, JR, or Hinch racing in both. The testing ban in NASCAR has left a huge generational gap. How else can a young driver improve his craft? Brad K, Kyle, & Carl have benefitted greatly in racing in both. Joe Gibbs made a rare mistake not having Joey Logano do the same.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Good points Steve. Certainly the Indy Lights cars need to be closer in performance to IndyCars. TG Jr. is working to make that a reality, but money is very tight right now.

      In my opinion Danica should stay primarily in Nationwide for another year. I believe her crew chief just said the same. Otherwise, she may wash out of Cup just like Hornish did.

  12. Brian from NY Says:

    A couple of points George. In the 60’s, GP2 wasn’t really a developmental series. In fact often teams ran GP2 cars in F1 events. It had more to do with the rules concerning engine’s and often the GP2 cars were just as fast and on occasion were faster then some F1 cars. The drivers also ran in sportscars and series like the Tasmain series down under in the winter to make money. Your friend can’t use the Jim Clark example because it’s 50 years old, times change. Hell, Mario and AJ won the Daytona 500 back then, should IndyCar drivers be lining up to run Daytona?

    F1 has rules that bans drivers who have won championships in GP2 from competing again in that series. The reason for that is if you can win the championship in GP2 you are ready for F1. Why take a spot from another potential young driver for some old guy like Ron Hornaday or Mike Skinner in NASCAR. The fact that NASCAR doesn’t have rules preventing guys from running in a developmental series hurt them in the long run. Besides Keslowski, how many young guys have made it up the ladder from Nationwide that have made an impact in Sprint Cup in the last ten years? Where’s the future young guns of NASCAR? F1 has new guys every year that move up the ladder and make a impact. Hamiliton, Vettal, Hulkenburg, Maldanto, Senna, and Grojean are just some of the drivers in the last couple of years that have made an impact in F1.

    I also hate the argument that it’s good for the young guys to race against the veterans, BS. How is it good when the Sprint Cup guys get the best equipment, and the top crews, The Nationwide regulars are usually a half a lap behind during the race, so how are they learning anything? The sprint cup guys have a race among themselves with maybe one nationwide guy up in the top ten. The GP2 and GP3 series are so good because of the rules that keep the cars so close in performance. It’s about letting the drivers shine, not which team spends the most money. Nationwide is like Sprint Cup where the big teams (Roush, Gibbs, Earnhardt, Penske) dominate because they have the most money. It’s not a developmental series; it’s a stand alone series with a different rules package.

    Unfortunately, NASCAR will continue down this road to their detriment. I think you are starting to see the decline now. Ratings and attendance are declining, the drivers are getting older, fans are getting older, and NASCAR is trying desperately to attract young fans back to the sport. IndyCar has a similar problem as NASCAR. The lack of a good developmental series has made the series seem stale. TK, Dario, Helio, and Servia are no spring chickens. They were all driving in CART back in the day. In my mind the series with the strongest developmental series is F1. They are also the most popular and strongest race series in the world. I wonder why?

  13. I think it would be a great idea for one big reason. There are far too many drivers today who lack oval racing experience. Not too many years ago, they would not have been allowed to race. This lead to the disaster at Las Vegas last year.

    So why not have the drivers with limited experience either on ovals or road courses run in the Indy Lights. I see a win-win situation here. Better driving in the big leagues and more exposure for the minor.

  14. billytheskink Says:

    No one has mentioned the biggest reason why Cup drivers step down to the minor leagues… SPONSORS. Cup drivers who interlope into Nationwide certainly like the extra seat time and the handful of prize money to be had, but more than anything, they are there because a sponsor pays for them to be.

    As has been said, Sportsman/GrandNational/Busch/Nationwide (and Trucks) function as both development series and as destination series for those not moneyed or talented enough to stay in Cup. As NASCAR rose in the 1990s, sponsors started funding Cup drivers in Busch Grand National in order to get their name on a well-known driver’s car. They did this for at least one of two reasons, to be associated with a Cup driver at a cheaper rate and/or to be on the hood of a car driven by a Cup driver who had an unrelinquishing full-season sponsor in Cup. More sponsorship and more recognition for star drivers was good for Busch and for NASCAR as a whole, so they saw no reason to discourage this unless/until it stopped working.

    IndyCar regulars would be invading Indy Lights with regularity if there were sponsors interested in paying them to be there. It seems unlikely that will ever happen.

  15. Simon Garfunkel Says:

    It’ll never happen nor do I think it should happen. But this discussion is why I come to this site more than any other. While other bloggers try to outsnark each other, Oilpressure continues to deliver thought provoking topics. Thanks for what you do and keep up the good work George.

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