Developing A True IndyCar Farm System

Over the years, I’ve never hidden the fact that I don’t follow the various ladder series for the Verizon IndyCar Series. One reason was that in the past, it was too fragmented and had no direction. In recent years, it’s been all consolidated under the Mazda Road To Indy program, or MRTI. This consolidation gave the entire ladder system the clarity that it needed. USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights is now the clear path to the Verizon IndyCar Series…or is it?

A few years after the old IRL first split from CART, they formed what was then called the Infinity Pro Series. Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti-Green, AJ Foyt Enterprises, Panther Racing and John Menard all had entries in the fledgling series which was designed to be a feeder series into the IndyCar Series.

Nowadays, the only IndyCar teams that participate in what is now Indy Lights are Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. This past season, Sam Schmidt had four full-time entries, while Michael Andretti had one. That’s hardly what I would call a farm system.

The idea is to grow talent within the framework of the MRTI and promote through the ranks. It’s a pretty simple concept. Yet so many teams pluck their talent from many of the obscure global feeder series, even though the results have been mixed. Why that is, I have no idea. When you look at the plethora of current drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series that came out of Indy Lights, you would think more teams would opt to harvest their future talent from the MRTI.

Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, JR Hildebrand, Carlos Muñoz, Gabby Chaves, Jack Hawksworth, Sage Karam, Tristan Vautier, Sebastian Saavedra, Pippa Mann and James Davison are all drivers that drove in 2015 and are all fairly recent graduates (since 2010) of Indy Lights, having spent at least one full season there. Ed Carpenter drove in the Infiniti Pro Series in 2002 and 2003, but I don’t consider him a very recent graduate. I’m also not counting Marco Andretti’s partial 2005 season. Of course, if you really want to get technical Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Townsend Bell are also Indy Lights graduates; but that was under the sanctioning of CART.

Yet so many teams look outside of the MRTI for young talent. Conor Daly has driven in a handful of Indy Lights races, but the bulk of his recent experience has been in GP3 and GP2. James Jakes dwelled in GP2 Asia and GP3, before moving to IndyCar in 2011. Simon Pagenaud was in Formula Renault 3.5 before going to Atlantics and Champ Car and a detour to ALMS, before settling into IndyCar. Will Power also spent time in Formula Renault 3.5 and A1GP before Champ Car and ultimately IndyCar. In the nineties, Juan Montoya cut his teeth in Formula 3000 before being plucked by Chip Ganassi for his CART team. Graham Rahal spent time in Formula BMW, Star Mazda, Atlantics, A1GP and even one Indy Pro race before starting his career in Champ Car. Ryan Hunter-Reay spent three years in the Barber Dodge Pro Series and one year in Atlantics before moving to Champ Car in 2003.

This little history lesson is not to bore you with the alphabet soup of all the various support series that have existed and changed names over the years. Instead, it’s to demonstrate that after the old Indy Lights under CART went defunct and the name switched over to what had been known as the Infinity/Indy Pro Series under the IRL – there was not a ton of respect given to drivers coming out of that series.

Champions under the old name included AJ Foyt IV, Mark Taylor, Thiago Medeiros, Wade Cunningham and Alex Lloyd. Of that group, Alex Lloyd probably had the most successful, albeit a short career in Indy cars – finishing sixteenth in the 2010 season while driving for Dale Coyne, which included a fourth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500. Foyt ran for his famous grandfather for a few years and spent two seasons at Vision Racing, but never finished better than fourteenth in the points despite running five fulltime seasons in IndyCar. Mark Taylor was dropped from Panther Racing halfway through his rookie year in IndyCar in 2004, but was quickly picked up by Greg Ray’s fledgling Access Motorsports – but was never heard from again. Medeiros, Cunningham and Howard each combined for eighteen total starts between the three of them.

But from the latter part of the past decade, Indy Lights started gaining attention and a little more respect. Since 2008, every Indy Lights champion has had at least one fulltime season; with the exception of 2010 champion Jean-Karl Vernay and 2013 champ Sage Karam who still opened plenty of eyes this past season. It remains to be seen what becomes of this year’s champion, Spencer Pigot.

I mentioned that Chip Ganassi at one time had an Indy Lights team. It was actually under the Indy Pro banner in 2007 and was a partnership with Integra Motorsports. It was not a success. One driver, Pablo Pérez, was severely injured at the opening race at Homestead and was not replaced. Their other driver, Chris Festa, did not win a race and finished tenth in points. After the 2008 season, Ganassi abandoned the Indy Lights project.

But now comes word that Chip Ganassi is exploring the idea of another foray into Indy Lights. It’s about time. In my opinion, this is the time to do it. Now that IndyCar no longer owns Indy Lights or any of the MRTI, it seems healthier than ever (imagine that). Since Dan Andersen took over Indy Lights, they have added new events (Laguna Seca) and a new car that is far better looking than any version of the DW12. Apparently, this new car drives and handles much more like an Indy car than the previous version Indy Lights car that had been around for more than a decade.

I’m hoping that if Chip Ganassi Racing does create an Indy Lights program that they make a long-term commitment – much longer than the two seasons they gave it last time.

Sam Schmidt and Michael Andretti have both elevated drivers from their Indy Lights program to full-time rides in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Tony Kanaan will be forty-one when the next season starts, and Scott Dixon is thirty-five. Some speculate that Kanaan’s seat will be filled by Josef Newgarden by 2017. But what about Scott Dixon’s seat when he decides to hand up his helmet? What if there are no top-notch drivers available that are also a good fit when Dixon retires?

Chip Ganassi is smart to realize he can have a hand in developing and grooming a worthy successor. They can go ahead and immerse a young driver into the culture at Ganassi along with allowing them to hone their skills under their own eye. Imagine a nineteen year-old hot shoe getting direct tutelage from Dario Franchitti and Mike Hull while also observing Scott Dixon as he wraps up his outstanding career.

Why more IndyCar teams don’t invest in their own futures is beyond me. As much of a Roger Penske fan that I am, I always thought that they were missing the boat by not grooming their own talent. They follow the model of letting the smaller teams develop talent and then poaching them, just as they did with Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish and Simon Pagenaud. Overall it has worked for them, but I’ve always wondered if they wouldn’t be more successful by starting drivers out in their system at a lower level.

For the MRTI to truly work, the ladder or feeder system needs to have a true destination. For a while, it didn’t. For the last few years, the MRTI has provided a much clearer path to the top of the ladder – the Verizon IndyCar Series. Perhaps if Ganassi becomes a key member of the MRTI, other IndyCar teams will follow suit and help turn the ladder series into a true farm system for teams to develop their talent.

George Phillips

18 Responses to “Developing A True IndyCar Farm System”

  1. I will admit to being much like you in regards to the feeder series. It seemed to be too complex to bother dealing with learning the various teams and drivers, and who really cared anyway, but the past few years I gradually started noticing some fantastic racing from the MRTI and my interest grew. I started following a few of the drivers/teams, then met several who work in the series, then the new cars appeared and I was hooked. I may not follow as closely as IndyCar but with the structured system they now have it makes it interesting and easier to follow a drivers career growth. I love the way it is being run and hope it continues to grow. I think all top level teams are starting to notice how efficient it is and how it will allow them to groom and control talented drivers growth at a pace that works better for everyone.

  2. George, you seem to have done much research, as you say that you haven’t been a follower of Infiniti Pro Series and Indy Lights. Kudos to you.
    I was thinking days ago about Sage Karam, J.K. Vernay, Stefan Wilson, Peter Dempsey, and Alex Lloyd not going far in the IndyCar Series. I’m disappointed, and I surmise that they have been disheartened.
    Karam may go race sports cars for Ganasssi, as said. But the rest of the open-wheel racers whom some of us had enjoyed following on the road-to-Indy ladder, such as your friend Pippa Mann …

    But how can every Indy Lights graduate, or even every Indy Lights champion, find a seat in the IndyCar Series while the ‘old-guard’ won’t give up their seats?

    Why should Andretti and Ganassi and Penske try to build Indy Lights teams and groom racers who likely won’t have IndyCar seats upon graduation from Indy Lights?

    Corporations don’t clamor to sponsor teams in the junior series; the racers bring their own sponsors, whether companies or parents. So it’s a rental-car business. And Penske and Ganassi aren’t interested in that while they can easily attract graduates of Indy Lights, GP2, and GP3 plus Formula One and NASCAR refugees.

    As mentioned in your poll, Indy Lights can be a ‘training ground’ for teams, such as Carlin, to learn how to operate and how to compete, learn the tracks, grrom young drivers, and then move up to IndyCar as Sam Schmidt did.

  3. There’s nothing quite as exciting as 6 of them (or was it 10) racing at Pocono. Yes, much, much larger fields are needed. Either that or just stop racing on the big tracks.

  4. If Indy Lights had continuity, I would get more interested in it. Until last year, there were almost no more IndyLights, which proves how disjointed the two series (IndyCar, IndyLights) have become. I liked the old IndyLights under CART. I liked the cars. I like the new car. I have always enjoyed the competition. A stronger IndyLights program only helps, not hurts the IndyCar series. The tough part is familiarizing oneself with the names, at the same time understanding that these are future stars of IndyCar. I’ll admit I don’t know about most drivers coming up in the Indy Lights series and IndyLights seems to have limited resources in promoting their young drivers. Judging by the crowds most others don’t either. If current IndyCar super teams like Ganassi and Penske invested in IndyLights and helped grow their own talent, it would bolster it’s credibility and improve the continuity between the two series and more clearly defining MRTI concept. If IndyCar and Indy Lights worked together, they could both help each other and both would undoubtably benefit. I have never understood why they to not cooperate better and could someday become more synonymous. How about the events (like Pocono) where there is no IndyLights race. Why? That damages the product IMO. It’s no newsflash that they both need each other.

  5. Excellent subject to bring up George. I am looking forward to today’s comments.

    I think Mr. Anderson has done a terrific job with IndyLights. The car has sex appeal. Hopefully they won’t add widgets and winglets to it.
    The other ladder series also seem to be better organized and are attracting more entries. Never-the-less, even a GPS would not have helped ladder series stars reach their desired destination in recent years. IMHO the reason that teams pluck drivers from non-ladder series is because those drivers come with a suitcase full of money.

    I would like to see the ladder series teams and drivers get more publicity from IndyCar. I would like to see the teams give IndyLights drivers a few opportunities to drive the DW12 each season as they did at Sonoma(?) this past season. I would also like to get season Packer tickets, but I may not live long enough to see any of the above come to fruition.

    Still, I choose to remain optimistic about the future of the IndyCar farm system.

  6. I still think Indycar should have minimum experience levels on both road courses and ovals for the drivers. If they lack that, they have to run in Indy Lights to get the required experience. I think that would do wonders for the feeder series, as well as leading to better and more rounded and experienced drivers in both disciplines, which is what Indycar is supposed to be.

  7. Anderson & Mazda are doing very good things in the feeder series. But as long as drivers from outside of Indycar bring money with them, it’ll be difficult for young drivers to be promoted up to Indycar. I would like to see all Indycar teams run at least one car in Indy Lights and have Indycar do even more to encourage participation in the feeder series.

  8. Anderson Promotions does a fine job IMHO. Today the Mazda Road to Indy/MAXSpeed advancement program finalists were announced. Most of them are from the good ol’ US of A, with one from Canada and one from the Netherlands. Newgarden and Simon will be involved in the final selection process. If one were to choose by name alone, then “Sting Ray Robb from Payette, Idaho would be a no-brainer!

  9. While the cars have changed, most people don’t see the difference in open wheeled cars. Get this video in front of more eyes and more people will want to see open wheeled racing.

  10. billytheskink Says:

    Dan Anderson’s and his team (and Indycar too, in this case) have done a fantastic job strictly defining the ladder system and giving the Road to Indy program a very clear sense of direction. It is a refreshing departure from Indycar’s oft-apparent rudderless-ness.

    The biggest key to the Road To Indy’s recent success graduating drivers, though, is the scholarship money awarded to the champions of each rung. While it does not provide a full season’s worth of funding at the next level up, it does help tremendously in getting young talent into a good full-season ride.

    Here is what I expect/would like to see the Road to Indy tackle in the coming years, much of which has already been said in today’s post or comments:
    – Increase the number of teams involved, especially in Lights and especially via extension of current Indycar teams.
    – Successfully transition to the planned new car(s) in Pro Mazda and US F2000.
    – Find ways to increase scholarship money and/or broaden scope of scholarship to cover more than just the series’ champions.
    – Get a more consistent TV time slot,. NBCSN regularly airs taped NASCAR K&N and Modified series races on Thursday evenings, something even halfway close would be great.
    – Acquire a sponsor for the Lights-Indycar scholarship that can cross over to Indycar. Mazda and Cooper Tires are currently the biggest backers of Lights, and neither can follow the driver that wins the scholarship up to Indycar.

  11. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    If I recall correctly, at one time, there was extra practice/testing for the Indycar teams for each team fielded in the Infiniti Pro Series. I assume this, as many other ideas, just disappeared after a season or two, but the idea is not without merit. If, as a top-level Indycar team, fielding a team in the ladder system could easily be incentivized with additional perks. The perks of having your own team feeder in the current ladder system seems logical enough, but money talks – perhaps a graduated discount on IR15 Dallara tubs/parts for each team in the system.

  12. The value of the minor leagues goes much further than just the driver. Mechanics & engineers are also groomed and refined as they make their way up the ladder. I would love to see stats on how those guys progress to IndyCar as well.

    As for the drivers: We only have 22 or so full time cars. A 20 year old driver can last 20 years if he or she is good enough. We probably have ten of those guys in the series now. There just isn’t enough turnover to even worry about a minor league or to favor Lights Champions only. Gannasi is starting a new sportscar team and has a need to develop mechanics & engineers. That is why I think he starts an Lights team, not to develop drivers.

  13. 2015 was the first year that I was interested in what happened in IndyLights. The reasons why include the fact that this series does provide exciting racing, too, as the glorious Indianapolis finish of Peter Dempsey, Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam and Carlos Munoz has shown not so long ago. And this season, IndyLights got a stylish new car, too! And coming from Europe myself, I was curious about how Max Chilton and Ed Jones would do. Chilton winning at Iowa and dedicating his win to his former teammate Jules Bianchi was very emotional. Oh, and that is one beautiful looking car.

  14. I have been disappointed in the lack of racing by the ladder system at both Fontana and Pocono. I know I saw Indy Lights at Fontana in ’12; can’t remember about ’13. I think those tracks would be good experience and I’d really like to see the rest of the ladder. Thanks George for recognizing Mazda and Dan Anderson.

  15. I am somewhat embarrassed that I have somewhat neglected Indy Lights. Frankly, and upon review, the series is worth my attention. I like how it is truly a “minor league/instructional” series. Where NASCAR’s Infinity Series has top Cup drivers, Indy Lights does not. That is something I really don’t care for. To see Kurt Busch driving a top of the line Gibbs Racing team beat full time Infinity teams and drivers is just not square in my eyes. With that said, I think that Indy lights providing experience for the teams and drivers is something that should and will warrant my complete attention.

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