A Major Blow To The Mazda Road To Indy

After nine years, Mazda is closing its door on the Mazda Road to Indy program (MRTI). There is no way to sugarcoat this. It’s a major blow to the ladder system of the Verizon IndyCar Series and it could have a major impact on IndyCar for years to come.

This is not simply the loss of a revenue stream for Andersen Promotions, who operates and promotes the MRTI. This is the loss of an active and committed partner.

A decade or so ago, the ladder system for IndyCar was fragmented. There was the Indy Pro Series, which actually started in 2002 as the Infiniti Pro Series and was the official ladder system for the IRL or IndyCar. CART had Indy Lights in the nineties, but shut down that program in 2001. Toyota Atlantics, or later just Atlantics, was the official feeder series for Champ Car, but it seemed more IndyCar drivers came from Atlantics than their own Indy Pro Series.

After unification between IndyCar and Champ Car in 2008, the Pro Series was renamed Firestone Indy Lights.

Seeing a need for a designated and structured ladder system for the single premier open-wheel series in North America, the Mazda Road to Indy was conceived and sanctioned by IndyCar. It consisted of USF2000, which is somewhat of a reincarnation of the old Formula Ford series; the Star Mazda Championship and Indy Lights.

Dan Andersen, a team owner in the Star Mazda Championship, bought USF2000 in 2010. When Star Mazda ceased operations in 2012, Andersen created its replacement as the Pro Mazda Championship. After the 2013 season, Andersen bought Indy Lights from IndyCar. This brought all three rungs of the IndyCar ladder system under Andersen Promotions for the 2014 season.

Since Mazda got involved with the MRTI, they have been instrumental in developing young talent for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Just some of the graduates that have completed at least one season in today’s form of the MRTI since 2010 from today’s current group of IndyCar drivers include James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden (2011 Indy Lights Champion), Matheus Leist, Ed Jones (2016 Indy Lights Champion), Conor Daly, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Spencer Pigot (2015 Indy Lights Champion), Charlie Kimball, Sage Karam, Stefan Wilson, Zach Veach, Gabby Chaves, Jack Harvey, Carlos Muñoz, Kyle Kaiser (2017 Indy Lights Champion), Max Chilton and Pippa Mann.

Fifteen of those seventeen drivers drove in this year’s Indianapolis 500 and all tried to qualify. That’s almost half of the field that went through the Mazda Road to Indy. Other than Alexander Rossi, you would be hard-pressed to find a current IndyCar driver under the age of thirty that did not drive in the Mazda Road to Indy. It’s working.

Since the Mazda Road to Indy was formed in 2010, Mazda has provided over twelve million dollars scholarships to more than 250 drivers moving up to the next rung in the MRTI ladder. To their credit, Mazda will also provide scholarships to the three respective champions to move up the ladder for the 2019 season.

John Doonan, Director of Motorsports for Mazda issued the following statement: “On behalf of Mazda, I’d like to thank Andersen Promotions and everyone involved with the Road to Indy for a wonderful nine years, but the time has come for Mazda to focus our resources into other areas of our motorsports footprint. We have truly enjoyed our role in developing young racers into Indy 500 hopefuls, and we look forward to continuing our relationship with Andersen Promotions through the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup. The 2018 USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights champions will receive Mazda Advancement Scholarships for the 2019 season and the annual $200,000 Mazda Road to Indy Global shootout will also be held in December of this season.

Motorsports is at the core of Mazda’s DNA and the company remains committed to its variety of motorsports programs in the coming years including our grassroots club racing initiatives, the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BF Goodrich, the Mazda Road to 24, and Mazda Team Joest.”

I will be the first to admit that I am not the closest follower of the Mazda Road to Indy. I don’t follow minor league baseball either, but I certainly recognize its importance to the parent clubs. The Mazda Road to Indy has become the life’s blood of talent for the Verizon IndyCar Series. When I am at the track, I enjoy watching the racing in the various levels of the MRTI. However, I will confess that I don’t normally follow it closely when I am home on race weekends. But that doesn’t mean it’s not vital to IndyCar. It’s essential for the long-term viability of the series. And I do follow it a lot closer once the designated "Road to Indy" path was created.

It used to be that car owners looked overseas for burgeoning talent. Not anymore. The MRTI has evolved into an excellent training ground for talent right in the series own backyard. Team officials from the Verizon IndyCar Series can evaluate upcoming talent at some of the very same tracks on the same race weekends for IndyCar.

I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or in reaction to Mazda’s announcement, but on Wednesday IndyCar and Andersen Promotions unveiled a five-year plan to strengthen Indy Lights in order to attract more participation. Seven-car fields like they have had this season do not provide much competition. It sounds good for a driver to say he had several Top-Five finishes until you realize that there were only seven cars in each race.

Who will rise up and replace Mazda as a partner in the Road to Indy is anyone’s guess. I’ve read where some think it should not be a company in the automotive industry. I’m not sure I agree with that thinking. Some of the more committed partners in racing over the years have come from companies already in the automotive industry.

Whoever it is already has a blueprint to follow, thanks to Mazda. This company needs to do so much more than write a big check. They need to be just as involved with so many aspects of the Road to Indy program. Mazda left some big shoes to fill.

So unlike when IZOD left IndyCar a few years ago, I want to thank Mazda for all they have done to provide prospective drivers a distinct career path to IndyCar. It wasn’t so clear just a decade ago.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “A Major Blow To The Mazda Road To Indy”

  1. The program is important for sure but there have been quite a few flops out of it. Meanwhile, we have Wickens coming in out of nowhere and being a really solid driver. I would take finding a Wickens every year vs the influx of JR Hilderbrands, Spencer Pigots or Tristian Vautiers.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Wickens is probably not an especially fair comparison to the listed RTI disappointments. He had a decade of pro racing experience on any of them when he joined Indycar, and who knows how many more miles of testing.

      If anything, he is a poster child for spending A LOT of time racing in ladder series. He spent 8 years racing various junior formulae before his DTM career, a good bit of that backed by Red Bull’s wild late 2000s ladder series spending spree. That kind of patience would probably have benefitted many of the RTI’s disappointments (and probably some of its successes too). Unfortunately, it costs money that doesn’t appear to be there.

  2. S0CSeven Says:

    Wickens was certainly F1 calibre but didn’t make the cut because of financing. Toto Wolff picked him for DTM because he was an exceptional talent with no money. Hundreds, if not thousands of young people from around the world join the European ladder system hoping for 1 of only 6 top seats in F1. If your talent and/or money run out you’re finished. Rossi, Darnica and a hoards of others have followed this path. Even ex-F1 drivers make their way to Indycar. The European ladder system is EXCELLENT with a super capital E.

    Sorry to say it but as I see it, Penske and Ganassi ignored the Mazda series and it was only held together by Andretti who fielded a lot of cars. If the big dogs don’t support it what chance do you have?

    Changing topic, as my old brain can recall, regional racing in North America was 1200cc (initially VW), 1600cc aka FF1600 (or Formula Ford) and F2000 which certainly had Ford engines but a whole lot of others. In most of the world it was known as F2000 and in the USA it was/is Formula Continental.

    I stand to be corrected on all points.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I was quite sorry to hear this, both as a ladder series fan and a long-time Mazda owner.

    One potential positive of finding a new backer for the Road To Indy is that said backer can possibly follow the Lights champion up to Indycar with a logo on the car, which Mazda couldn’t (and potential replacement Cooper Tires can’t) do. Giving the RTI sponsor exposure in Indycar and at the 500 ought to make that sponsorship more valuable (or at least help it retain value, and frankly, is something that said sponsor probably deserves for their support.

  4. Being a possibilities guy, once IndyCar have unveiled their engine formula for 2020, and beyond, let’s hope Mazda announces their intent of joining Honda and Chevrolet in becoming the next IndyCar OEM.

  5. Mazda was an excellent sponsor and will be missed. I too wish they would join Honda and Chevy in IC.

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