The Never-Ending Search For Driving Talent

For the last several seasons, we have seen the results of a strengthened ladder system come to fruition in the IndyCar Series. Recent graduates of the Road to Indy program have not only made their way into IndyCar, but they have found success. Josef Newgarden is the poster child for this recent trend. He won the Indy Lights championship in 2011 and was offered a fulltime ride with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for the 2012 season. We all know the story. After struggling as a rookie, Newgarden learned and made dramatic improvement each season. He caught the eye of Roger Penske and won the 2017 IndyCar championship in his first season with The Captain.

That’s the way a ladder system is supposed to work. A driver proves himself in a support series and moves up to the main series with a small team. Once he or she proves themselves on that level – they continue to move up to better teams. In Newgarden’s case, he moved up to the most storied team in the series and won the championship. All that is lacking on Newgarden’s resume at this point is an Indianapolis 500 victory. The smart money says if he stays with Penske, that will eventually come – probably sooner than later.

Many others have come through the Road to Indy program and found success, although maybe not to the level that Newgarden did. James Hinchcliffe finished second in the 2010 Indy Lights championship to Jean-Karl Vernay (who is not a shining example of what an Indy Lights championship can do for your career). Hinchcliffe was offered a fulltime rode with Newman/Haas in their second car, teamed with Oriol Servia. Like Newgarden, Hinchcliffe struggled to find his way.

Newman/Haas folded in the offseason and Hinchcliffe was eventually signed by Andretti Autosport after Dan Wheldon, who was headed back to Andretti, lost his life in the 2011 season finale. Hinchcliffe has won races, but has never finished higher than eighth since joining the series.

There are obviously others. Spencer Pigot, Gabby Chaves and Ed Jones are all recent former Indy Lights champions that have found fulltime IndyCar rides. For next season, Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta will both be moving to IndyCar as Indy Lights graduates from this past season. This is how the ladder system is supposed to work.

Apparently, not everyone has gotten the memo. Last week, two rookie drivers for next season were named to fulltime IndyCar rides. One has never turned a wheel in the Road to Indy program, while another did one partial season in Indy Lights. IndyCar owners are under no obligation whatsoever to pluck anyone from the Road to Indy program. But when the top teams seldom reach into its pool, it sends the signal that it has little credibility as a source for developed talent.

Dale Coyne has already announced their second fulltime driver for 2019 and the leaves are still on the trees. Santino Ferrucci will join Dale Coyne Racing for the full season, after running a handful of races for them this past season. Although he has an impressive resume from Europe, including a Formula One test driver for Haas, he has spent no time in the Road to Indy ladder program. That means he has never set foot on an oval.

But I’ll give Dale Coyne a break with this one. Coyne has a good recent history of hiring recent Indy Lights graduates. This past season he employed Zachary Claman DeMelo, who spent two seasons in Indy Lights. In 2017, he had Ed Jones, the Indy Lights champion from the previous year in his second car. So to go outside the Road to Indy program every now and then is fine. There are some awfully good drivers in the various European ladder series.

The other driver that was announced last week was Felix Rosenqvist, who is headed for the No.10 car for Chip Ganassi. Rosenqvist comes with a very impressive background along with a partial season with Belardi Auto Racing in Indy Lights in 2016. He ran ten races in the first part of the Indy Lights schedule, winning three of them. He also had five other Top-Ten finishes in addition to the three wins (they had more than seven car fields in those days). But he has won races at every level of racing he has been in. He has won at least one race each season that he has competed as a professional, going back to 2007. He does have two ovals under his belt as an Indy Lights driver – at Phoenix and Indianapolis.

When he tested with Ganassi at Mid-Ohio in 2016, he turned heads by being just as fast as Scott Dixon in all but a couple of corners, after only a few laps. Rosenqvist is replacing Ed Jones, who spent just one year with Ganassi.

Chip Ganassi does not have a strong track record of hiring home-grown drivers. By home-grown, I mean either American or a product of the Road to Indy. For that matter, Roger Penske doesn’t either – but he never takes a flyer on any driver. He lets them get their experience at someone else’s expense and then brings them on when he deems they are ready. The last driver Penske took a flyer on that I can recall is Paul Tracy. Three laps into his tenure with Penske, Tracy was into the wall at Michigan with a broken leg.

Ganassi is different. He seems to like to bring on new talent from Europe or South America that most have never heard of. Before Ed Jones, the last Indy Lights driver that Ganassi hired was Charlie Kimball in 2011. Before Kimball and Graham Rahal the same year, the last American I can remember Ganassi hiring was the late Tony Renna for the 2004 season, but he tragically lost his life in an October 2003 testing incident at IMS.

Even while in CART, Ganassi seemed to enjoy testing the waters of foreign racing series. Some worked out. Mauricio Gugelmin, Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya come to mind. There were mixed results with some like Bruno Junqueira and bad results with others like Nick Minassian.

While Roger Penske seems to want no part of developing a driver, Ganassi seems to like taking a gamble on drivers showing potential. He brought unknowns Darren Manning and Ryan Briscoe to IndyCar. Manning’s career never really took off, but Briscoe went on to be a championship contender for Roger Penske from 2008 through the 20012 season. But even taking established IndyCar drivers has not always worked out for Ganassi. Indianapolis 500 winners Kenny Bräck and Tony Kanaan, Tomas Scheckter and reigning Indianapolis 500 and series champion at the time Dan Wheldon all served time in Ganassi cars, But none left Ganassi on very good terms and it has always puzzled me as to why.

So with former Indy Lights champion Ed Jones having what was deemed a sub-par season at Ganassi this past season, Ganassi has decided to look overseas again – this time with the twenty-six year-old Swedish Rosenqvist.

I may sound like I’m now contradicting myself, but personally – I think it’s a good hire. When everyone was chirping how Ed Jones should have been the 2017 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year; I wasn’t buying it. Fernando Alonso showed me more that month. The second half of that season really tailed off for Jones and I was shocked when he went to Ganassi for this season. Last November, I expressed my opinion here.

Rosenqvist seems more like the real deal to me and I think he will find success quickly for Ganassi.

But if he doesn’t work out for whatever reason or jumps at the chance to go to Formula One, my hope is that Chip Ganassi will next time look to the Road to Indy program that exists in his own back yard, rather than yielding to the temptation to always look across the pond. Imports are not always better than home-grown talent.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “The Never-Ending Search For Driving Talent”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Looking forward to Rosenqvist next season. He caught my attention in Lights and I’ve followed him since then, seems like a really good kid and he can really pedal a race car. Should be fun to watch and a great asset for IndyCar.

  2. Add Aaron Telitz and a woman driver to the list.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Overall, I think The Road To Indy is a fine training ground and I very much like that advancement through the ladder all the way to IndyCar can be earned on performance alone via the scholarships.

    I do think the RTI scholarships can have a drawback in that they advance drivers too quickly to a level where they may not be well-prepared and they get discarded after “disappointing” when they are still learning. That is not really the fault of the scholarships, though. The great challenge in driver development both here and in Europe is finding money to keep drivers in cars while they learn.

  4. After beginning to rent cars to G. Rahal and C. Kimball, Chip Ganassi hired Firestone Indy Lights graduate Sage Karam.

  5. Bruce Waine Says:

    Imagine that today’s commentary title might be tongue in cheek so to speak when the mirror image might read….. Never Ending Search for Team Ride.”

    What has been interesting to me is how particularly Team Penske has not become actively involved in the ladder system by fielding at least one team consisting of two cars in said INDY Car ladder system.

    Yet, Andretti with what one might think less financial resources at their disposal has become one of the cornerstones in supporting the ladder system.

    One would imagine that financial resources are of little consequence to Team Penske’s motorsport empire.. … in their long term avoidance in becoming involved with the ladder system or equivalent.

    Also, an addition to the Ganassi revolving door departure list – driver Brian Herta.

  6. Santino Ferrucci is an idiot. Hopefully he has left his prior history behind.

  7. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I also thought Alonso should have been rookie of the year. Rossi coming from F1 and Europe has worked out pretty well hasn’t it? Wickens was another star brought from Europe. I think wherever the drivers come from is fine. It’s just too bad that Ganassi and Penske don’t support the ladder system.

  8. The current flow of new driver talent is not the problem: The paucity of available rides for qualified newcomers is. This is NOT a situation that will be remedied anytime soon unless a third engine supplier is found.

    We have basically allowed this scarcity to give some owners the latitude to “fire at will” younger drivers and replace them at their leisure from the abundant pool of talent looking for rides.

    In the old days, this might not have been a problem since sponsor money was plentiful. But as belts got tightened, 5 team entries became 4, then 3, then 2, lessening the number of rides available.

    Certainly, we need to add young talent to the series. The 2010’s have been something of a boon to the series, with the addition of Newgarden, Hinch, Rahal, et al. But, by the same token, if you look at the current roster of drivers, near-future retirements are limited. TK likely will be the next to “pull the pin,” Sato is up there in years as well, but beyond those two, I’m challenged to think of any other impending retirements.

    So, the only thing that seems to allow for much more “new talent development” is another engine provider which would allow for larger fields and more participants.

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