What if I were to tell you that before the INDYCAR races, the next generation of race car drivers are out there competing for spots in INDYCAR’s future? The drivers competing in the Road to Indy (or as it was prior to this upcoming season – the Mazda Road to Indy) may be unknown names to you, but you know many of the series graduates. A good number of current drivers in INDYCAR have made their way through the MRTI, and a good many future drivers will make their way through RTI. Fans can’t sleep on RTI races; it’s where the future stars are making themselves known.
The Road to Indy falls under the umbrella terms of “feeder” or “ladder” series. I like the term “ladder series” because it explains how the series works even if you don’t have any idea what each rung is and how you move from rung to rung. Unlike chutes and ladders, you keep advancing up the ladder and can’t land on a spot and get shunted back to the beginning (is that how the game is played – full disclosure I actually never played that game).
The first rung is actually the pre-rung. Young drivers may take part in what’s called the $200K Scholarship Shootout. Drivers who have won various “junior” level series receive an invitation to participate in the shootout. The shootout itself is a three-day event where drivers get tested and judged both in on- and off-track activities. The winner of the shootout wins, as the name suggests, a two hundred thousand dollar scholarship towards their career in the USF2000 series. Effectively, they’ve stepped onto the first rung of the ladder.
The USF2000 is the first rung on the ladder. Started in 2010, the drivers compete in fourteen races across seven weekends during the INDYCAR season. The winner of the USF200 wins, prior to the changes, a $325,000 scholarship to help them advance to the next rung – Pro Mazda.
Pro Mazda is the middle rung of the ladder (this is a step ladder), the drivers take part in sixteen races across nine weekends. The winner of the series gets a $790,000 scholarship to help fund the driver’s career in Indy Lights. The top three finishers in ProMazda receive a test day with an Indy Lights team.
IndyLights is the final stop on the road to INDYCAR. The cars driven by the IndyLights drivers somewhat resemble the INDYCAR chassis. The drivers in Indy Lights compete in seventeen races across ten weekends, including the Freedom 100 on the IMS Oval. Winner of Indy Lights receives a $1million scholarship and a guarantee of three INDYCAR races, which includes the Indianapolis 500.
Large changes are happening to the Road to Indy, starting off with the title sponsor. It has been for some years called the Mazda Road to Indy, since 2011 and now the series is lacking in a named title sponsor. What it is lacking in title sponsor, it has made up by a non-named sponsor Cooper Tires (it was the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, and now it’s the Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires). They have stepped up and even increased the total payment over the whole series and to the Indy Lights winner (1.1 million, up from 1 million). Additionally, the Road to Indy has recently put forth a grand plan to increase participation in the Indy Lights program.
As you may know in this past season at most there were nine participants in Indy Lights/ INDYCAR came up with a plan to increase that number. The plan has two main prongs (1) monetary and (2) access. The first prong focuses on reducing the budget and providing more monies for prizes. Helping teams lower the amount it takes to have an Indy Lights team and helping drivers advance through the ladder with the prize money.
The second prong, this one is a bit more special. The access part of the plan first helps with testing by opening up more dates and lowering the costs for RTI teams to have drivers test with them. The series as a whole is proposing changes to how the drivers obtain their license. This was rolled out in tandem with the Indy Lights proposal, and discussed by us in an earlier podcast episode which you can find here. You have to get some type of experience under your belt before you can get an INDYCAR driving license. If a driver has had some experience in F1 or NASCAR Cup Series they have automatic entrance into INDYCAR. If the driver comes up from the RTI they have to finish in the top-3 in a season or two full seasons of IndyLights in top 5. If you’re in another series it would depend on the points an individual receives over two years.
They’ve not yet put out the final proposal so I want to really reserve judgment but it seems weird to have multiple types of racing with multiple types of ‘qualifications’. Especially if you’ve raced in NASCAR you just get a free pass. Those cars are super separate from open wheel. However, as my background provides, I don’t have enough information yet to make the big decision on this.
Despite the changes, the Road to Indy is credited with helping some great drivers leap into INDYCAR. Drivers including:
· Sage Karem (2010 USF2000 champion)
· J.R. Hildebrand (2006 USF2000 champion; 2009 IndyLights champion)
· Dan Weldon (1999 USF2000 champion)
· Spencer Pigot (2011 USF2000 champion; 2014 Pro Mazda champion; 2015 IndyLights champion)
· Tristien Vautier (2011 Pro Mazda champion)
· Conor Daly (2010 Pro Mazda champion)
· Ed Jones (2016 Indy Lights champion)
· Josef Newgarden (2011 IndyLights champion)
· Scott Dixon (2000 IndyLights champion)
· Tony Kanaan (1997 IndyLights champion)
If you’ve not actually listened to our podcast you can find our most recent episode at fastcarsfastgirls.podbean.com or you can subscribe by visiting www.fastcarsfastgirls.com/subscribe