Home Featured Understanding the approach of IndyCar’s newest junior team

Understanding the approach of IndyCar’s newest junior team

by Ida Wood

Photo: IndyCar

Teams at racing’s top level having young driver development programmes or junior teams isn’t exclusive to F1, and is gradually becoming more common in IndyCar. Formula Scout finds out about the newest one  

Of Formula 1’s 10 teams, technically nine have structured ‘academies’ as they tend to be called now. In Super Formula the two engine suppliers have their own junior drivers and several teams also race in feeder series, while in IndyCar there is a mix as some teams hand-pick young drivers to back while others enter their own cars in Indy Nxt.

Back in 2019, Michael Andretti – who is now trying to take his Andretti Global team to F1 – complained about the lack of fellow IndyCar team owners involved in Indy Nxt, a series he had been running drivers in since 2005.

George Steinbrenner IV had gone from co-entering a car in the second tier with Andretti in 2018 to doing the same in IndyCar a year later, and had Colton Herta deliver him a win in his team’s second start, while Indy Nxt team Belardi Auto Racing co-ran one of Dale Coyne Racing’s cars at the 2019 and 2020 Indianapolis 500s. Teams were reaching up, not down.

Another example was Juncos Hollinger Racing, which joined the third-tier USF Pro 2000 series in 2009, expanded by stepping up to Indy Nxt in 2012 and then finally reached IndyCar in 2017. It is still active in the top two series today.

HMD Motorsports (formerly BN Racing) did something similar, taking the path drivers do up the Road to Indy by racing in USF2000, USFP2000, Indy Nxt and then IndyCar as of last year.

The other, more F1-esque model of having a junior team is taken by Andretti, Chip Ganassi Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, McLaren (since its driver development programme feeds its F1 and Formula E teams too) and in a roundabout way Team Penske. After team founder Roger Penske bought IndyCar itself, he put funding into the Force Indy programme that backs African American racers. Initially Force Indy entered cars in the feeder series, then became a driver development programme.

Photo: Travis Hinkle

The newest of these junior teams is ECR’s, which was launched last November with Josh Pierson [above] as its first member. He was put into Indy Nxt on a two-year plan, and it is that series’ reigning champion Christian Rasmussen who the team has recently signed to its 2024 IndyCar line-up.

Ed Carpenter, boss of the eponymous team, has a strong reputation for running young drivers in IndyCar. Although many point to his three years fielding future champion Josef Newgarden and turning him into a winner, the more recent and relevant example is Rinus VeeKay who took a pole position and made the podium as an IndyCar rookie with ECR.

“It’s one of the best parts about the job, working with our drivers,” Carpenter says. “And especially when we can bring young talent in, it’s a privilege to be a part of that in their development. It’s something that I’ve enjoyed over our time with ECR, working with quite a few guys coming out of Indy Nxt and and out of the ladder system, and epecially in recent years I think that programme has really been graduating guys that have what it takes to to compete at a high level in the IndyCar series.

“There’s definitely a learning curve, but at the same time people are coming out of it prepared and making a pretty immediate impact, you know, put in the right situation. So we’re excited to get started.”

Clearly Carpenter enjoys working with young drivers, but why does he think young drivers look towards his team when aiming to enter IndyCar?

“I think more than anything, we’ve just had a decent amount of experience working with younger guys over our 11 years. Josef was definitely a standout. Our goal is to find talent and nurture it, and keep it within our four walls, so to speak. And I think our strategy has been to look for talent coming out of of Indy Nxt, versus maybe taking another approach, which we’ve done also, and going after veterans.

“But I think there’s opportunity to get guys and help develop them and provide a environment that they want to be at. And we’ve seen that with Rinus, where we’ve had a healthy relationship and we’re through multiple contracts now and still building.

Photo: IndyCar

“So that’s the long-term plan with Christian is to have him reach his potential and us get stronger as a team, and have all of us achieve our goal of winning Indy 500s and competing for championships.”

At many IndyCar events there are three rungs of the Road to Indy in action, meaning drivers can be spotted in their very first years of car racing by teams at the top level. Over in Europe you have to reach Formula 3 before regularly racing on the support bill of F1, although its teams send out scouts to Formula 4 and even karting to find drivers to back.

“I think if you’re here at a racetrack and go look at pitlane during an Indy Nxt race or even even the other series below, you’re going to see a lot of IndyCar personnel out there paying attention,” notes Carpenter.

“That’s a big advantage to drivers coming over and being a part of it, that have a desire to get to IndyCar or the Indy 500, that you’re racing in front of us and going over to the same venues and getting a lot of experience at the race tracks that we go to. So I think it’s a big advantage just to perform in front of us.

“And there’s a little more comfort in evaluating drivers that you see versus not having as much deep knowledge of the series in Europe. It can be more challenging to evaluate guys. And on top of that, you look at the history of Indy Nxt, and the level of drivers that have graduated out of it are proving to be championship calibre at the IndyCar level and capable of doing that, winning Indy 500s and competing at a high level. Some of the top drivers in our sport right now came out of that programme.”

Formula Scout asked Carpenter how his junior team differs structurally from those in F1 and the likes of Ganassi’s, and more importantly if he was seeking to add any more drivers to join Pierson in its fold.

“I mean, we’re always looking at guys,” he replied. “We’re probably a little different than Andretti, especially since they’ve got their own Indy Nxt team. But you’re always trying to identify guys and work on relationships. So I would say we kind of take it as a case-by-case basis at this point, but I’m definitely in tune with with what’s going on in those series and always trying to keep an eye on future talent and figuring out how we can align ourselves, in certain cases.

Photo: Chris Jones

“I’ve always had an interest in [entering cars in] that series. It would be great some day to participate in that level as well. But the timing just hasn’t been right for it to be an active participant. But I do greatly believe in the Road to Indy, and the success that it’s had, and happy to give guys opportunities out of it.”

“I wouldn’t say we have a formal structured programme where that’s any one person’s sole duty. It’s not the way we’re structured, but multiple people within our team are involved in that process.”

Aside from Carpenter himself, “Lee Bentham, who has been a driver coach with us from day one, is always a part of that process” for scouting young drivers, and other members of ECR’s leadership team utilise their “relationships in the paddock” to find out about rising talents.

“I wouldn’t say we have a formal structured programme where that’s any one person’s sole duty. It’s not the way we’re structured, but multiple people within our team are involved in that process.”

In summary: “It really comes down to just relationships and watching and meeting people, and being advantageous.”