Home Featured What does the future hold for Indy Lights?

What does the future hold for Indy Lights?

by Elliot Wood

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The coronavirus pandemic may have stopped Indy Lights from racing in 2020, but there are encouraging signs for its future and the rest of IndyCar’s support ladder according to its promoter Dan Andersen

The cancellation of the current Indy Lights season, after one free practice session, came as a big shock to motorsport despite the series’ recent struggles for entries. In the last two years alone it’s provided four of IndyCar’s most exciting young drivers of the last decade, and ones that have even attracted interest from the Formula 1 paddock.

Indy Lights is under the same ownership as IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which as of this year is legendary IndyCar team boss Roger Penske. While cancelling a season may sound pretty harsh as one of Penske’s early actions, and one that went from idea (one of many) to a committed decision in little over 24 hours, it wasn’t made lightly.

One of many factors in that decision was the compression of the IndyCar calendar as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, as Road to Indy CEO and former team boss Dan Andersen explained to Formula Scout.

“[Indy Lights’ cancellation] frees up a little bit of the schedule. That was part of the conversation with Roger Penske. IndyCar’s doubling up a lot of their races. So in terms of schedule on a weekend, IndyCar was going to be needing more track time to create double-headers out of weekends that prior were not. They needed to steal some track time somewhere.

“That’s not why Indy Lights shut down, but that was another factor. In terms of the paddock, there will be certain places where we will have a bit more room in the paddock, but in other situations the weekends are being shortened. At Road America for instance, we’re going to be in the paddock for two days, then IndyCar’s going to be in the paddock for two days.

Social distancing means events will be behind closed doors, and the lack of trackside fans reduces the level of exposure for sponsors which often have specific races or areas of the United States that are important to their involvement.

“We don’t know what the sponsors are going to be having an appetite for going forward, and that has a big effect on IndyCar and NASCAR, less of an effect on support series. But there are some sponsors – one of our Lights drivers Robert Megennis was already pushing his programme into 2021 before our announcement, because his sponsors had lost a few key dates.”

The size of North America means teams rack up thousands of travel miles, with races on the US West Coast such as Portland and Laguna Seca, the trip to Canada for the Toronto races, and the usual St. Petersburg season opener in Florida. As a result of St. Pete being cancelled mid-weekend, but with all the teams having already paid out to travel to and stay there, Andersen has added additional races for the Road to Indy’s lower rungs Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000 at other rounds (in already packed IndyCar schedules) to compensate and avoid further travel costs.

Travel was another problem that ultimately led to Lights’ cancellation, via the coronavirus-enforced restrictions.

“We have an immigration lawyer working with my staff on getting people back into the country. We’ve been in touch with some senators. They’ve passed a whole sporting regulation to allow athletes in all sports, including IndyCar-style racing, to get back into the country. So we’ve been on that for the last 60 days, trying to make sure we could get everybody back in. There are some entire teams that were out of the country, and it’s been a bit of a challenge to get everyone back in time.”

The situation for this year has therefore been pretty bleak, and although nobody in motorsport can second guess how widespread coronavirus will still be in 2021, Andersen still has a positive outlook on the future.

“Roger Penske is a dynamic individual. He is a winner, he’s going to make IndyCar great. That should trickle down to us. For us to be successful as the Road to Indy, we need a successful IndyCar that drivers are going to want to be a part of. The better job he does with IndyCar, the easier it is for me to attract people to the Road to Indy.

Andretti

“One of our main efforts going into the off-season, at the end of 2020, will be to come up with a plan that gets more IndyCar teams involved in Indy Lights. I’m hopeful that Roger will have an Indy Lights team with Team Penske. We’ll talk about all the other teams: Chip Ganassi Racing, Ed Carpenter and all the other teams. I’d like to see them all have Indy Lights teams. We’ve been trying to make that happen. Maybe Roger can make that happen more easily, and I’m hoping.

“We want the best [drivers]. There’s some people in America who think that we should be an American-based series and focus on American drivers. I’ve never been that guy. I think if you’re going to be an open-wheel driver, you need to be ready and able to compete with the best in the world.

“I know a lot of drivers are focused on Formula 1, in my view the reality of making it to F1 is very thin. The reality of making it to IndyCar, at least in the past four to five years, has been very good.”

The proven success rate of Lights drivers going to IndyCar has its downside, as proven this year. Three of the eight full-time entries last year moved on to IndyCar, two of them after one season in Lights, and only three of the others have stayed in the series for this year. With such little wriggle room, it means too many drivers moving on at once can leave it vulnerable.

Best placed of those 2019 graduates in last weekend’s IndyCar season opener was McLaren Schmidt Petersen’s Oliver Askew. The cash-strapped 23-year-old won the inaugural RTI Shootout scholarship in 2016, which he used to win the 2017 USF2000 title. In IP2000 he came third in his rookie season, but then won the Lights title as a rookie last year.

“Oliver finished ninth in his first [IndyCar] race – on the Texas oval, which is really jumping into the deep end of the pool. That’s not an easy oval to run, and it’s not an easy first race for a rookie coming into IndyCar. And he acquitted himself very nicely.”

Askew’s oval experience in the Road to Indy came to three wins from four starts, including the prestigious Freedom 100. The race on the IMS oval usually attracts more cars than a regular Lights race, much in the same way that the Indianapolis 500 does that it supports, but it was considered unfeasible to still run it once the rest of the season was cancelled.

“We talked about that as a one-off. Right now, the Indy 500 is still in August. I don’t expect it to move, but there is still a lot of concern about what can happen on that weekend. And not having the Freedom 100 is probably a good thing. There’s still a lot of concern for social distancing and having too many people in the facility for too many days.”

This year’s Freedom 100 would have featured the Cockpit Frontal Protection (CFP) fin, debuted in IndyCar in 2019 and now taken up by its supports. It could be a feature that remains on the Dallara IL-15 through to its projected retirement at the end of 2024, or be replaced by the aeroscreen that has succeeded it in IndyCar. Regardless of the route that’s taken, there’s gamble in retaining the same car for a decade while rival single-seater series introduce new models.

“That’s looking down into the future maybe further than we ought to be looking. Right now it’s still a very good car. What Dallara did, along with my staff, and the AER engine that we’re running in the car, it’s great package. The car is really nimble, I like it better than an IndyCar personally. Yes it would be getting long in the tooth by 2024 if we go that far, but I think it’s cost-effective now. The car debuted in 2015, so [teams] don’t need to include car cost in their budgets.

“Indy Lights budgets, in the first year of the IL-15, were $1.2 to $1.4 million a year. Now the budgets are under $900,000, and there are deals for talented drivers for well under $900,000. And for an annual budget with 18 races, that’s not bad.”

Penske’s ownership of Indy Lights means there is only so much Andersen can do as promoter, but he does have full control over IP2000 and USF2000, and hopes to use them to make sure the Lights teams stay in business.

“What we’re doing now is we’re encouraging our teams and our drivers to stay active. Some drivers are considering stepping down into IP2000 to stay competitive, while also testing a Lights car extensively. There is no restriction on testing right now, so teams are doing that. They’re going to run their drivers in a testing programme and probably run in some racing series, hopefully mine.”

HMD Motorsports has already settled on a move to Formula Regional Americas, and at least one other team is expected to follow. Two teams were set to debut in Lights this year, Exclusive Autosport and Jay Howard Driver Development, and both are already active in the lower rungs. While teams are willing to move their efforts to lower rungs, it’s not the same for drivers. FRegional Americas and IP2000 champion Kyle Kirkwood has nothing to prove from a return to either series.

“Reigning IP2000 champion Kyle Kirkwood still has a scholarship to do Indy Lights. Presumably he will use that [in 2021]. Meanwhile this year’s champion, whoever that may be, will also have a scholarship. We will likely have two scholarship drivers running in Lights next year. If Kirkwood wanted to take that money and do IP2000 again, we would certainly consider that. I don’t think he has any interest in doing that, but the money is going to be paid into Indy Lights next year unless Kyle comes up with a different plan that he wants to talk to me about.”

That scholarship could, if Kirkwood could convince Andersen on the subject, be spent on an IndyCar debut. And with no 2020 Lights champion, there won’t be a scholarship to enter IndyCar in 2021.

That’s not the only scholarship that’s off, as the entry-level Shootout is still on hiatus after running in 2016 and ’17.

“We do some things with Australian Formula Ford and Toyota Racing Series. The [Shootout] programme that we had when Mazda was on board with us, was terrific. I am continuing to try to find a sponsor for that program to do that.

“I think we had 17 or 18 countries getting tickets to come in and take their champion to a two-day shootout and win a scholarship to USF2000. I just need to find a couple $100,000 to make it happen. That’s basically the budget that we’re seeking. I will subsidise some of the cost, but that’s the number we’re seeking for a sponsor for that shootout.”

There is one scholarship that Andersen doesn’t need to fund at all, as Honda is paying for a 2021 Indy Lights entry for the next FRegional Americas champion.

“We have no part in that. If they want to pay somebody to come to Indy Lights, we’ll certainly welcome them. We’re not participating in that scholarship programme or promoting it, because frankly I think FRegional Americas is an unnecessary series.

“There’s not that many drivers to be dividing up the group via more series. Formula 4 is different. F4 is a step below USF2000, the drivers that race in US F4 end up coming into USF2000 so it’s actually been a good feeder for us.”

Going forward, Indy Lights’ biggest hope of a boost in grid size when it’s revived is actually a driverless race being contested by unviersities next year at IMS, dubbed the Indy Autonomous Challenge.

Small entry lists haven’t made the series any less entertaining in the recent past, and its work to improve the overall package that ultimately make the Road to Indy come back stronger in 2021.

“Our goal is to finetune the product we have. And that involves getting back into a Shooutout, so we can attract all of the feeders into USF2000 worldwide from karting to club racing to different championships around the world.

“We want to improve the financial package that drivers earn when they come race with us. We’d like to get better exposure, particularly for Indy Lights, on the IndyCar weekends – positioning on the schedule, a lot of things that we’ve actually been talking to Roger Penske about.

“We will continue to fine-tune the package, make it even more attractive to drivers. Frankly if the drivers come and fill the seats, the series survives and thrives and the teams stay in business.

“It’s not easy being a team owner in a support series. Ask any of the people that run teams on the lower levels, it’s very different to running a NASCAR, an IndyCar, an F1 team. It’s a small business and you count on the drivers coming and buying their seats.

“I need to give the teams a sellable seat, something that has all the whistles and bells that they can sell.”

There had better be drivers with money to spend on seats come 2021, and teams still in business to sell them, to ensure Indy Lights really does return to action.

Further reading
The youthful dynamic that’s already moved McLaren to the front in IndyCar
The surprise Road to Indy dominator of 2020