By Steve Wittich

Despite having some terrific on-track racing this season, the seven cars participating in most Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires events this season is not a sustainable model for the long-term health of that series and the Verizon IndyCar Series. Something needs to be done to improve the health of the series, and the announcement of a five-year plan by INDYCAR and Andersen Promotions will play a significant role in shoring up the series that helped train 27 of the 39 drivers that have made appearances in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season.

“The announcement that just came out today is something I’ve been working on with Jason Penix (Director of Development Series) and Jay Frye ( INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations) for more than three months to address some of the concerns I’ve had,” explained Andersen Promotions Owner and CEO Dan Andersen to TSO Ladder. “I worked on all of the cost-cutting ideas on my own, and got Dallara, AER, Cooper and all of the other partners to ante up and drop the costs significantly, especially for new teams coming in.

“IndyCar’s part was to do the licensing and testing changes that would encourage drivers to come to Indy Lights and IndyCar teams to also join Indy Lights.”

The plan has been well received among current Indy Lights competitors with JF Thorman, President, Andretti Autosport telling us:

“We have been competing in Indy Lights and the Road to Indy for many years and truly feel it is one of the best driver development system in motorsport, and vital to the future success of the IndyCar Series. We’re very encouraged by the five-year planned rolled out by Andersen Promotions and INDYCAR, and applaud all involved for their efforts and commitment to the see the program once again grow. The Road to Indy has helped develop some of the top drivers in the IndyCar Series, and we’re happy to see a renewed focus on a program that, we believe, will continue to bring diverse talent to American open-wheel racing.”

Backing up a little before getting into yesterday’s announcement, the first thing done to strengthen the top step of the American open-wheel ladder was to ensure that some issues with the Mazda MZR-R turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder power plant have been rectified.

With zero loss of track time to any engine-related technical matter and zero “down-on-power” reports filed in 2018, the constant off-the-record complaints from participants have entirely disappeared through the first 14 races of the 2018 season.

“From the engine spec when this project started we’ve upgraded the turbos (which are now watercooled), wastegate, boost box and alternator,” explained AER’s Indy Lights Program Manager, Will Pedley. “These upgrades were necessary to ensure that every engine would not only provide equal performance to all the other engines, but equal performance through the entire 5,000-mile rebuild interval. The upgraded components are all more expensive than the ones they replaced, but we’ve tried to absorb as much of the incremental cost as possible.”

With that issue sorted, the next question to tackle was reducing budgets. Over the first four season of IL-15 competition, run-costs have risen to the point that to do a season adequately required a budget of just over seven-figures. That’s over 40% more then what a season with the previous generation Indy Lights machinery required.

The first step in lowering costs came when Andersen informed the teams that the current Indy Lights tub would be utilized for three more seasons, allowing teams to save budget by spreading the depreciation over a more extended time period.

The next step that Andersen has been working on has been to lower the costs from primary partners AER, Cooper Tire, Dallara, Motegi Wheels and other partners, which has been accomplished. The cost of an engine lease from AER, each set of Cooper Tires, spare parts from Dallara and new Motegi Wheels has been lowered for the existing teams.

Decreased costs of Cooper Tire rubber and Motegi Wheels are part of reducing the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires budget (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Something else new starting next year will be a more significant discount for teams running three or more cars.

The final step to lowering budgets has been to change the number of days the teams are allowed to test.

This year, there nine days of series open tests, two days of in-season testing, and unrestricted off-season testing from the end of the last race through February 14, with a blackout period between December 15 to January 15.

Next year there will be five days of series open testing (also one rookie oval day) and two days of in-season testing. The most significant change comes with reduced off-season testing opportunities.

There will be a testing blackout from the final race of the season at Portland International Raceway on Labor Day weekend through the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on September 22-23. From that point, unrestricted open testing is allowed until December 15. A testing blackout is enforced for the next month, and after January 15, testing is limited to the series open tests and two allotted test days. Test evaluations for new drivers or tests with Pro Mazda and USF2000 drivers are not included.

The team owners TSO Ladder have talked with, believe these cost reducing efforts will lower budgets from seven figures to six figures. That moves the costs for a prospective buyer below an important psychological barrier.

To go along with the lowered budgets is increased scholarship and prize money.

The winner will now receive a scholarship worth $1.1 million, an increase of 10%.

Thanks to increased contributions by INDYCAR, prize money available during the race weekends will also increase by $100,000 over the course of the season. For instance, winning the Freedom 100 will now pay $50,000 instead of $40,000.

Colton Herta takes the checkered flag just ahead of Patricio O’Ward at the Freedom 100. Increased prize money is part of a five-year plan to stabilize the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series

Prize money has not only been increased, but it has been reconstituted as well. Previously, the top five in each race received prize money, and now only the podium finishers will be rewarded. That increases the winner’s share of the prize money by 50%.

End of season awards will also be top-heavy, with only the top three teams receiving a check at the season-ending banquet.

With only three teams running the full season in 2018, attracting new teams to Indy Lights is also essential. To address this Andersen has put together a package of even lower costs and free testing to attract new teams to the series.

Andersen told TSO Ladder:

“The deal we have going for new teams to come in is fantastic. They can get a car at a bigger discount. They can get two free test days at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which includes six sets of tires and 1,500 engine miles. That allows them to go testing right away in the fourth quarter of this year with a big saving in money. They can hit the ground running. I designed that plan so a team can come in and catch up. I took a little heat from some of my existing teams that said what about us. I’ll do a lot to take care of you too. If you expand from two cars to three cars, I’ll help you out too.”

Ed note: the 1,500 engine miles is a $30,000 value, six sets of tires are almost $7,000, and that doesn’t include the saving on track rental.

While no announcements have been made, the likelihood of new teams joining Indy Lights would not shock TSO Ladder. We know of two teams considering returning to the series, four MRTI teams possibly looking to move up, and one Verizon IndyCar Series considering a move to Indy Lights.

The final part of attracting new drivers to the series is preaching the gospel of the Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires worldwide. To that end, Andersen will be bringing on a recruiter to help teams connect with drivers around the world.

That brings us to the end of Part 1 of our series on rebuilding the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series. Part 2 will cover the revised INDYCAR driver licensing guidelines and the expansion of the Verizon IndyCar Series testing program, and Part 3 will cover losing and replacing Mazda as an entitlement sponsor.

Much thanks to Dan Andersen for taking the time to go over his side of the plan in more detail.