By Tony DiZinno

As the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires heads into its final weekend at Portland International Raceway this weekend, it’s worth looking back at Mazda’s legacy it has left with the American open-wheel ladder system as it prepares for its final weekend as title sponsor and scholarship provider for the three series.

Steve has touched on it in a number of pieces here on TSO Ladder presented by Cooper Tires; here are some of my thoughts. The MRTI since 2010 and its informal predecessor in the Atlantic days prior to that have formed some incredible memories in my motorsports coverage career.

Hope doesn’t have an official color. But Mazda’s “Soul Red” came closest to fitting that bill.

The writing was on the wall for the end of the relationship between Mazda and the Andersen Promotions run and operated Road to Indy for months even prior to Mazda’s official announcement on July 31.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

But before the sad and somewhat inevitable ending, there was hope. And the “hope” Mazda bestowed on a generation of young drivers, teams and other series personnel is something that will never be forgotten.

Mazda’s DNA in North American open-wheel racing’s ladder system came at just the right time to stabilize a fluid system while the top level of the sport was in disarray.

Neither the Indy Racing League nor Champ Car World Series was in a position of strength in the mid-2000s, and its support series were sagging.

Saddled with the loss of tobacco sponsorship that heavily sponsored Indy Lights and Formula Atlantic, both those series began to wither on the vine.

Indy Lights, in its first incarnation after the American Racing Series, slowly faded to its conclusion in 2001. The IRL’s Indy Pro Series that launched a year later would eventually carry on the Lights legacy, but only after a significant period of build-up.

Atlantic’s glory days that began in the mid-1970s also slowed by the mid-2000s and hit a relative bottom in 2005, when only four drivers competed the full season of races.

For 2006, the new Swift 016.a chassis, coupled with a Mazda-badged Cosworth engine, revitalized that series. Participation spiked to 15 drivers racing the full season and some 45 making at least one start. Three rookies stood out, in a then-unheralded Frenchman named Simon Pagenaud, a second generation Rahal named Graham, and a quirky Canadian called James Hinchcliffe. A $2 million prize to the year’s champion – Pagenaud – provided him his debut in Champ Car a year later.

So the foundation was laid by the MAZDASPEED brand that Mazda, in lieu of participating in the top level of open-wheel racing, would support the next generation of drivers who would go onto IndyCar or top level sports car racing.

Open-wheel’s merger of IRL and Champ Car in 2008 into INDYCAR threatened the ladder series at its core. Atlantics stayed in that incarnation for two more years through 2009, while the Indy Pro Series grew with a wealth of new entrants to the mid-to-high 20s in that same period.

Dan Andersen. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

There needed to be a way to bring the ladder all back together after Atlantic and Indy Pro failed to coexist. With USF2000 also resuscitated by Andersen – a former Indy Pro and Star Mazda team owner – in 2010, the unified ladder known as the Mazda Road to Indy was formally born.

The steps to bring both Star Mazda, now Pro Mazda, and the Indy Pro Series, now back to Indy Lights, under Andersen’s control are long and varied. But by 2013 all three were under one overall ladder umbrella, sanctioned by INDYCAR, and a staple on most if not all Verizon IndyCar Series weekends.

Mazda remained the constant, in the form of its Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarships that guaranteed the winner of each championship – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 – would have an opportunity to step up to the next series.

This brought the usual combination of elation and heartbreak, oftentimes in the same weekend.

As the early races passed, May’s run at Indianapolis occurred and the summer stretch produced the primary championship contenders, tensions rose in pursuit of the titles and that Mazda scholarship.

Races at Mid-Ohio often proved the tipping point between contending for a title and falling out of it in ignominious style.

The dramatic 2014 Pro Mazda title battle at Sonoma between Scott Hargrove (3) and Spencer Pigot (7) was one of many MRTI title deciding events that featured a wide range of emotions. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The season finale weekends, particularly when in Northern California at either Sonoma (2014) or Laguna Seca (2015 and 2016, when the track was still known as Mazda Raceway), provided a combination of utter chaos, controversy, heartbreak and jubilation in all three series.

Those that won the championships, the scholarships and the chance to carry the Mazda “Soul Red” livery a year later have had a legacy of greatness to uphold. Those that didn’t would have to forge a new path forward to continue their careers.

Yet Mazda’s mark left on the fabric of junior open-wheel motorsports is indelible with the stories created and personnel blessed by their presence.

INDYCAR would consistently trumpet the Mazda Road to Indy’s legacy within the Indianapolis 500. For several years, well north of two-thirds of the 33-starter field started on this ladder.

Yet INDYCAR is not the only sanctioning body to have been blessed. Mazda’s legacy with the Road to Indy is also distinctly intertwined with sports car racing. The parallel “Road to” programs – either the Road to Indy or Road to 24 – have created a generation of sports car stars.

Look at most drivers in either INDYCAR or IMSA and it is difficult to draw the line between those who haven’t been part of the Mazda Road to Indy at some stage in their career, and those who have.

The mark of a Mazda Road to Indy alumnus is obvious. He or she has showcased an ability to communicate well about their ability behind the wheel and their advocacy for the partner or cause they represent. They have a dedication to the craft and a spirit to improve. And in most cases, they have their own unique personality developed over their time in these series that they take to the next level.

Any of Pipo Derani, Tristan Vautier, Dane Cameron, Joel Miller, Jonathan Bomarito, Gustavo Yacaman, Sebastian Saavedra and Stephen Simpson has a MRTI background. And that’s just one class of IMSA drivers, in the Prototype category.

The legacy stretches further when you go into IMSA’s GT ranks and find a John Edwards, Connor De Phillippi or Jack Hawksworth. It goes even deeper when you look at the entries in IMSA’s Challenge or one-make series, when you see the flock of MRTI alums that have shifted into sports cars.

Dan Andersen, Spencer Pigot, Mazda’s John Doonan and Cooper Tires’ Chris Pantani after Pigot won 2015 Indy Lights title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Those in IndyCar? Josef Newgarden is the reigning IndyCar champion. The 2011 Indy Lights champion kicked off a run of seven consecutive series winners who’ve moved up to IndyCar at some stage, with Vautier, Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves, Spencer Pigot, Ed Jones and Kyle Kaiser all following in his footsteps. Either Patricio O’Ward or Colton Herta – or perhaps both – could join them in 2019 depending on who secures the title this weekend.

That’s before you factor in the other young guns such as Conor Daly, Zach Veach, Matheus Leist, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Max Chilton, Jack Harvey, RC Enerson, Matty Brabham, and others who’ve been up to IndyCar in the last few years.

Every year in MRTI has brought a wealth of new talents blended with veterans who have plied their trade here for several years. Drivers like Parker Thompson, Aaron Telitz or Santi Urrutia have excelled in MRTI for four or more years; while rookies or second-year drivers such as Kyle Kirkwood, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay among others have clearly established their potential in these championships.

Although he’s not made it to IndyCar yet, it’s a member of this year’s short but stacked seven-car Indy Lights field – last year’s Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni – who described Mazda’s legacy best.

Victor Franzoni accepts trophy and scholarship at last year’s banquet. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“Mazda doesn’t just give us prize money. They give us hope,” he said after accepting his trophy at last year’s championship celebration.

It was obvious from the outpouring of support from the racing community how much Mazda meant to the Road to Indy.

It’s a legacy for the Mazda Motorsports team to be proud of.