By Steve Wittich
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – For the first time in 15-years, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire series will begin the season without an entry owned by Sam Schmidt on the grid. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the Indianapolis, Indiana based powerhouse squad, has made the tough decision to close it’s championship winning Indy Lights operation, effective immediately.
“It’s one of the toughest things I’ve had to do in the last 15-years”, explained Schmidt. “I think we’re the only surviving team that has been there since day one. That’s disappointing on so many levels.”
G.J. Mennen finished eighth while piloting the Schmidt owned No. 99 in the very first Infiniti Pro Series races held on July 7, 2002 on the 1.5 mile Kansas Speedway oval. The team would win their first race and first of seven Indy Lights crowns in 2004 with Thiago Medeiros behind the wheel of the No. 9 Schmidt Motorsports entry. Also winning championships for the team was: Jay Howard (2006), Alex Lloyd (2007), J.K. Vernay (2010), Josef Newgarden (2011), Tristan Vautier (2011), and Sage Karam (2013).
“It’s unfortunate”, Schmidt told TSO. “We went from coming away from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (after the MRTI finale in September) thinking that we might be able to facilitate all three support series and the IndyCar program, to two months later not being able to support any off it.”
Schmidt, who recently received the first semi-autonomous driver’s license told TSO that economics was the driving factor behind the teams decision to close the Indy Lights operation.
“I think the majority of the reason is simply just economics on both sides,” said Schmidt. “Things are going so well on the IndyCar program; the commercial side is doing well, the team doing well, and given the complexity and the size and scope of those programs, I felt guilty splitting my time between Indy Lights and IndyCar.
“I’ve got the SAM project, I’ve got nine or ten times I’m going to drive the Corvette next year. I’ve got a lot of good things going on there, a lot of good things going on in the IndyCar program, and our foundation, and the biggest thing that was getting left behind out of pure lack of bandwidth was the Indy Lights programs.
“It’s positive economics on the IndyCar side, and negative economics on the Indy Lights side. I didn’t have enough time to devote to it and that’s why we haven’t been able to find any drivers for 2017 with funding.
“The way the rules are written now, the new rules for Indy Lights, you must do the majority of testing this side of Christmas, and you aren’t going to get any after the New Year. With those type of stipulations, I just wanted to cut them loose early and give our employees, that have all been there a long time, and are really good people, the best opportunity to get other jobs on other teams.”
Schmidt told TSO that they do have a couple of crew slots open on their IndyCar teams and that he encouraged everybody to talk to Piers (Phillips – manager of the IndyCar program) to see if they fit into those open positions.
There are other economic factors at work as well. The ongoing Latin American recession, in particular, and slow economic growth globally, generally, combined with the strength of the American dollar has limited the number of funded drivers, with some potential drivers falling just short of finding the $1million to $1.3 million to contest a full season of Indy Lights.
Schmidt still has plenty of positive things to say about the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire Championship, saying: “The series sells itself from the standpoint of, if you win the championship, you’re going to get an opportunity. Four out of the last six champions have turned that opportunity into full-time rides. We are way, way, way better off than any European support series from a proof in the pudding standpoint.”
Of the 36 drivers that turned laps during the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, 23 of them have Indy Lights experience. Of those drivers with Indy Lights experience, nine of them drove for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Gabby Chaves, Bryan Clauson, Conor Daly, RC Enerson, Jack Hawksworth, James Hinchcliffe, Sage Karam, Pippa Mann and Josef Newgarden).
This departure, while certainly surprising and disappointing, should not have any immediate impact on car count. TSO expects to see additional cars from Andretti Autosport and Juncos Racing, with Belardi Auto Racing also rumored to be considering expansion.
“We are sad to learn of this of course, and we appreciate all that Sam has done for Indy Lights over the years,” said Dan Andersen, owner and CEO of Indy Light promoter Andersen Promotions. “I’ve exchanged emails with Sam and completely understand his reasoning. I’d call him except I’m out of the country at a MRTI staff retreat currently.
“Driver interest remains strong and we are aware of several other teams planning expansions, but nevertheless I never want to lose a team, especially one as important as Schmidt Peterson.”