By Steve Wittich
We’re back with Part 2 of our series on rebuilding the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series. You can read Part 1 – Rebuilding Indy Lights – Part 1 of 3 – A more reliable power plant, decreased costs, more prize money, and new teams.
In this installment, we’ll take a look at what role INDYCAR will play in strengthing the top level of American Junior Open Wheel Ladder.
“(The health of Indy Lights) is extremely important,” explained Jay Frye, President of Competiton and Operations INDYCAR, to TSO Ladder. “We started working last fall on a five-year plan for that series to mirror the Indy Car five year plan. It’s very important to us (INDYCAR). Obviously, there have been a lot of drivers that have graduated through the program to the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“This year there were some issues with car counts. Some of that was a by-product of the series success because a couple of teams graduating to IndyCar – which is great!
“We wanted to make sure there was a plan and a direction that called for cost reductions, increased prize money, some testing changes as well as the driver guidelines. Indy Lights is a very important part of the IndyCar Series.”
First, let’s take a quick look back at how we got here.
The current iteration of the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series, owned and operated by the Indy Racing League (now INDYCAR) began operations in 2002. The new Infiniti powered Dallara race cars filled a hole left when Championship Auto Racing Teams folded the original Indy Lights series to concentrate on the Toyota Atlantic Series.
In 2013, INDYCAR ceded operations, but not ownership, of Indy Lights to Anderson Promotions, who began steering the top level American Open Wheel series in 2014. After working to stabilize an ever decreasing car count, the first major order of business for the promoter of the opening two steps on the Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires was to replace an aging chassis and engine package that was entering its 13th year of competition.
The 2015 season began with a sleek new Dallara chassis, a Mazda MZR-R turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, developed by Advanced Engine Research, and a full-time double-digit car count for the first time in a couple of seasons.
Car counts remained stable through the 2017 championship won by Kyle Kaiser, but a little foreshadowing of issues to come came in November of 2016 when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports shuttered their Indy Lights program to concentrate on their Verizon IndyCar Series program.
Andretti Autosport, Belardi Auto Racing, and Carlin picked up the slack by running more cars and the 2017 season had a respectable 14 full-time entries.
Just 13 months after Schmidt Peterson Motorsports ended their Indy Lights program, Carlin announced that they would be entering the Verizon IndyCar Series. The energy and effort required to properly build and field a two-car IndyCar program meant that their championship-winning Indy Lights program was put on hold for the 2018 season.
Combine losing two teams with drivers like Zachary Claman DeMelo, Matheus Leist, Pietro Fittipaldi, Rene Binder and Alfonso Celis, Jr. and the budget and reliability issues we covered in Part 1, and you end up with seven full-time entries.
INDYCAR’s role in rebuilding Indy Lights takes on a number of forms. Increased prize money (which we covered in Part 1), more defined driver guidelines for earning an IndyCar license, some potential changes to testing for IndyCar teams that participate in Indy Lights and a move towards a common chassis down the road.
Frye did remind TSO Ladder that: “This plan is not done, it’s an evolving plan. We think it’s a good start. We have a long way to go and a lot more to do. But, at least we have a plan. We have a foundation to build from.”
In high speed and high-pressure sport like racing, utilizing processes and guidelines allows consistency. INDYCAR, the sanctioning body, uses these formalized process and guidelines in race control, in technical inspections, so setting up a more formalized way of approving drivers makes sense.
“I’m a big believer in process and guidelines, and this is just another piece of that, that wasn’t necessarily formalized,” said Frye to TSO Ladder. “And, even this doesn’t capture everything. You can’t capture every series in the world – you can’t capture every piece.”
“The diversity of the IndyCar series with road courses, street courses and different types of ovals makes it hard to say that there is one thing that you have to do to get an IndyCar license.
“Now we have this guideline and more formalized process.”
There will be two steps to getting approval to compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The first step is getting a testing license and the second step is being approved to race.
Frye expanded on that saying: “There might be places where we tell drivers – hey, it would be great to go get a couple of races in an Indy Lights type car or something equivalent to that before you move to next step of the process, which is an IndyCar testing license. We will evaluate you, and based on the evaluation; you might have to go back and do another Lights race. Or, you might have to do another test, or you might just get your license.”
Frye, a former NASCAR team principal, used the informal process of being allowed to race at Daytona International Raceway or Talladega as an example. There was an informal understanding that before a young driver could take part in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series a
Frye reiterated that: ”It’s not designed to preclude anybody. It’s just a template; a guideline.”
At present, two Verizon IndyCar Series rules involve a couple of different aspect of Indy Lights.
Rule 6.6.7. covers IndyCar teams testing current Indy Lights series drivers. An IndyCar team can test as many Indy Lights drivers as they have entries and that day can be shared with a current driver. In 2018, that test day had to occur during the off-season.
In 2019, that test day can be used during the season.
Rule 6.6.8. deals with full-season entrants in the IndyCar series that also participate in Indy Lights. The team will receive an extra IndyCar test day once the Indy Lights team has participated in its fifth race. In 2018, that occurred in early May after the first Indy Lights race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Remember, Frye did say that “this plan is not done, it’s an evolving plan,” so this could change before the 2019 Testing Regulations are finalized.
TSO editorial note from Steve – I really hope that the benefits of an IndyCar team taking part in any, or all three rungs of the Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder receive more than one additional test day.
A common chassis.
Currently, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series and Pro Mazda Presented By Cooper Tire series utilize a common chassis (tub) with many other parts crossing between the two series as well. That will eventually be the goal between Indy Lights and IndyCar.
In January 2017, INDYCAR announced a multi-year extension with Dallara to utilize the IR-12 (DW-12) chassis that runs through the 2020 season. Anderson recently told Indy Lights teams that the life of the IL-15 would be extended three more years, which would be the end of the 2021 season.
However, after that time period, the goal of INDYCAR will be to have more similarities between the IndyCar and Indy Lights race cars.
“I think eventually the more we can do to make Indy Lights like Indy Car the better,” explained Frye to TSO Ladder. ‘The chassis will be similar. A Lights team can graduate (to IndyCar). It also gives an IndyCar team a potential revenue source where maybe they can sell parts to Indy Lights teams. There are lots of things like that, that will go back and forth. It will take a couple of years to get to that point, but I think that will certainly be involved.”
And, don’t forget, as was discussed in Part 1, INDYCAR has increased the number of dollars that they are adding to the prize pool.
Also, thank you for Jay Frye for taking the time to explain INDYCAR’s role to me.
We’ll be back with Part 3 early next week where we’ll take a look at what Mazda has meant to the sport, the potential addition of new sponsors (and manufacturers), and more.