By Steve Wittich
Let’s start our previews for the return of the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires by looking at some of the numbers and statistics that comprise the anatomy of the first 34 champions on the top rung of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder.
The Anatomy of an Indy Light Champion is Part One of a multi-part preview that will get you ready for what is sure to be an exciting battle for the $1 million+ scholarship and a coveted seat in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
Note from Steve: If you can’t tell, I have created a whole lot of fun new databases to use this season.
In 34 previous Indy Lights* championship seasons, the driver who topped the standings at the end of the season averaged 4.5 wins, 8.5 podiums, 4.2 poles, and 1.2 Did Not Finishes (DNF).
Looking at only the five seasons of the IL-15 era and the champion has 5.4 wins, 10.8 podiums, 6.0 poles, and only 0.6 DNFs.
Greg Moore, the 1995 champion, won ten of 12 races, the most wins by any title-winning driver. The fewest wins by a champion occurred in 1999 when Oriol Servia did not visit the top step of the podium during his championship run.
<Insert Random Trivia Note – Casey Mears, who finished second behind Servia, was also winless in 1999>
The eventual champion is the winningest (outright or tied) driver in 73.5% of the 34 seasons of action. The last champion that didn’t win the most races in a season occurred in 2016 (Ed Jones – Carlin).
Winning the most poles is certainly not a guarantee of winning a championship, with just slightly more than a majority (58.8% or 20 of 34) of champions leading the way with the most poles. That list includes the last four NTT INDYCAR SERIES champions – Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden.
Five drivers – Bryan Herta (1993), Townsend Bell (2001), Thiago Mederios (2004), Jones (2016), and Pato O’Ward (2019) – have won eight poles in a season, the highest total for a champion.
The fewest poles in a season for an eventual champion is the lonely number one, which occurred twice. Both times, it was drivers from New Zealand who won the championship while only starting on the pole once – Dixon in 2000 and Wade Cunningham in 2005.
The best indicator to aid in determining is not standing on the top step of the podium. Instead, it is standing on ANY step of the podium.
Thirty of the 34 (88.2%) previous Indy Lights champions have led (or tied) for the lead for the most podiums during their championship season.
Jon Beekhuis (1988), Tristan Vautier (2012), Sage Karam (2013), and Kyle Kaiser (2017) were able to win the Indy Lights championship without leading the podiums category.
Oliver Askew, who stood on the podium an incredible 15 times in 2019, holds the record for the most top-three finishes by a champion. The fewest podium visits by a champion were four by 2002 champion A.J. Foyt IV.
<Insert Random Trivia Note – The 2002 season only featured seven races, so it isn’t overly representative. Drivers that won the championship with only five podiums include, Servia (2005) and Jon Beekhuis (1988) >
The eventual champion has led the most laps in 22 of the 34 Indy Lights seasons contest through 2019.
Thiago Medeiros led 590 laps on his way to the 2004 Menards Infiniti Pro Series title, the most of any championship-winning driver.
Paul Tracy, the 1990 Firestone American Racing Series Champion, led a phenomenal 71.8% (472 laps) during his nine-win title-winning season.
Mike Groff (56.1% in 1989), Paul Tracy (71.8% in 1990), Bryan Herta (52.7% in 1993), Greg Moore (64.3% in 1995), Townsend Bell (63.2% in 2001), Mark Taylor (52% in 2003), Thiago Mederios (50.1% in 2004), Alex Lloyd (50.1% in 2007) and Pato O’Ward (56.0% in 2018) all led more than 50% of the possible laps during their championship season.
Only three drivers have led less than 100 laps on the way to an Indy Lights championship, but it’s the 1999 champion Oriol Servia that leads on the bottom end of the laps led spectrum. The Catalan driver led only 35 laps or 5.1% of the totals contested during the 12-race season.
Crossing the finish line is essential if a driver wants to win the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship.
In 34 seasons of action, the title winner has averaged a measly 1.2 DNFs and an even more minuscule 0.6 DNFs since the introduction of the IL-15 in 2015.
Seven champions: Pato O’Ward (2018), Kyle Kaiser (2017), Sage Karam (2013), J.K. Vernay (2010), Greg Moore (1995), Steve Robertson (1994), and Robbie Buhl (1992) were all still running at the end of every race during their championship season.
The most DNFs by an eventual champion is three, which occurred in 1998 (Cristiano da Matta) and 1990 (Paul Tracy).
A driver doesn’t have to complete every lap of a season to become champion, but finishing at least 90% of the laps contested does help.
Only seven of the previous 34 Indy Lights champions completed less than 90% of the laps contested during their title-winning season. Inaugural champion Fabrizio Barbazza has the lowest percentage of laps completed at 82.8%. A wreck in practice and a missed race on the Milwaukee mile accounts for almost all of the Italian’s missed laps.
The last Indy Lights champion that did not complete at least 90% of the laps while on the way to a championship was Mark Taylor, who completed 88% of a possible 819 laps.
Only three champions – Robbie Buhl (1992), Steve Robertson (1994), and Greg Moore (1995) – completed every lap during their championship season.
Fifteen of the 34 Indy Lights champions led (or tied for the lead) in wins, poles, podiums, and laps led during their championship season. Fabrizio Barbazza in 1986 was the first and Pato O’Ward in 2018 was the last.
Only a pair of drivers – Jon Beekhuis (1988) and Sage Karam (2013) failed to lead any of the four categories.
Age and Experience
As of this writing, the 12 confirmed pilots for the 2021 Indy Lights season consist of a trio – David Malukas, Robert Megennis, and Toby Sowery – of second-year drivers and nine rookies.
Statistically speaking, the three veterans have a better chance of winning the scholarship at the end of the season, but it is close. Veteran drivers make up 55.9% of the previous champions, with 44.1% of the titles being collected by freshman drivers.
Strictly by the numbers, first-year drivers have won 15 championships, second-year drivers have won 14 times, third-year drivers have won four titles, and one fourth-year Indy Lights driver – Mike Groff – won the championship in 1989.
That last rookie driver to win the championship was Oliver Askew in 2019. Pato O’Ward (2018) was the most recent second-year driver to take home the title, while Kyle Kaiser (2017) was the last third-year driver to win the season-long battle.
In 2019, Oliver Askew was 22-years-old when he won the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Askew was younger than the average age of all 34 Indy Lights champions, which is 23.6-years-old. He’s also older than the 20.8-year-old average of the five champions in the IL-15 era of competition.
The age range for championship-winning drivers ranges from 18-years-old – A.J. Foyt IV (2002) and Sage Karam (2013) – to 32-years-old – David Empringham (1996). Every age, excepting 24-years-old, is covered by the 34 champions.
Foyt IV was 18 years, three months, and 20 days when he won the 2002 IRL Infiniti Pro Series title at Texas Motor Speedway on September 14, 2002.
Empringham’s 1996 PPG/Firestone Indy Lights Championship title followed 1993 and 1994 Atlantic and came when he was 32 years, eight months, and 11 days old. The Canadian is the last of four 30-something drivers to take home the title.
The end result
Of the 34 previous Indy Lights champions, 31 have made at least one Indy car start and have combined for a total of 2,495 starts in the top level of American open-wheel competition.
Indy Lights champions have accounted for 140 total Indy car wins.
Scott Dixon (six championships), Josef Newgarden (two championships), Cristiano da Matta (one championship), Tony Kanaan (one championship), and Paul Tracy (one championship) are the Indy Lights champions who have gone on also to win an Indy car championship.
Number of wins by the Indy Lights champion
|2002||A.J. Foyt IV||4|
|1998||Cristiano da Matta||4|
Number of poles by the Indy Lights champion
|2002||A.J. Foyt IV||4|
|1998||Cristiano da Matta||3|
Number of podiums by the Indy Lights champion
|2002||A.J. Foyt IV||4|
|1998||Cristiano da Matta||8|
Number of laps led by the Indy Lights champion
|2002||A.J. Foyt IV||212|
|1998||Cristiano da Matta||239|
Number of DNFs by the Indy Lights champion
|2002||A.J. Foyt IV||1|
|1998||Cristiano da Matta||3|
Percentage of laps completed by the Indy Lights champion
|YEAR||CHAMPION||% LAPS COMPLETED|
|2002||A.J. Foyt IV||96.0%|
|1998||Cristiano da Matta||89.9%|
Number of season long categories – wins, poles, podiums and laps led – that the Indy Lights champion led or tied for lead.
|2002||AJ Foyt IV||4|
|1998||Cristiano da Matta||4|
Age of Indy Lights champions
|AGE||#OF CHAMPIONS||DRIVERS (alphabetical)|
|18||2||A.J. Foyt IV – Sage Karam|
|20||3||Scott Dixon – Greg Moore – Josef Newgarden|
|21||7||Gabby Chaves – Wade Cunningham – J.R. Hildebrand – Ed Jones – Kyle Kaiser – Spencer Pigot – Paul Tracy|
|22||5||Oliver Askew – Tony Kanaan – Alex Lloyd – Thiago Medeiros – J.K. Vernay|
|23||3||Fabrizio Barbazza – Bryan Herta – Tristan Vautier|
|25||4||Cristiano da Matta – Jay Howard – Oriol Servia – Mark Taylor|
|27||2||Mike Groff – Raphael Matos|
|30||2||Eric Bachelart – Steve Robertson|
* Indy Lights includes the American Racing Series (1986-1990), Indy Lights (1991-2001), Indy Pro Series (2002-2007), and Indy Lights (2008-2021).
Also, we are looking for access to Indy Lights photos from 1986 to 2001. They would help enhance some of these historical stories. We would be happy to pay to be able to use them. If anybody has access to them, please get in contact with us.
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A note from our presenting sponsor.
Once again, a huge thank you to Cooper Tires for coming back to be the presenting sponsor of TSO Ladder for the fourth season. Without them, we would not be able to bring you our extensive Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires coverage. If you require tires, I highly recommend them. Our family has the Discover ® AT3 4S on our SUV and CS5 Grand Touring on our car.
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