Indy Lights Heads into A Pivotal Three-Race Stretch Before Halfway Point of 2022 Season
By Tony DiZinno
Many times in racing it’s not if you win, but when you win, that determines your future going forward.
The next two weeks could be a very pivotal time frame for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires field. With NTT INDYCAR Series silly season already heating up, driver changes anticipated, team owners watching, and an avalanche of top rung of Road to Indy graduates making their mark in the pre-eminent North American open-wheel series, two races in Detroit and one at Road America over eight days could change careers.
The NTT INDYCAR Series comes off its month of May with 20 of its 33 starters in the 106th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge having graduated from Indy Lights, dating from the late 1990s all the way through 2021.
That shows the legacy, importance and frankly, necessity, of succeeding in this series before advancing up the ladder.
The top two of seven finishing rookies were Indy Lights graduates in the form of David Malukas and Kyle Kirkwood, the pair who traded blows throughout 2021 and won 17 of the 20 races between them.
It was in Detroit one year ago where Malukas and Linus Lundqvist had won five of the first six races between them, before Kirkwood swept Detroit to kickstart his season and win five of the next six races.
Kirkwood and Malukas are the latest combatants who have graduated simultaneously. Prior to that, it was longtime Road to Indy rivals Rinus VeeKay and Oliver Askew. Even earlier, it was Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta. While Askew’s gone on a different racing path, the other five are making waves in IndyCar. Herta (seven wins), O’Ward (three) and VeeKay (one) have already combined for 11 wins while Kirkwood (best finish of 10th in six starts) and Malukas (11th) are making inroads for some of IndyCar’s longest standing teams in A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports.
Where the 2022 Indy Lights field is different is that it isn’t necessarily just two dominant forces at the top. It’s realistically half of the 14 drivers that enter most Indy Lights races, even if the points gap at the top is larger than it probably could be.
Linus Lundqvist is the only two-time winner from four races this year, and he’s in a much stronger position as a series sophomore than he was as a rookie last year up against Kirkwood and Malukas. The Swede’s second season with the HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing has borne better fruit in the form of wins on the Barber road course and Indianapolis road course, both in abnormal conditions needing to handle tricky conditions – either starting wet and ending dry in Barber, or going from fully wet and staying wet at Indy. He leads the championship by 34 points, a big enough gap to feel confident but not big enough to feel comfortable. One or two bad races in the next two weeks could easily swing the title.
Lundqvist has several teammates he needs to beat in order to claim the title and the career advancement scholarship that comes with it. First up is Danial Frost, the Singaporean sophomore who became a first-time winner last month at the Indy road course. The driver known as “Frosty” has been a Road to Indy regular with sporadic victories and success, but never a fully sustained championship challenge. Perhaps the confidence boost of his first win will push him forward.
One driver who does know how to win a championship in the Road to Indy is Payette, Idaho’s Sting Ray Robb. He’s known for having the most memorable name in the Road to Indy but even more than that, the now 21-year-old has the consistency of results he’d mostly lacked over the majority of previous years. A change in teams has done him wonders and at Andretti Autosport, he’s banked three third-place finishes and a fourth as one of four cars. For reference, he didn’t finish better than fifth in all 20 of his 2021 starts owing to some extenuating circumstances in the technical department. He is an Indy Pro 2000 champion in 2020 with Juncos Racing so he knows what the pressure of a title battle is like. He’s not the first driver you’d have pegged from the Andretti stable to be a title contender going into the year, but he’s impressed mightily from his opening salvo this season. Robb is four points behind Frost, and 38 behind Lundqvist.
The next batch of four drivers have been either lucky but inconsistent or fast but unlucky in the opening four races, and their points positions reflect that.
Danish driver Benjamin Pedersen, in the Global Racing Group with HMD entry, seems on the brink of stardom if he can break down the doors to his elusive first series win. Pedersen was second at St. Pete and second at Barber, the latter result after giving Lundqvist a run for his money. But 11th and fourth in Indy dropped him to fourth in the championship. With a total of eight podiums without a win, Pedersen is Indy Lights’ “nearly man” of the moment and seems due to finally break through soon. He’s six points behind Robb, 44 behind Lundqvist.
Matthew Brabham’s return to Indy Lights with Andretti after a seven-year hiatus is proof positive of the series’ status increase in its first year under the Penske Entertainment umbrella. He was arguably the Road to Indy star of a decade ago, after securing back-to-back USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000 titles in 2012 and 2013. The twists and turns of his career though have taken him to some degree of Indy Lights, Stadium Super Trucks, sports cars, and even a pair of IndyCar starts for the Brett “Crusher” Murray-led PIRTEK Team Murray in 2016 including that year’s Indianapolis 500. But he’s never had that desired full-season IndyCar chance, so at 28, he made a comeback. It shows a degree of bravery to go up against peers nearly a decade younger but he’s done well; a fortunate St. Pete win on his return was the highlight of an up-and-down season thus far. Brabham is further back from the rest and sits 12 points behind Pedersen, and 56 behind Lundqvist.
In sixth in the championship is Andretti’s Christian Rasmussen, who like Pedersen is a talented Dane just oh so due, and oh so close, for his first Indy Lights win. “Raz” has a title-winning pedigree having claimed the USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000 titles back-to-back – matching a feat achieved by the aforementioned Brabham and Kirkwood. If he wins the Indy Lights title, he’d match Kirkwood and secure his ticket to IndyCar. He clearly knows how to win, with 19 wins and 11 poles thus far in his Road to Indy career. He almost won on debut save for a fuel issue. He’s been hit by teammates. He’s got his first podium with second at the IMS road course. Like Pedersen, you get the sense that once the first win comes, more will follow. Rasmussen is six points behind Brabham and 62 behind Lundqvist at this stage.
The last driver of the seven who has a similar story to tell is the fourth member of the Andretti quarter, Hunter McElrea. He’s got dual citizenship for the U.S. and New Zealand, eight career Road to Indy wins, and three front row starts from his first four races. Unfortunately, he’s only brought one of those home to a podium, that coming at the IMS road course. He’s got a great head on his shoulders and the support of many who’d like to see him enter winner’s circle. McElrea is eight points behind Rasmussen and 70 behind Lundqvist at this stage.
The depth of the field is strengthened by rookies Jacob Abel, Ernie Francis Jr., Kyffin Simpson and James Roe who have impressed at stages – Abel and Francis becoming passing stars in particular – while series sophomores Antonio Serravalle and Christian Bogle have improved adequately from their first go-‘rounds.
Alas, it’s going to be one of the top seven that captures the Indy Lights title in 2022, and there’s good odds at least one or two others may join on the NTT INDYCAR Series in 2023. There’s even better odds you’ll see at least one or two of this group testing an IndyCar before the year is out.
The journey to see who begins now with this three-race stretch in the Midwest from the tight confines of Detroit’s Belle Isle Park for the final time, before the vast expanse of awesomeness at the 4-mile Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.