By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
I really am a glutton for punishment, I admit it. Much to my own detriment, I read online comments and there was a central one that I saw quite often during the INDYCAR Grand Prix weekend:
“Why are there only seven cars in Indy Lights? What happened to Indy Lights?”
There were various people calling for outrageous suggestions such as shutting Indy Lights down or merging various championships on the Mazda Road to Indy to avoid this situation.
Folks, Indy Lights is going to be fine, what you’re seeing is the result of a gradual transition to a more relevant race car across all three championships. Let’s take it back from the beginning.
In 2012, INDYCAR debuted a new race car, the DW12, to replace the older IR-05. The newer car was designed to road race while the older car was an oval car that was set up to turn right as well. With a massive design change, the older Indy Lights car was not as good of a stepping stone as it once was and a new car was needed.
In 2015, Indy Lights got a brand new car, the Dallara IL-15. The newer car replaced the older Dallara that made its debut in 2002. When the new Indy Lights car made its debut, the Pro Mazda car was still the same car from Star Race Cars that made its debut in 2004.
A car from 2004 was not going to be a good transition to the IL-15. A new car was needed but USF2000 got the new car first. That car’s design was older than the Pro Mazda car and Pro Mazda was then in a sort of limbo.
The older Pro Mazda car was not a good transition car to Indy Lights and more teams either scaled back their Pro Mazda efforts or eliminated them entirely after 2015, either from difficulty in finding drivers with budgets or because of the new development environment.
Andretti Autosport closed their Pro Mazda team, JDC Motorsports went back to a part time effort in 2016 and M1 Racing only fielded a car for part of the 2016 season. Add into that the fact that Pato O’Ward dominated the first half of Pro Mazda in 2016, a couple more drivers dropped out of the championship with seemingly no hope of catching him, unless your name was Aaron Telitz. 2017 had more drivers competing in the national class but few, if any, would realistically move up to Indy Lights.
Let’s look at drivers moving up. From 2013 Pro Mazda to 2014 Indy Lights, five drivers moved up, two of them being full time. Add a year to both championships, three drivers moved up from Pro Mazda for full time campaigns while Scott Hargrove only raced at St. Petersburg and RC Enerson moved to Indy Lights in 2015 from USF2000.
Three drivers advanced from the 2015 Pro Mazda series to the 2016 Indy Lights series while Garrett Grist moved up to Indy Lights in 2016 after spending the first half of that year in Pro Mazda. Moving ahead again another year, three drivers moved up the ladder from Pro Mazda while Garth Rickards moved up from USF2000 and O’Ward raced at St. Petersburg and Barber.
From 2017 Pro Mazda to 2018 Indy Lights, only one driver moved up and that was Victor Franzoni. Carlin is on a temporary leave from Indy Lights after fielding four cars in 2017 and Team Pelfrey isn’t fielding a full time car after fielding one last season. It’s easy to see why the field is reduced.
A stronger Pro Mazda car count will lead to more drivers moving up to Indy Lights provided that budgets can be found. Yes, budgets need to come down in all three championships, that’s known. It’s not a simple one or two item list, it’s a few things that need to happen.
Looking at the current Indy Lights field, we have five drivers that are genuine championship contenders. The jury is out on Ryan Norman and while Dalton Kellett is very good on ovals, there’s only three oval races on the schedule. Colton Herta’s in his second Indy Lights season and has raw pace. Telitz won the Pro Mazda title in 2016 and was fearless in the rain last year at Watkins Glen.
Santi Urrutia won the Pro Mazda title in 2015 and finished second the last two seasons in Indy Lights, O’Ward won three of the first four races this season while Franzoni won the Pro Mazda title last season and is pretty much on a plan of “win or else” to help him move up the ladder.
Now, for all the complaining about Indy Lights, let’s take a look at the positives, particularly the fact that we’ve had several teams able to make the move to IndyCar competition after spending time in the Mazda Road to Indy.
Juncos Racing has a part time IndyCar entry, Carlin has a two car effort and Belardi Auto Racing is making a run at Indianapolis with A.J. Foyt. So the teams are doing what the ladder intended them to do. That’s moving up on the higher side.
On the lower side you have teams like Benik Kart. They are one of karting’s largest teams and they’re in USF2000 this year. DEForce Racing ran in USF2000 last year and have expanded to add a part-time Pro Mazda effort in 2018.
The ladder does work. There are faults, but there’s also results and as long as budgets can come down in Indy Lights, we’ll see a correction with more cars.