By Road to Indy
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – When qualifying begins tomorrow for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500, a record 27 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires alumni will be among the field of 35 drivers vying for a coveted spot on the 33-car starting grid. Now more than ever, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires and its moniker “there’s nothing like it in the world” has underscored its relevance as a clear scholarship-funded path to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
From the outset in 1986, Indy Lights established itself as the preeminent training ground for future IndyCar stars with champions Scott Dixon, Bryan Herta, Tony Kanaan, Greg Moore and Paul Tracy making immediate impacts. Over the past nine seasons, more than 20 graduates have secured IndyCar rides including five former Indy Lights champions (Josef Newgarden, Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves, Spencer Pigot, Ed Jones and Kyle Kaiser).
In addition, six-time Indy Lights race winner Zach Veach, 2015 Freedom 100 winner (and two-time series runner up) Jack Harvey, 2017 Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist and Indy Lights race winner Zachary Claman DeMelo have made their presence known this year.
“Two years ago, I could not have dreamed of being in the situation I’m in now,” said Veach. “Coming off the Mazda Road to Indy, you have hopes for what the future will hold but you can’t be sure. All you can do is have good results and make good connections. Now, to be with the team that’s won three of the last four Indy 500s gives me a lot of confidence. We’re developing and learning the Indy car and what it takes to be successful, and every day has been an increase in performance. Much of that development comes from the foundation I had in Indy Lights before I made this step.”
“It gives me confidence, knowing I’ve been quick here and won here [at Indianapolis],” said Harvey. “It also gives the team confidence in me, and in my feedback on the car. Indy Lights was such a good introduction to racing here in the States, and especially oval racing. The Schmidt team always gave me a good car and we ran up front much of the time, and that really prepared me for this. This year’s car is closer to the Lights car than last year’s car, though I do think that applies more to road courses than ovals. But there are strong similarities between the Lights car and this car, especially regarding what makes it fast, and that makes Indy Lights just that much of a better step.”
“I’m excited to be back here as an IndyCar driver, hopefully driving in my first Indy 500,” said Leist. “I had a blast last year here in Indy Lights – I did well in the Grand Prix, and the Freedom 100 was my best race of the season, getting pole position and leading all laps. This is a new challenge and I’m still learning every time I go to the track, but the basics are the same as the Indy Lights car. From my first test, it felt similar, the same technique. I am taking everything I learned last year and improving every day out here.”
Californian Kyle Kaiser is the most recent Indy Lights graduate, earning a Mazda scholarship as the 2017 series champion to contest a minimum of three IndyCar races including the Indianapolis 500. Moving up with his championship-winning Juncos Racing team, Kaiser has focused on learning everything he can as he prepares to realize his dream of racing in the Indianapolis 500.
“I’m not focusing on anything other than what we’re doing right now,” said Kaiser, “trying to make this car go as fast as it can go. I’m confident we have the speed: we’ve made a lot of changes and had answers on what to do and what not to do. The foundation we got in Indy Lights really gives us the confidence to make this happen. I go into Turn One unafraid, because I passed that moment three years ago. And the cars are comparable, which really helps the transition. I’m not nervous, I don’t question my ability to drive the car. I’ve made the mistakes and I’ve learned from those years, so I don’t have to think anymore. Without the Mazda Road to Indy, I wouldn’t have that confidence. It’s all about the intangibles, inside and outside the car. I’m confident in myself and in the team.”
While the current entry list is stacked with alumni, the Mazda Road to Indy graduates more than just drivers. This year’s Indianapolis 500 will see two past Indy Lights championship-winning teams join Juncos Racing in the progression up the development series ladder – Carlin and Belardi Auto Racing.
European open-wheel powerhouse Carlin joined Indy Lights in 2015 with Max Chilton and Ed Jones. The team won the 2016 championship with Jones, and last year’s Freedom 100 with Leist. Scoring nine victories and 16 pole positions in three years, the team took the lessons learned and knowledge gained and formed a two-car Verizon IndyCar Series effort this season – but hopes to restart its Indy Lights squad next year.
“It’s quite incredible,” said Trevor Carlin. “When we first came over to do Indy Lights we had a dream of possibly one day getting into IndyCar, and I’m amazed it’s happened so quickly. Our time in Indy Lights really prepared us for this, helping us to get to know our way around in the States – all the new circuits, plus all the officials. We really have no expectations this year. We want to qualify tomorrow then focus on finishing the race, so we can understand it all, then come back next year and try to be super competitive.
“All of our focus is on this right now, but IndyCar is on the upswing so we think more people will want to do Indy Lights to prepare themselves for IndyCar. Since Ed and Max proved that doing Indy Lights is a very cost-effective way of learning the scene here, and given the interest in this race, we hope to generate attention for Indy Lights. We’d love to be back.”
The latest name to make the transition from Indy Lights is Belardi Auto Racing team owner Brian Belardi, whose eponymous team is co-entrant of the No. 33 piloted by 2008/2009 Indy Lights veteran and race winner James Davison alongside Jonathan Byrd Racing, Hollinger MotorSport and Foyt Racing. It’s the culmination of a life-long dream for the Wisconsin native, who decided early in his career that he would not attend an Indy 500 until he had a team. He hopes that this is the year he realizes that dream.
“I told James that the first time I saw the car on track, I’d probably have tears in my eyes,” said Belardi. “I can’t imagine what the feeling will be like on Saturday, then again for the 500 itself. I’ve often thought what it would be like to win the Indy 500 – I’ve never been to the race. I only wanted to come as a participant. It will be something new and unique and I’m really looking forward to it. Next week will be very special. It would be nice to win the Freedom 100 and then move into the Indy 500.”
“It has been an important process,” Belardi continued. “We started in USF2000 in 2008 and moved to Indy Lights in 2011 and we’ve learned all along the way – from (team manager) John Brunner to some of our mechanics who have IndyCar experience, we bring that experience with us. The Mazda Road to Indy not only develops drivers, it develops team owners as well. I’ve watched teams go in all at once, but I’m one of those guys who wants to take it slow and get a taste of the biggest race in the world. We’ll see what happens from here.”
Qualifying activities for Saturday’s “Bump Day” will begin at 11:00 am EDT.