Road to Indy still riddled with pitfalls

IndyCar commentary — By on January 4, 2010 8:37 pm
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(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

It’s been said that a dose of heavy criticism goes over best when softened with a bit of positivity.  So, let’s start with something positive: establishing a clear ladder system to guide young American driving talent into IndyCars is a massive step in the right direction, and it’s one that was sorely needed.

However, a great deal of work needs to be done before the Road to Indy can be considered viable.

To begin with, by the time the initial announcement was released, the new system wasn’t news.  With the re-emergence of the USF2000 series (now under IRL sanction), a recognized gap in driver development had been filled, and a path to IndyCars immediately became much easier to trace.  In fact, it had already been done several times over in various circles.  All the press release did was formalize the new system and give it a name.

But wouldn’t it have been better to wait until details could be offered on how exactly the Road to Indy will help young talents who see IndyCars as their goal?

As it stands at the moment, the problems with the system are glaring.  Looking at the three series that have been named under the Road to Indy umbrella — USF2000, Star Mazda and Firestone Indy Lights — Star Mazda sticks out like a sore thumb.  It’s a fantastic series that’s quite successful, and it holds an important place in that line-up.  But it currently falls under IMSA sanction and is positioned as a support series to the ALMS.  Sending young talent that we hope to see in IndyCars into the world of sports cars at a critical stage in their development somehow doesn’t seem like the best idea.  (There’s a flimsy rumor going around that there are efforts under way to bring Star Mazda under IRL sanction, but there’s been no news of any substance.)

But worse than that — far worse — is the current prize structure.  USF2000 has also been placed under the Mazdaspeed development ladder, which means that both USF2000 and Star Mazda appear under both systems.  (Mazdaspeed starts with an earlier stage, the Skip Barber National Championship, and finishes with the Atlantic Championship.)

So, the current top prize allotment goes like this:  the USF2000 champion earns a scholarship into Star Mazda.

From there, as of now, the Star Mazda champion earns a scholarship into — wait for it — Atlantics, to continue under the Mazdaspeed ladder.

And then, assuming that the Star Mazda champion decides to eschew that scholarship money and make the jump to FIL instead (and it’s hard to view that as a good decision, given the difficulty with finding money in racing at all these days), the FIL champion — now at the end of the Road to Indy and finally ready to make the jump into the big cars — gets…

Nothing.

That’s right:  at the end of the Road to Indy is a giant sign that says Bridge Out.

Just ask JR Hildebrand.  A driver who should unquestionably be every team owner’s dream — he’s extremely talented, articulate and intelligent, and he’s American, to boot — has no money to offer.  He’s been overseas this winter testing with F1 teams; if he’s been behind the wheel of an IndyCar, there have been no public announcements about it.  Finding JR on the sidelines next season would be a crime of staggering proportions.  But, at this stage, that appears to be his fate.

And with zero incentive for team owners to give these young talents a chance once they’re ready to make the transition — especially when arguably less-talented drivers continue to show up at their doors holding bags of cash — the Road to Indy system is meaningless.

The hope is that these kinks will be ironed out, if not for the champions of the 2010 season then for 2011.  Working toward making IndyCar racing a practical career goal and giving talented drivers a way to get there is absolutely a worthwhile cause.

But if we need to wait for more news to give us faith in the new system, should the initial announcement ever have been made in the first place?

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