Stronger Lights Series needed now more than ever

(Photo: Gavin Baker Photography)

Since 2003, it has almost become an annual tradition figuring out how the Indianapolis 500 will get to a full compliment of 33 drivers. With a few exceptions such as 2011, most years have seen the entry lists settle around 35 or 36 drivers. Reasons for the limited entry lists vary from year to year but usually involve a lack of engine supply, lack of chassis, or a lack of funding. It appears, however, that 2022 has highlighted a new problem.

Though there are plenty of Dallara DW-12 chassis available, and neither Honda nor Chevrolet has outright refused to grant more engine leases for the Month of May, entries for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 appear to be limited by a lack of available support personnel to engineer and crew a car during practice, qualifying, and the race itself.

The NTT IndyCar Series has seen a nice bump in entries over the past couple years with races in 2022 generally having 26 or 27 entries. That is a far cry from where the Series was a decade ago when car counts hovered around 20 and starting only 18 cars was not unheard of.

As a result, IndyCar racing has somewhat become a victim of its own success. Where teams in the past few years have been able to field extra cars for the Indianapolis 500 and pull crew resources from either an ancillary in-house program (such as a sports car program) or draw from a pool of talented, out-of-work engineers and mechanics, most of those previous drifters (who wish to be) are now gainfully employed by teams who have expanded their full-season efforts. There simply aren’t as many guys and girls looking for work during the Month of May, and that is creating a real problem in securing extra entries for the 500.

Where growth has been stagnant, however, has been in the support series that feeds the NTT IndyCar Series, namely the Indy Lights Series. When the Indy Racing League and Champ Car merged in 2008, the first season of Indy Lights featured races with anywhere from 20 to 27 cars. A decade later when Pato O’Ward won the championship, those fields had dwindled to seven full time entries with a maximum of nine cars entered for the opening weekend at St. Pete.

Not only is this a terrible look for the top-step of the Road to Indy from an optics standpoint, it has also basically dried up the talent pool for engineers and mechanics who, just like the drivers, use the IndyCar ladder system to gain valuable experience in open-wheel racing.

There was a time many years ago when entire teams, not just a driver, would move through the ladder system even though the “system” itself was vastly less organized than today’s well-defined ladder. Teams like Tasman Racing, Forsythe Green Racing, and PacWest Racing all had successful runs in the Indy Lights and Atlantic Series and used those successes as a stepping stone within the organization to move into the CART Series or to actually move the entire team into the CART Series.

There have been some recent efforts by teams to better utilize and support the current iteration of Indy Lights, but the attempts have been few and far between. Sam Schmidt had a very successful Indy Lights program for many years and won several championships as a team. However, once Schmidt was firmly entrenched in the IndyCar Series, his Lights program was shuttered following the 2016 season.

Michael Andretti has continued to support the Lights series with his four-car effort. Unfortunately, he and Dale Coyne (in collaboration with HMD Motorsports) are the only two IndyCar owners currently supporting the AAA League of IndyCar Racing. The current NTT IndyCar Series team owners need to do a much better job of growing Indy Lights.

Kyle Kirkwood turned a 2021 Indy Lights Championship into a full-time NTT IndyCar Series ride for 2022. But team personnel outside the cockpit need to make those same advancements into IndyCar. (Photo: Gavin Baker Photography)

Indy Lights has been a bit of an orphan series since it was resurrected by Tony George for the 2002 season. As previously noted, the car counts dropped significantly in the early 2010s, and by 2014, INDYCAR had handed over promotional rights for the series to Dan Andersen. Andersen was already promoting the USF2000 and the Star Mazda/Mazda Pro/Indy Pro 2000 Championships, so bringing the entire Road to Indy under one banner seemed to make great sense. The hope was Andersen could breathe new life into the top-rung of the ladder, starting with the introduction of a new chassis and turbocharged engine for the 2015 season. Sadly, Andersen’s efforts did little to repopulate the series, and INDYCAR announced it would retake control of the series for the 2022 season.

Several new teams have come and gone since Andersen took over the reigns, perhaps most notably Carlin Racing, but the net participation had failed to increase prior to 2022. Perhaps that is beginning to change just a bit though as a vastly bumped 14-car field took the green flag for the Series’ first race of the season at St. Pete. A similar number are expected to also take to the grid next week at Barber Motorsports Park.

Fourteen cars is still woefully short of where the top support series needs to be, but it is a massive improvement from where the series was just a few years ago. The Series would massively benefit from greater participation from INDYCAR teams investing both time and resources. I also think the Lights would greatly benefit from slightly longer races and require teams to perform an actual pit stop during races. This would likely increase costs slightly, but the trade-off for giving teams and personnel that additional experience would be invaluable for those also trying to work their way up the ladder to the NTT IndyCar Series.

It’s always easy to spend other people’s money, but I think Penske Entertainment would be well served to put a renewed focus on the Indy Lights program. It may take some of their money going directly to the Series, but greater return would come from incentivizing the IndyCar teams to invest in Indy Lights. IndyCar has dabbled their toe in such incentives by allowing an extra test day for those who have a Lights association, but it isn’t enough. INDYCAR and/or its teams need to put far greater resources into training programs that may not necessarily be team specific. What if INDYCAR and/or its teams funded a program at Purdue University or Rose-Hulman that really taught the ins-and-out of open-wheel race engineering? What is INDYCAR and/or its teams set up a certification program with Ivy Tech or other community colleges throughout the country to teach race car mechanics? Funding education and getting greatly added name recognition would go a long way to developing the next generation of IndyCar team members that are not just inside the cockpit.

This problem can’t be solved overnight and likely will take years to reap real rewards. But if IndyCar racing can learn anything from its southern stock car brethren, it is that a well funded and highly functional support series isn’t just a nice perk. It is an essential factor for desired growth. It’s easy to focus solely on the driver aspect of the Road to Indy support series, but 2022 has shown us that the Road to Indy is just as critical in developing the next generation of team support personnel.

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