Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Americans Scale The Open Wheel Ladder

Nationality in IndyCar is a tricky thing. As much as we've adopted guys like Tony Kanaan or Helio Castroneves as our own, there remains a sensitivity towards national origin a scant year after we saw a record-low number of Americans full-time in the series. We have plenty of great, likable international drivers IndyCar, but there's also not a thing wrong with wanting to cheer for the Red, White, and Blue now and again.

There's definitely been a concern not enough Americans were finding a path into American open wheel racing. Happily, right now the Mazda Road to Indy is looking like a ladder series that's filling up with top American prospects that just might be taking the green at the Indy 500 one day.

New Year, New Champ, Newgarden?
We've heard of Bryan Clauson as the USAC champ getting the opportunity to race the ovals in Firestone Indy Lights this year. Indy Lights has two other key American prospects in Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly, who finished 1-2 at St. Pete in the season opener. Daly was the beneficiary of a Road to Indy scholarship for being Star Mazda champ, which is a great illustration of the ladder in progress. Daly also has business in Europe, but it sounds like he's open to a career stateside as well. Logan Gomez is still searching to put something together this year, so don't count him out, either.

Just below Indy Lights, we have the Star Mazda Championship. This series is packed with a number of truly talented young American drivers. Connor De Philipi took the checkered at St. Pete, and just might be the man to beat this year after giving Conor Daly all he could handle the year before. Chris Miller, Nick Mancuso, Nick Andries, and 2010 USF2000 champ Sage Karam are other American hot shoes to keep an eye on. These drivers all have different situations, but are all exciting to watch in action. The Star Mazda field is extremely deep this year, and quite a few of those legitimate challengers are home-grown talent.

De Phillipi: Eyes on the Star Mazda Championship
In the USF2000 ranks, Spencer Pigot and Zach Veach might be two of the better-known young American drivers, but they're no means alone. Blogosphere and online fave Shannon McIntosh is making the transition from USAC, and her blogs on the topic make for fascinating reading.

Below USF2000, you have Skip Barber and a myriad of karting organizations. The next great American prospect could there right now, waiting. The 2025 Indy 500 champ could be just cutting his teeth at the entry levels of racing. That's one of the things that makes series such as USF2000, Star Mazda, and Firestone Indy Lights fun to follow--you know only a select few will make that jump, but there's a satisfaction in watching  a driver develop and mature over the years.

So there you have it: there are plenty of young American driving prospects out there to cheer on, and tons of poweful international talent to challenge them at every turn. Like most IndyCar fans, I want the best drivers in the world in the IZOD IndyCar Series. But I also want a clear opportunity and path for young American drivers to be able to compete and prove themselves. The Mazda Road to Indy is still a young project and there's work to do, but the talent is there, and the scholarships to move up are, too. We'll see who wins the scholarships, who makes the jump, and who's going to be an All-American star in IndyCar.

(Images courtesy of IndyCar Media and Star Mazda)

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