To date, we've only had a season's worth of data to see how the program has worked. So far, it has to be given a mixed grade. While USAC's Bryan Clauson did well enough with his time in Firestone Indy Lights, 2010 Lights champ JK Vernay could not secure a billet in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
USF2000 and Star Mazda, on the other hand, seemed to work well. USF2000 champ Sage Karam came on strong towards the end of the 2011 Star Mazda season, and Star Mazda champ Conor Daly won in Lights while running a partial schedule.
The good news is, there are plenty of deserving drivers throughout the American open wheel ladder system. Star Mazda should mix it up with a ton of excellent young prospects once again, and Indy Lights, though lacking large car counts, will likely produce at least a couple of drivers ready to make the leap to the big cars. But what's really going to be examined in 2012 is graduation and retention. Are the drivers receiving enough of a scholarship to truly assist in climbing the ladder? Once they're there, can they continue on the ladder or gain additional attention to help out?
|Karam: Continuing Up The Ladder?|
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Of course, the system won't bat .1000, but it is important that we see these elements of graduation and retention in the system. Watching Petri Suvanto, Tristan Vautier, and Josef Newgarden, as well as Bryan Clauson, Sage Karam, and Conor Daly, as we mark how their careers progress, will be a good indicator in how well INDYCAR is doing their part to encourage young talent.
I've discussed Newgarden's 2012 scenarios recently; as a deserving Firestone Indy Lights champion, you've got to hope he makes the jump to the IZOD IndyCar Series in a solid ride. A ladder series has to go to the top, not just 3/4s of the way. Fortunately, I do think he's perhaps in a bit better situation than his predecessor.
Additionally, we'll also see how the further efforts to involve USAC in the ladder pan out. As USAC National Champ, Clauson will again be working on a program somewhere along the INDYCAR ladder. I've argued before we should see him in the 500 this year; but the jury's still out on whether or not that will happen. I'm also curious to see how USAC guys like Jacob Wilson do in their crossover attempts, as well as if the series visibly does any networking with young prospects such as Kyle Larson. If we want grassroots involvement in the ladder series, increased USAC involvement is obviously the place to start.
American open wheel racing has a lot of perks and opportunities, which is one of the reasons why we see our friends from across the pond decide to call Indianapolis home. There's excellent talent in the ranks, both American and international, and there should be no shortage of incredible competition at each level. With another year of seeing how the Mazda Road to Indy is faring, we should have a much clearer picture of the program's overall strengths and weaknesses in bringing that talent along.