Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Understanding The Mazda Road to Indy

As most folks who read this site know by now, I’m a big supporter of the Mazda Road to Indy. That’s certainly not true for all INDYCAR fans, some of who maintain a polite, general disinterest in the various ladder series. I suppose there are a number of reasons for it. Certainly the TV and media coverage can be spotty, and there are few names as well known as the Andrettis, Rahals, and Powers of the IZOD IndyCar Series. It’s also true that in the past, the ladder series had a serious disconnect to the top tier in American open wheel racing. Winning in Star Mazda was no guarantee of going to Firestone Indy Lights, and winning in Lights meant little when it came to finding a ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

With the Mazda Road to Indy being completely revitalized in the last couple of years with new TV deals and new scholarships, things are looking better. We’re seeing at record fields in USF2000, incredibly deep ones in Star Mazda, and a set progression whereby the champions of USF2000, Star Mazda, and Firestone Indy Lights can move up to the next level, along with an opportunity  for the USAC National champion to do the same.

Even though the “ladder” is beginning to pay off in terms of driver movement up the rungs, there remain challenges, most notably for our purposes in terms of fan understanding and acknowledgement. Unfortunately, right now, the coverage the series receive is all too often focused through the lens of a single driver, or viewed by those without a proper appreciation for what is trying to be achieved through running a ladder series. What follows is an attempt to try to clear up some of the misconceptions and illuminate some truths of what the Mazda Road to Indy experience is, and why.

The Teams
There are dozens of teams out there right now, competing at every level of the Mazda Road to Indy. Some are relatively well-funded, but many work their tails off just to piece together an entry for each race weekend. Many teams don’t really even have full-time employees. This is a labor of love, doing whatever they have to in order to get out there and field a driver. People like to talk about INDYCAR somehow losing the pulse of grassroots racing, but it’s still here. We’re talking about folks working out of their business or piecing together the parts just to get out there and run a car. There are haves and have-nots in every form of racing, and that absolutely holds true here. That also means there are people doing amazing things on not much more than a shoestring budget, elbow grease, and hope. So if the teams don’t always look the most polished or aren’t exactly publicity rock stars, there’s probably a reason for it.

The Drivers
One of the biggest misconceptions thrown about in regards to Mazda Road to Indy drivers is that they’re all rich kids playing around out there. While there are some drivers who definitely have some family money behind them, there are many others who scrap very hard to put together enough to run even just one or two races. They don’t do it from some sense of entitlement, nor are there cameras right there ready to propel them to international stardom. On a basic level, they’re there because they love to race. In many instances, you’re talking about high school-age children sacrificing a lot to make this happen, week in and week out. They’re calling sponsors, working deals, trying to find a way to stay or get in a car.

Take Edmonton, Canada's Stefan Rzadinski, a young driver that's being mentored in part by Paul Tracy. Perhaps you haven't heard of him, but if not, you'll wish you had. He's trying to secure funding to work through the entire season. He's taken a concept in the Powered By Alberta™ car, and is working hard to make his dream of climbing the IndyCar ladder a reality while competing in the Star Mazda Series . He's balancing real life with a sponsorship hunt, business deals, and, oh yes, improving his driving craft somewhere in that crazy mix. There's no vast family fortune to fund his effort; just his hard work, his family's sacrifice, and the help of those who both want to see a feel-good story make his dream happen, and find value in his brand. His story is compelling and a prime example of the dedication you can find in these young drivers.
De Phillippi: A top prospect
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

The upside of all this is that the talent, along with the promise of a scholarship for earning a championship, has given us a tremendous slate of drivers, both foreign and domestic. Make no mistake, every level of racing has its overhyped also-rans, and the Mazda Road to Indy is no exception, but you can find drivers with the potential to one day taken the green at Indy at every step on this ladder. In USF2000, Spencer Pigot, Matt Brabham, and Roman Lagudi are just several of the drivers that have already shown the type of skills they’ll need to climb to the next levels. In Star Mazda, Connor De Phillippi, Sage Karam, Martin Scuncio, Jack Hawksworth, and many others all can claim to have a shot at the championship. Even in Firestone Indy Lights, which has struggled with car count, Oliver Webb, Tristan Vautier, Esteban Guerrieri, and Jorge Goncalvez could all be drivers to watch going forward.

The Schedule
I have often heard complaints from folks who feel that series such as USF2000 and Star Mazda have very few ovals among them. This is accurate; the only time USF2000 drivers will race on an oval this season, for example, is at the Night Before The 500 event in May. In Star Mazda, this goes up to two, with a race at the aforementioned 500 support event and Iowa Speedway. By the time a driver reaches Lights, they will compete in 4 oval events.

There is a measured progression to this; drivers, especially young ones prone to mistakes, will tend to see both injuroes and accident bills increase on the faster ovals. The gradual buildup of ovals over the course of the Mazda Road to Indy provides an incremental learning curve for those types of tracks while maintaining a commensurate level of risk management.

Additionally, some drivers are coming from a midget racing background. Running the twisty tracks prepares them for the split nature of the schedule at the higher tiers of American open wheel racing. Additionally, note the number of race weekends basically doubles between USF200 and Star Mazda, both for budgeting, in consideration of the commitment level inherent in each step on the ladder, and to introduce drivers to an increasingly regularized racing schedule. There is a rhyme and a reason to Mazda Road to Indy scheduling practices, if folks care to look.

The Racing
One of the biggest gripes I heard over the course this past weekend came from fans decrying the race length for both USF2000 and Star Mazda. They bemoaned the relative lack of green time, as well as the short race windows.

Here’s the deal: these are junior series racing in support of other series. If you saw the track schedule for St. Petersburg this weekend, you saw very little wiggle room as USF2000, Star Mazda, Indy Lights, and the IZOD IndyCar Series (plus a couple of other racing events) vied for track time. Due to its very nature, the track time for a support series will be limited. Additionally, we are again talking about younger drivers. The races are shorter, not only for scheduling purposes, but to slowly acclimate and condition these drivers to longer and longer races.

Along with the youth and relative inexperience of many of these drivers come yellow or red flags. There's no question you’re going to see it, especially with large fields such as we’re enjoying in USF2000. Honestly, it’s a part of racing, and something to deal with. Is it frustrating? Yes, but when you consider all the factors out there, it isn’t surprising. You race hard but smart when you can, learn when you don’t, and understand that it’s all part of being in a ladder series.

The Future
So what does the future hold for the Mazda Road to Indy? Right now, drivers such as Tristan Vautier (last weekend’s Firestone Indy Lights winner), Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s Josef Newgarden (2011 Firestone Indy Lights champ), Andretti Autosport’s Sage Karam and Zach Veach, and USF2000 dynamo Spencer Pigot are all beneficiaries of the American open wheel ladder system. USAC champ Bryan Clauson was able to race a partial season in Lights last year, and will try to qualify for the Indy 500 this May.

Clauson trying for the Indy 500 will be a big milestone for
a renewed USAC/INDYCAR relationship.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
It seems clear that the Mazda Road to Indy is currently recruiting both excellent American and international drivers. Pigot, Karam, De Phillippi, and others represent bright spots for the USA contingent, while names such as Vautier, Brabham, Scuncio, Rzadzinski, and the Colombian-American Gabby Chaves could represent their nations at the highest levels of INDYCAR one day.

Some fans have suggested parlaying another TEAM money spot into additional scholarships for the Series, potentially splitting the money between furthering the INDYCAR/USAC ties, creating partial scholarships for runners-up in each series, and strengthening current scholarships somewhat. Also worth monitoring is the size of each potential field, and ensuring no level of the ladder results in an artificial “glass ceiling” where successful championship drivers fail to progress.

Right now, the biggest item to play out this year (aside from the on-track competition itself) will be seeing how the NBC Sports coverage of Firestone Indy Lights, along with USF2000 and Star Mazda’s Mazda Motorsports Hour, plays in regards to sponsors. No matter how competitive a series or how good the competition, this is still a rough market in which to garner sponsorship, and every opportunity a team or driver can point to for reaching an audience is big.

Watching both the progression of the various series’ champions, as well as the car count, will be two fine indicators of health for the Mazda Road to Indy. And the health of the Mazda Road to Indy will consequently tell us quite a bit about the state of American open wheel racing.

8 comments:

  1. No mention of Skip Barber Racing School which has trained almost all of those drivers, not to mention was just added to the Mazda Road To Indy?

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    1. A very good point; I was focusing on the levels after Skip Barber. Spencer Pigot, of course, is a graduate from Barber.

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  2. Yes and Stefan Rzadinski, Connor De Phillippi, Sage Karam, Sarah Fisher, Josef Newgarden, and Gabby Chaves.

    Good read.

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  3. Nice overview of the ladder series. PR and promotion is vital for these series and teams to thrive.

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    1. Very true, Mark. Let's hope their current TV deals are a step in the right direction.

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  4. Thank you for the comprehensive "State of the Ladder" article. Timely considering the start of an important season for all series.

    I would add the next step for the "Ladder" to evolve toward is some sort of process for additional teams to get involved. That does not mean to reduce the importance and contribution that is currently, and has been historically provided by existing teams, rather as a suggestion for the next step toward the "Ladder" series to become an accessible avenue for talent to rise to the top.

    If I were in a leadership role on the "Ladder" series, I would be very encouraged by the car count in USF2000 and Star Mazda. This bodes well for the future. But I would have to temper that with the reality that there are so many talented, qualified individuals sitting on the sidelines that could make the Lights (i.e. Dempsey, Krohn, S. Wilson, etc.) and to some extent IndyCar (i.e. Mann, Scheckter, Tracy, etc.) an even more exciting product.

    The issue, as with many if not most things, is the money. But with another reasonably successful year of the "Ladder" there will be investors, business people, race enthusiasts who will see the developmental series as an opportunity to not lose a pile of money, but as a viable avenue to at least break even or make a buck. Then the drivers can get out of the money chase business and focus on what they do best.

    There are so many things that need to happen for any of this come to fruition, but it is becoming clearer.

    IMHO

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    1. Great thoughts, Anonymous. I do think that's what we're starting to see with the large fields in USF2000; that investors and teams are seeing this is a legitimate ladder and business operation, and that there is a viable ladder of progression now. It's definitely not perfect, but it's well ahead of where it was a few years ago.

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  5. The problem is getting the IndyCar and F1 fans to get interested in the lower rungs on the ladder and become active fans. Yes, a lot of sponsors are coming into Skip Barber up to IndyLights, but unless the fans start to take an interest online and at events, it's useless, and they'll leave. Newgarden has been kicking butt on the track for YEARS, and the lower ladder series have been broadcasting it to deaf ears, but only now that he's made it to the top are other people noticing and cheering him on. Same for Hinchcliff too.

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