Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Lights Fight Could Mean 2014 Traffic Jam

If you're thinking the 2014 IndyCar silly Ssason is mainly about drivers like James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan, you might want to look at some drivers still duking it out on the ladder.

Currently, the Firestone Indy Lights championship is up for grabs. Just how up for grabs? The four contenders are separately by a maximum of only 11 points, and each of them has accumulated at least one win, pole position, most laps led on a weekend,and scored a fast lap during the season. Sage Karam, Carlos Munoz, Gabby Chaves, and Jack Hawksworth have indeed come to play, it seems.

Normally, as we saw with Tristan Vautier dating back to last year and Josef Newgarden before that, the Lights champ is given a scholarship to assist with their moving up to the big cars. While the exact parameters of the scholarship has always been a bit in flux, there's no doubting that winning a Lights title recently is a very handy way to boost one's chances of driving at the top level of American open wheel.

Now, at the start of the year, I would have told you that this was all about Carlos Munoz, that he, or just possibly Jack Hawksworth, would win the Lights title and get at least a shot at a full IndyCar ride. Then, as Sage Karam came on strong on the ovals and Hawksworth faltered, I thought Karam might pull off the upset. Then, as Gabby Chaves continued to improve every weekend, I just gave up and finally admitted what I should have known in the first place--I have no earthly idea who was going to win this thing.

Will one of these drivers be moving up to IndyCar?
Courtesy IndyCar Media
Carlos Munoz is the most polished of the candidates, and although Karam has a 2-point lead after Baltimore, I still like the Colombian driver to pull it off, if only by the smallest of margins. And honestly, Munoz has been attracting attention from IndyCar teams already, especially after his excellent rookie run at Indianapolis. Perhaps the clearest scenario has Munoz winning the Lights title, and parlaying his winning into assistance for next year's IndyCar ride. Of all the drivers mentioned, Munoz possesses actual IndyCar experience, and seems the most ready to move up.

But what if he doesn't? Karam is currently leading the standings, and has shown absolutely no quit. He's one of the best American prospects on ovals we've had in some time, and even if he does probably need some more seat time, he's squarely in contention. Hawksworth, his British counterpart, is equally savvy on street courses, though he still needs more oval experience (the ovals nearly knocking him out of contention this year). These drivers are young, and there's no need to rush them, but along with Chaves (who seems to be a quick study and as good an all-around prospect as you'll find), it has to be very seriously considered that they could win this title. What then?

Every IndyCar offseason is another game of musical chairs, and as we all know, there are just so many seats. What if it's not just Munoz making the jump to IndyCar, but Hawksworth as well? (Hawksworth does test this month with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, keep in mind). If another Lights driver puts together a package, will another seat be found, or will another veteran driver with a middling sponsorship package be on the outs?

Even more challenging will be if Munoz and Hawksworth both together at least partial programs for 2014, and Karam wins the title and moves up. That's a lot of young drivers coming up into IndyCar all at once. Ideally, if someone like Karam wins the title, and decides he wants to do a couple of races in IndyCar while doing another full season in Lights for experience, I would certainly hope IndyCar takes that under advisement. Rushing drivers ahead in a use-or-lose scholarship does no favors for anyone.

In one sense, it's a good problem to have. For all the car count woes in Lights this season, there's been nothing wrong with the competition up front. But depending on just how drivers we have coming out of this intense championship battle, there could be a lot of young names floating around come silly season, and it's going to be some work to figure out where they all might fit in the bigger picture.

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