Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reloading in Lights

There are times when you wish you could just zoom forward through a story directly to the ending and see if what you think is going to happen is going to happen, because you not only have a sense for what could happen, but also because of the greatness of the story if it turns out as you think.

That is how I feel about the class of IndyLights drivers we have seen the past two years. It’s a pretty long list: Hildebrand, Vernay, Hinchcliffe, Beatriz, Mann, Saavedra, Cunningham, Kimball, Romancini and Plowman. Then when you throw in the final class from the Atlantics championship: Edwards, Desilvestro and Summerton you see a deep generation of talented young drivers that could be part of something very special in the IICS over the next 10 to 15 years. This could be the generation that brings IndyCar back to popular prominence, perhaps one of the greatest generations the sport will see.

For the next year or two though we will watch them scramble for that first opportunity in the big cars, experience learning pains with those opportunities and ultimately some will stick some won’t. Some will join their more aristocratically endowed generational peers (read: Rahal and Andretti) already established in good rides and will compete with them for greatness. Sadly some may never get that first chance or not be able to capitalize on the chances they get and will fade away. All yet to be determined.

But one thing is sure, they are leaving the cupboard bare, very BARE in IndyLights. I don’t really know how much work is put into oversight of the lights series from a product management and marketing standpoint, but w/o some major help, Lights next year will be a tough sell to advertisers, broadcasters and promoters.

There is one story however that could save the day. For all the effort that has been put into “The road to Indy” as a ladder system to develop drivers for the IndyCar series, it is clear that not everyone sees it as being a simple straight line. Randy Bernard’s road has a fork in it. Randy is committed to seeing that the feeder series pulls from more than one source. The other root to the system are the USAC series for sprint, midget and Silver Crown car drivers. The creation of the Scholarship for the USAC champion to run either lights or the 500 came BEFORE the announcement of the scholarships for the Road to Indy program. Ultimately the rivers meet at the IndyLights series, where the Kart raised formula racers from America’s coasts and other international series meet up with the Midwestern kids who got their start in quarter midgets and moved up the USAC ranks.

And in that context is where a reinvigorating drama in Lights may very well play out.
What we know so far is that USAC champ, Bryan Clauson, has won a $300k scholarship that will fund a ride for the oval portion of the lights schedule, likely with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Interestingly, Clauson said when the prize was announced that he would be interested in running road portion of the lights season as well. If Clauson is serious about running a full season, my guess is that the additional money won’t be a problem as SSM has at least one full time team sponsor.

On the other side of the ladder, Connor Daly spent 2010 absolutely humbling the rest of the Star Mazda field. He drives a Subaru wrx and was recently implicated in the firebombing of Graham Rahal’s mailbox so really, what’s not to like?

It has long since been assumed that the career path for Connor would take him to a GP3 or Formula 3 ride in Europe where he would climb the dev ladder into F1 where his father Derek Daly Raced and then back into IndyCar after his F1 window closed. To that end Connor participated in the GP3 tests this fall. Not being all that “up to speed” on interpreting GP3 test results, I consulted a European based blogger to get a more informed opinion on Connor’s test and the response was (paraphrased): solid, but not earth shattering, Connor was paced by several drivers who knew the GP3 car and Jerez circuit already.

Which begs the question, if Connor has no additional financing lined up, were the results strong enough to earn a merit based seat when compared to a number of other drivers who bring financing with them? Since the GP3 test, the Mazda Sponsorship of the Road to Indy was announced which includes a scholarship for the Star Mazda champion into IndyLights. This has to be a game changer for Connor considering Lights as an option.

Via twitter Connor recently asked his followers to guess where he was going to race next year. It seems to me that all roads for Connor lead to FIL and I am not the only one who now thinks that. Sage Karam the 2010 USF2000 champ who will be making the leap to Star Mazda replied via twitter FIL also. A paid for ride, potentially with Andretti Autosport is waiting should he choose that route. Randy Bernard has been selling Connor and Derek hard on the resurgent IndyCar series. If Connor Stays, another big win for Bernard.

When Bernard was the leader of the PBR, one of the interesting things he managed to do was to create a following for the individual bulls, not just the riders. Then the matchups between top bulls and top riders became as much must see events for PBR fans as when the great hitters face the great pitchers in Baseball. What it seems to me is that Bernard understands that matchups and rivalry make a sport compelling. In IndyCar, there is plenty to be had, road racers vs oval specialists, Americans vs Brazilians vs the rest of the world. But here in lights for 2011 just might be his masterpiece thus far. If Connor commits to Lights and Clausen runs the entire series, this matchup could begin a rivalry for the ages.

Though both Daly and Clauson both hail from Noblesville, they could not be any different. Daly grew up the son of a former F1 and IndyCar driver. Clauson grew up with no such pedigree. Daly has learned to drive turning both left and right, Clauson on dirt or pavement. Clausen would drive for Schmidt, Daly for Andretti, the two teams that have split the last 4 Lights titles right down the middle. A year ago their paths never would have crossed. A year ago neither would have been in Lights for 2011. But in short order, a plan has gone from vision to reality. I say let the spectacle begin. But the question becomes, will it be televised?

5 comments:

  1. Great post! Nice analysis of Lights. I agree that we’re seeing a lot of talent from the past few years arrive around the same time (and probably delayed from when it should have been in several instances). Hopefully the Mazda Road to Indy fills the gaps and makes that talent flow more regular in nature.

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  2. This is a great time for all of this young talent to come into the series. Most of the top-level talent in the series are on the other side of 30 and many on the other side of 35 (Helio, Dario, TK, etc.). The series is going to turn over in the next couple of years and it will be great to have all of these talented young drivers ready to step up. Combine that with the unification of AOR and the new cars and you have the possiblity of another golden age in the making.

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  3. Another name to look out for in Lights next year may be Esteban Guerreiri.

    He is a young Argentine chap that just ran 3rd in World Series by Renault, despite missing three races, but sadly doesn't have the money train for GP2. A race winner in a number of junior series, but like many from Argentina, backing is non-existent.
    Apparently he has signed with Sam Schmidt and will partner Clausen for the 2011 season.

    Potentially this generation's TK.

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  4. Nice article, JP! ...however... regarding the Star Mazda to Firestone Indy Lights scholarship, that won't be in effect until 2012. Sadly, Daly won't see that money. That's not to say that Bernard isn't working extremely hard on his behalf, and you make a great point about his ability to highlight and market match-ups. Unless he secures some sponsorship, however, he's likely to be driving a Mazda RX-8 in the Grand-Am GT series.

    Right now, the lack of a television contract is a huge negative for Firestone Indy Lights. Heck, even Star Mazda and USF2000 were on TV in 2010, at least partially. This *is* being worked on, and hopefully they'll have a resolution before the beginning of the season. It's already too late to woo potential sponsors, but it may aid the 2012 class.

    At the moment, I don't see any for-hire rides in FIL. If you're not bringing a bag of cash, forget about it. It's sad, especially seeing how strong the Star Mazda series is, but that's the facts. Hopefully, we'll have good news in 2011.

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  5. Doug,
    Not sure I am as pessimistic about Connor's prospects for next year. The Andretti/AFS Lights rides have never been complete ride buys in the past. While drivers there have brought funding, it has not been the complete $600k. The changing of the AFS/Andretti relationship may change that some, but the talk there is of expansion not contraction right now.
    There was a prize for winning Star last year and Connor will have that at his disposal. Then frankly the Daly family is no w/o financial resources. The Penske's they are not but, he went to a private school for HS and now is the time in a young driver's career when college funds become allocated for different means than originally intended. SO I think he can come up with a partial funding package to drive somewhere.
    Then the question becomes where? I think GP3 is out of the price range and a merit based ride does not seem emminent. Another Alternative more affordable is British F3 but that is not yet a proven path to anywhere and I think that may make the Daly's a little nervous.
    I just don't see a Grand Am ride, even with the Mazda factory team as an alternative. At this point it has been nothing but career suicide for those who have taken that path. John Edwards and Adam Chrisodoulo are on No ones radar for anything in open wheel at this point.

    I think he will be in lights next year. Strings will be pulled, arms will be twisted and pockets will be dug into and a way to get him there will be found if it hasn't been already. Bernard's personal involvement thus far suggests this is too important to him for him to let Connor wind up in an car from an ISC ownd series.

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