What to do with Indy Lights?

While the Firestone Indy Lights might provide a proving ground for drivers to learn the skills they need, but the series doesn’t build stars. From what I can tell the Indy Lights series doesn’t even do a good job of introducing young drivers to the Indycar fan base.

Yes, the series needs a better television series, but it also needs a product worth watching. It’s a chicken and egg thing. I’ve watched a lot of Indy Lights races over the past couple of years, both in person and on television, they’re not that exciting. The fields are small, the gap between the good teams and bad teams is rather apparent and there are only a few cars that can win on any given week. There’s a lot of speculation about the future of the series, and I agree with Ryan Stringfield over at Junior Open Wheel Talent when he wrote:

One thing is certain, the Series leadership needs to make a decision soon, as delay — and lack of communication — are only detrimental to the sport and its talented young drivers hoping for a career in open-wheel racing.

May 27, 2011; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indy Light driver Esteban Guerrieri (7) races alongside Jorge Goncalvez (4) during the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I hope that Indycar takes this window they’ve opened by pushing back the new Indy Lights car to 2015 to come up with a package that makes the series work better. Perhaps they can entice other Indycar teams to field junior programs. Currently the only IZOD Indycar teams that participate in Indy Lights are Andretti Autosport and Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. In the past the league offered additional testing dates for Indycar teams, and perhaps there is another incentive to get teams like KV Racing, Ganassi and Penske into racing in the Lights.

Not only does the series need more teams it needs bigger events. NASCAR has been blessed with the success of the Nationwide Series because they can use the Nationwide series to expand to markets Sprint can’t, or wont, race in, like Iowa, Mexico City and Montreal. Indy Lights needs more dates, more ovals, and at least one signature race. Yes, the Freedom 100 is important, but it’s a 50 lap support race for the Indy 500.

Most young drivers come to Indy Lights with extensive road course experience but only a handful of races on ovals, and most don’t have much experience with pit stops, or changing the feel of the car over a long race either. I understand that one reason why the races are as short as they are is to keep cost down, but sprint races without any pit strategy or tire degradation makes for some boring races. There’s also a number of drivers who show up for the Indy 500 every year without significant, or any, experience on an oval. There are a number of ovals that are probably too small for Indycar to consider, but Myrtle Beach Raceway seems like a solution. A new ownership group has taken over the speedway, and they plan on installing SAFER Barriers and increasing the amount of racing at the track. The weather routinely hits the 70′s by mid-March and Myrtle Beach Raceway is only a short drive away from the city’s beach resorts.

Staging an Indy Lights race in the South could give Indycar a chance to start making inroads while giving its young drivers a chance to experience in a long oval racing. By having it before the Indy 500 there’s a chance that drivers like Rubens Barrichello, Simone Pagenaud, Mike Conway, and others who had never driven an oval in their life before attempting the 500, could show up to get some experience. Perhaps some veterans could be enticed to shaking off the rust at an early oval.
There are a lot of problems with Indy Lights – right now only seven drivers have confirmed seats for a season that starts in less than a month. I hope Indycar officials take this time they’ve bought for themselves by pushing back the new body style for a year and make some bold moves. It’s seems to me, someone standing on the sidelines in all this, that the Hulman-George family is probably needs to make a significant investment if they want the series to grow.

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