According to Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star the “Road to Indy” will soon be consolidated into one person’s hands.
Dan Andersen already owns the first two runs in the Road to Indy Ladder in the USF-2000 and the recently re-branded Pro Mazda series. A former owner of several teams in the developmental ladder Andersen has been on a mission lately, re-acquiring the USF-2000, which he founded, and buying the assets of Star Mazda, and renaming it Pro-Mazda. The book on Andersen is that he brings a team owner’s set of eyes to running a series, he’s cut costs and has been working to bring sponsors into Pro Mazda and USF-2000. Andersen seems to be the right person to take the reigns of the Firestone Indy Lights series, in large part because it doesn’t seem like anyone in the Indycar front office cared a great deal about the series.
Andersen has a huge task ahead of him in rehabilitating a series that has fallen to fields of eight to ten after seeing fields of twenty or more just three years ago. With the new chassis put off one more year until 2015 Andersen will be able to go to work cutting costs fairly quickly, and a new chassis might be enough to bring in some new teams from Pro Mazda.
Beyond containing costs and upping the car count, there’s really two big challenges, bringing the series back to what it was — which would be no small accomplishment — and then surpassing it.
One reason Sprint Cup weekends sell as well as they do is because the Nationwide Series is a great undercard, the races are a good length, have a number of recognizable names competing and is a good standalone series in its own right. If Indycar wants to grow it needs a strong support series.
I’ve written before about the idea of hosting a stand-alone race at Myrtle Beach Speedway before the Indy 500, and I still think that’s a good idea. Indy Lights drivers need experience running longer races and making pit stops. Also, there’s a host of short tracks in the South that could boost Indycar’s profile. Ideally though, the Indy Lights needs to do something it’s never really done before, build stars.
College athletics routinely hands the NFL and NBA ready-made stars with national level profiles, but an Indycar rookie would really have to set the world on fire to merit a passing mention ESPN. What Andersen’s long term goal needs to be is to build an open wheel version of the Nationwide Series. Indy Lights must be a viable Saturday undercard to the IZOD Indycar series, have significant, live, television coverage and can serve as a platform for young drivers to build their profiles and for established drivers to take a step back, if needed, to rehabilitate their careers. That’s a tall order for a series that’s never been able to do that.
I’m not certain what the formula would make it work, I only know that it has to. The Indy Lights program has been an afterthought for a long time. Most of the races have been no-pit-stop sprint races with little to no involvement from the IZOD teams. The only current Indycar teams that participate in Indy Lights is Andretti Autosport and Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. In 80’s and 90’s Winston Cup drivers and teams always fielded cars in the support series as a way to gather resources and help the series’ popularity. More than a few Cup drivers dropped down to the lower series as ways of salvaging their careers, an option I bet J.R. Hildebrand had available right now. If Andersen can figure a way to get both Indycar teams and drivers to participate in a Lights race then I think he’ll be a long way along to rehabilitating the series.