IndyCar – USAC Champ Gets Oval Ride in Firestone Indy Lights

I don’t normally do this, but it so interesting that I’m going to post the press release from IndyCar in its entirety. I’ll have some commentary regarding this scholarship for the USAC Champion to race the ovals in Firestone Indy Lights afterward.

Bryan Clauson at IMS with USAC and FIL cars. -- Photo by Ron McQueeney,

Wednesday Oct 20, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS (Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010) – INDYCAR, the sanctioning body of the IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights, will award the winner of USAC’s inaugural National Drivers Championship with a scholarship to compete in Firestone Indy Lights during the 2011 season.

The scholarship will allow the 2010 USAC National Drivers Champion to run an oval schedule in Firestone Indy Lights, kicking off at the Firestone Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“As we look forward to the future of INDYCAR, we feel it is important that we embrace our roots,” said INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard. “I’m pleased we have formed this partnership with USAC, which was founded by Tony Hulman and produced legendary champions such as A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford and Mario Andretti. This is an important initiative to continue the tradition of USAC oval racers competing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

The USAC champion’s scholarship will allow short-track open-wheel drivers a path to the Road to Indy, the development ladder system launched by INDYCAR earlier this year for career-minded open-wheel formula car drivers.

“I have listened to countless fans say we need more American drivers and I don’t disagree, but I think it’s more important to say we want the best American drivers in the world,” Bernard said. “I’m a firm believer in our official ladder system the Road to Indy. The experience the Road to Indy provides is essential for drivers to compete in the IZOD IndyCar Series. We hope to have some significant changes in the near future that enhance and strengthen the Road to Indy.”

USAC’s National Drivers Champion will be crowned based on points earned in all three National Series – Silver Crown, Sprints and Midgets. USAC will tally points for the best 25 finishes of competitors for recognizing the overall National Drivers Champion.

“INDYCAR is the pinnacle of American open-wheel racing, and USAC is honored to have this opportunity to share this new relationship and build the Road to Indy through USAC,” said USAC President and CEO Kevin Miller. “We look forward to extending our heritage with Indy car racing while presenting new, exciting opportunities for our participants.”

The USAC-INDYCAR partnership also includes cross-promotional marketing components that allow INDYCAR to become involved in USAC events as well as extend the IZOD IndyCar experience to USAC fans beginning in 2011.

The first thing that I noticed in this press release wasn’t the scholarship. We already knew that this was coming, and that it was likely to be an oval-only deal. What struck me was that this is the first time I noticed the official use of “INDYCAR” as the sanctioning body of USF2000, Firestone Indy Lights, and the IZOD IndyCar Series as opposed to the “Indy Racing League” or “IRL”. True to his word, Mr. Bernard has bent over backwards to eradicate the IRL moniker.

Bryan Clauson in the shadow of the Pagoda.  -- Photo by Ron McQueeney, IndyCar.comThe second thing that I noticed is that there’s still a great deal of interest and excitement about IndyCar racing, its history, and for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I think Mr. Bernard is quite correct in his belief that the league needs to embrace and promote its long, rich history and traditions. Many of IndyCar’s biggest legends came from the USAC ranks, and its good to see the league reaching out to embrace that legacy again. Many of the current young drivers in USAC, such as Bryan Clauson, never imagined being able to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in anything other than a stock car. How sad is it when a young American open-wheel racer sees no opportunity to be a part of America’s greatest racing event?

On the down side, this is an oval-only deal. This isn’t a scholarship for a full-time ride. Although, drivers from USAC will certainly need to become familiar with a very different style of racing, even on an oval, many have little or no experience turning right. I would be much happier with this deal if it were for a full season, including the road courses. That might change if this scholarship ever gets a sponsor. Right now, this program is unsponsored and is being supported purely through INDYCAR. Some is better than none, but if this is going to be a viable program long-term, then it must be sponsored and it must be for a full-season. Still, I’m happy to hear of this as it means we’ll likely begin seeing more young American drivers back in the premier series in US open-wheel competition.

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