Yes, you read the title right! The Road to Indy program now has a title sponsor, Mazda. Late last off-season, INDYCAR put the final pieces together for a four-tier development system which clearly marked out a path for young open-wheel drivers to the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. The US F2000 National Championship presented by Cooper Tires and powered by Mazda was the last element to come into place. Dan Andersen of Andersen Racing revived the old F2000-based series with sanction from INDYCAR. Drivers would then graduate to the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear. Star Mazda still remains under IMSA sanction, for now. If successful at Star Mazda, the next step is to compete in the Firestone Indy Lights series, and then finally a driver might realize their dream of securing a ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
There’s been a lot of criticism of this system primarily for the lack of incentive for teams to search for talent directly from the various series within the ladder system. There was no scholarship in place for the Star Mazda champion to secure a ride in Firestone Indy Lights. If fact, the Star Mazda champion was offered a full factory ride, not in any open-wheel series, but in the Rolex Grand-AM GT series! There was also no financial incentive for the Firestone Indy Lights champion to be hired by an IZOD IndyCar Series team. The lack of scholarships and incentives that would move successful drivers up the ladder was a legitimate concern, but keep in mind that the entire system came about very late in the off-season and there wasn’t much time to be able to secure the sponsorship to make those connections happen.
Now there has been time, and the folk involved with the Road to Indy program have been working hard over the past year to address many of the faults of the system as it stood for the 2010 season. First we heard that an IZOD IndyCar Series team that hired the reigning Firestone Indy Lights champion would receive a $500k bonus through the T.E.A.M allocation. Now with Mazda sponsoring the entire program, there will be scholarships to facilitate a drivers ascension through the ladder system including a scholarship for the Star Mazda champion to Firestone Indy Lights and for the Firestone Indy Lights champion to the IZOD IndyCar Series.
“We want to strengthen our ladder system to further develop, reward and advance the best of the best,” INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard said at the announcement in Orlando, Fla. “The Road to Indy was designed to cultivate young talent for the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. In Mazda, we’ve found a partner that not only has a history of nurturing such drivers, but also shares our desire to groom the future stars of INDYCAR racing through its commitment of providing driver scholarships.” — IndyCar.com, Mazda to sponsor Road to Indy program
This is fantastic news and shows a serious level of commitment and devotion to the young developing open-wheel talent racing here in the US. Combined with the new scholarship to place the USAC champion in Firestone Indy Lights, this has the potential to attract more American talent to the series. Mind you, I’m not trying to be xenophobic or anything, but a greater portion of domestic talent blended in with the great diversity of international talent we enjoy would go a long way in helping to sell Indy car racing to a new group of race fans, and perhaps bring back some old ones as well. Be sure to check out the Road to Indy Weekly Wrapup later this week when we’ll have more information about the program and some details about the promised scholarships.