Hickey: A Flawed Ladder?
Updated: Feb 11
The Road to Indy, which officially launched in 2010 with the USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 (formally known as Pro Mazda), and Indy Lights, launched a new era for American open-wheel racing, with the hopes of ushering in young talent to the IndyCar Series.
I’m here to analyze one critical detail – does it work?
At face value, the clear answer is, ‘well of course it does.’
Since 2010, 33 drivers have come through the Road to Indy and have recorded at least one start in IndyCar. Graduating three drivers per season is nothing to scoff at.
I do, however, have two critiques of the Road to Indy: 1) USF2000 has only seen participation from eight out of the 33 drivers as mentioned above. 2) Once a driver gets from Indy Lights to IndyCar, long-term success does not usually ensue.
The eight drivers that have participated in USF2000 are Askew, Brabham, Enerson, Herta, Karam, Pigot Veach, and VeeKay. Former Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights champions that did not participate in the USF2000 series include Josef Newgarden, Patricio O’Ward, Gabby Chaves, and Ed Jones. Since 2010, the USF2000 series has averaged just under 30 drivers who finished a race per season, and yet less than one of these drivers is likely to make it to IndyCar when all the dust settles.
Oliver Askew in the USF2000 Series in 2017 (Photo: Road to Indy, IndyCar Media)
Earlier this week, Honda announced that the winner of the 2020 F3 Americas Championship will receive a full budget to race in the 2021 Indy Lights championship. Would an F3-USF2000 merger help capture a new crop of talented drivers that could progress through the ladder?
My other contention that something may be off with the Road to Indy is the longevity that most drivers experience once they get to IndyCar. The average driver lasts just over 3.5 seasons in IndyCar. Despite rising through the Road to Indy at a quick rate, finding a quality ride to establish a long career can be difficult or nearly impossible. Many times, a driver is at the mercy of available seats when they come to IndyCar.
Take Matheus Leist, Pato O’Ward, or Tristan Vautier as examples. Leist showed much promise in his one and only Indy Lights season before being relegated to a chance to shine with perennial backmarkers AJ Foyt Enterprises. Leist is currently without a ride after two seasons with Foyt.
O’Ward looked to be in a solid situation with Harding (Steinbrenner) Racing before getting the boot a month before the 2019 IndyCar Season. Carlin, like Foyt, is another team that is towards the back of the grid. They stepped in and gave Pato a chance to race on a part-time basis. Thankfully, Pato has been bailed out by Arrow McLaren Schmidt Peterson, though it’s more for his skills he showed in Indy Lights and the tremendous potential he possesses and not necessarily because of his 2019 IndyCar results. He could have easily fallen through the cracks.
Tristan Vautier, a two-time Road to Indy champion, joined Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2013 in an expanded second full-time car. As with most expansion efforts, growing pains were obvious and it led to a pretty poor showing in the championship. Vautier was subsequently dropped the next season and never got back to full-time status in IndyCar.
Two of the most egregious examples of the Road to Indy ladder not rewarding those who dominated are Matthew Brabham and Spencer Pigot.
Brabham, simply put, was one of the most dominant Road to Indy drivers of all-time. This dominance wasn’t as prevalent in Indy Lights, which is the most important measuring stick to get to IndyCar. Still, other drivers have made to IndyCar with much more inconsistent results. Brabham only got two starts in IndyCar in 2016 and hasn’t been seen on track again. He now races in Stadium SuperTrucks.
Spencer Pigot still has time to get his IndyCar career back on track, but the window is closing. The former Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights champion was one of the first shining examples of what the Road to Indy could to do a driver’s career. However, Pigot used his scholarship money in 2016 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing before getting the road course seat at Ed Carpenter Racing. In 2018, he was promoted to the full-time entry for two seasons before being dropped. Despite showing flashes of speed and talent, bad luck coupled with driving for an average-at-best team doomed Pigot’s chances at longevity.
Pigot in 2018 (Photo: Matt Fraver / IndyCar Media)
Despite the doom-and-gloom assessment so far, there is room for hope. For the first time in a long time, IndyCar has a fresh cop of Road to Indy drivers in well placed rides. Colton Herta is at Andretti Autosport and had a phenomenal rookie season; Felix Rosenqvist is at Chip Ganassi Racing and looks firmly entrenched within that team; Oliver Askew and Patricio O’Ward headline an Arrow McLaren Schmidt Peterson that rolled the dice on going with youth over experience.
It is my hope that big teams using drivers like Herta, O’Ward, etc. will help pave the way for other big teams to go out on a limb and try putting a rookie/less-experienced driver in their seats instead of opting for a safer, more veteran option. If this movement can gain traction, it could bode well for future drivers coming through the Road to Indy.
Do I think the Road to Indy is broken? Not necessarily. It has a clear mission of getting drivers to IndyCar and that mission has been successful. We should be thankful to the system for getting some great drivers to IndyCar. However, shouldn’t the goal be in getting drivers setup for long-term success in IndyCar? Other than Josef Newgarden (and if we are being honest, it took a very patient and loyal Sarah Fisher for Josef’s career to take off), no Road to Indy driver can claim that they have been given the status of 'Elite Driver' within IndyCar.
The success of the Road to Indy depends on how you view it.
The 33 Drivers’ Combined Road to Indy Stats (2010-2019)
81 Seasons Contested
Josef Newgarden’s IndyCar Stats (2012-2019)
8 Seasons Contested
The Other 32 Drivers’ Combined IndyCar Stats (2010-2019)
104 Seasons Contested
Opinions in this article reflect solely on the author.