Has it ever been more apparent how important the Mazda Road to Indy is to North American open-wheel racing? With the announcement that defending Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser will get a shot at the Indianapolis 500 and three additional races in 2018, a dazzling track record continues to validate that narrative. The ladder series has been a pipeline for talent into IndyCar, with many of today’s budding stars finding full- and part-time opportunities in 2017-18.
While it is noted this year’s champ Kaiser will be running part-time with his four-year partner Juncos Racing, the 2016 champion Ed Jones has done quite well for himself since departing the Mazda Road to Indy. The Dubai native had an impressive debut in IndyCar with Dale Coyne Racing this past season, winning rookie of the year while recording 5 top-ten finishes the included a podium at the Indianapolis road race. He recently parlayed those efforts into a ride with Chip Ganassi Racing, and will be a title contender come 2018.
Not to be excluded, the 4th place finisher in 2016’s Indy Lights championship has also made the most of his MRTI exposure. Zach Veach was announced as a full-time entry for Andretti Autosport on September 11, creating an incredible opportunity for his first season-long ride in IndyCar. Veach already has four seasons of experience with Andretti, with stops in USF2000, Star Mazda and Indy Lights along the way. It is evident that this relationship was cultivated by experiences in the MRTI, and we are extremely excited for Zach to get his shot.
Offering two more prime examples are Spencer Pigot, now full-time with Ed Carpenter Racing in the #21 car, and our 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion: Josef Newgarden. Using his 2011 Indy Lights championship to secure funding and a spot at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Newgarden is the most ideal case for a Mazda Road to Indy graduate. Allotted the necessary time to develop at teams such as Fisher’s (and later Ed Carpenter Racing), Josef is now regarded as North America’s most well-rounded driver. The race craft, vision and intellect is now on level ground with Newgarden’s talent, and those qualities were realized when he secured the 2017 IndyCar crown at Sonoma.
Promoters of the Mazda Road to Indy will use the Tennessee native’s career as a prime example for years to come: a young driver that received an opportunity in the ladder series, performed exceptionally well and was rewarded for those efforts in the big car. Veterans such as Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan fit that mold as well, following championships in both Indy Lights and the IndyCar Series. Dan Wheldon won the IndyCar championship in 2005 after finishing runner-up as an Indy Lights pilot in 2001.
While this era of motorsport places an immensely large emphasis on funding in order to compete, the Mazda Road to Indy is doing its best to make sure that the most superior drivers are recognized, signed, and integrated into the Verizon IndyCar Series. Hats off to Dan Andersen and the whole crew that lead the ladder program, and we can’t wait to see the next crop of stars develop right before our eyes.
Image courtesy of IndyCar and Sean Gritzmacher.