Juan Piedrahita

It’s been a winding road, but Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires embarks on its 400th race this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.

The doubleheader weekend on the 17-turn, 2.3-mile scenic road course will feature race No. 399 on Saturday before the iconic milestone event on Sunday prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First.

The top level of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires developmental ladder, operated by Andersen Promotions and sanctioned by INDYCAR, has come a long way since its inception in 1986, when it was known as the American Racing Series. The series was renamed Indy Lights in 1991.

New Zealander Steven Millen took the inaugural race at Phoenix Raceway’s 1-mile oval in 1986, but it was Italy’s Fabrizio Barbazza who took the season title with five wins in 10 races over Jeff Andretti, son of Mario Andretti.

Roger Bailey, former president and chief operating officer for ARS, worked with longtime Indy car team owner Pat Patrick and promoter Ralph Sanchez in starting the development series, which has become a primary pipeline for Indianapolis 500 champions and Indy car champions to this day.

“Throughout the years, Indy Lights has produced many great Indy car drivers,” said Bailey, now retired.

“In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that 30-plus years and 400 races later, the series would still be producing the next-generation Indy car drivers. It is a great tribute to Dan Andersen and his group that they continue to support this critical rung on the ladder in search of the next Indy 500 champion.”

Bryan Herta, the 1993 Indy Lights champion and now two-time winning owner in the Indianapolis 500, put an emphasis on not just what the series does for drivers, but collectively in helping develop engineers and mechanics.

“Indy Lights has stood the test of time, and the roll call of former winners and champions shows that it has been, and remains, the best path to Indy car success for a driver,” said Herta, who now watches son Colton, 17, compete in the series. “And really, beyond that, so many teams and crew members have developed their skills through the Indy Lights series as well, and it really is an essential part of bringing the next generation of Indy car forward.”

Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport hosted the 100th Indy Lights race in 1994, won by four-time 500cc motorcycle world champion Eddie Lawson of Tasman Motorsports. In 2002, native Texan and team owner A.J. Foyt witnessed grandson A.J. Foyt IV capture the 200th race at Texas Motor Speedway.

James Hinchcliffe, winner of the most recent Verizon IndyCar Series race, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, captured the 300th Indy Lights race at the same track, in 2010 when he drove with Team Moore Racing.

“Today’s Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires carries on the tradition of developing talent for the top, and the legacy of Indy Lights and its highly successful results as a training ground are so important to note as we celebrate another milestone,” said Andersen, owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Indy Lights history was started by others, some very important people in open-wheel racing, and Andersen Promotions is honored to be entrusted with carrying on that legacy.”

Former Formula One driver Max Chilton came stateside in 2015 with Carlin, electing to compete in Indy Lights to help lessen the learning curve to the Verizon IndyCar Series when he made the jump with Chip Ganassi Racing last year.

“I felt like it was very important for me,” said Chilton, who won the 2015 Indy Lights race at Iowa Speedway. “Obviously, yes I took a step down from F1, which people thought was a weird jump, but it gives you groundings to learn INDYCAR.

“It gives you a sense of speed, like going 200 mph at Indianapolis (Motor Speedway), which is quick for a junior category. The racing is properly close. If you do well in that, you tend to go on and have a good career.”

Before his days as a three-time Verizon IndyCar Series race winner, two-time Indy 500 pole sitter and team owner, Ed Carpenter was busy winning the 2003 Freedom 100, the inaugural Indy Lights race on the 2.5-mile oval. The Freedom 100 also captured an edge-of-your-seat finish last year when Dean Stoneman edged eventual Indy Lights champion Ed Jones by a narrow 0.0024 of a second, the closest margin of victory in the track’s illustrious 100-plus-year history.

Further proof of Indy Lights’ relevance lies in this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series field at Barber Motorsports Park. Fourteen of the 21 drivers entered have Indy Lights experience; five are past Indy Lights champions.

Rookies Colton Herta (Andretti Steinbrenner Racing) and Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing) lead a squad of 15 current Indy Lights drivers into Barber Motorsports Park this weekend, with no clear favorite for either race of the doubleheader weekend.

“Four hundred races, that’s pretty impressive,” said Herta, driver of the No. 98 Dallara IL-15 Mazda. “It’s amazing that the series has been running for that long and it’s thriving right now. It’s going upwards and it’s looking good.

“It’s really impressive to have a 15-car grid and to have six or seven guys that have the speed to win. I think you’re going to see six or seven different winners (this season), just based on the first race weekend (in March at St. Petersburg).”

The first Indy Lights race of the weekend starts at 3 p.m. ET Saturday, with the landmark 400th race in series history beginning at 12:45 p.m. ET Sunday. Both races will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.