If you’re reading this and you are beyond your early 20s, I want you to recall the first time you had the thought to yourself. If you’re reading this before that age of what is likely a professional crossroad, I want you to know it’s normal when you think it.
“They tell me I need more experience before I can land that job that will begin my career. But how can I get the experience if no one will give me a shot without experience?!”
It’s a conundrum we have all faced. In sales, in business and, yes – without question – in broadcasting. To move up the ladder, you must first have footing on the beginning rung. For some, it happens within your field of choice. For others, the first rung may be viewed as a place to temporarily rest your feet. Until, before you know it, it becomes a springboard to a career outside the imagination that drove you through your youth. Either way, a ladder was presented, its height determined by the will and comfort of the climber.
It’s a concept known all too well in racing. For years, race drivers climbed the ranks of their local dirt or karting tracks, hoping an arsenal of wins and impressive finishes parlayed into sponsorship and opportunity with racing’s premier teams.
It was an unscientific formula, one promoter Dan Andersen hoped to refine when his company took control of the three-rung “Road to Indy” development ladder in 2014. With financial support from Mazda, Andersen Promotions created scholarship opportunities for the champions of the three junior open-wheel circuits: the beginning Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, middle-level Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires and top-rung Indy Lights presented by Cooper tires. The rewards allowed the most promising drivers the chance to move up the ladder a rung at a time, with a final destination of the Verizon IndyCar series.
The proof is in the pudding. The 102nd Indianapolis 500 in May featured 25 drivers who gained valuable experience in the Mazda Road to Indy. Next year’s IndyCar Series rookie class will feature, at minimum, three more.
Andersen announced on Monday a commitment to continue the scholarship prizes, even with Mazda’s departure. The 2019 Indy Lights champion is guaranteed $1.1 million and a three-race IndyCar Series minimum in 2020, including an Indy 500 entry. Andretti Autosport driver Dalton Kellett is among the grateful Indy Lights drivers vying for the prize.
“The Road to Indy has been central to my career in open-wheel racing in the U.S.,” Kellett said. “It has given me the opportunity to go from racing go-karts at a small track north of Toronto to competing in front of the Carb Day crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (in the Freedom 100). Many of the racers in the program have gone through the ranks into INDYCAR. The evidence is there, it’s effective.”
Rob Howden has worked as a race and public address announcer for the U.S. junior formulas since 2002. He is also part of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network crew at most events. Working closely alongside Andersen, Howden has seen first-hand the effectiveness of the Road to Indy program.
“There’s just nothing else like it in motorsports. In watching Spencer Pigot rise through the ranks, his career pushing beyond his family’s financial means, the entire Road to Indy approach was proven 100 percent. It’s massive,” Howden told me while recently preparing for a karting event in Las Vegas.
Howden, however, was quick to point out that while the scholarship opportunities help drivers who win the titles, non-series champions are also rewarded with tools to advance their careers.
“You must also extend the proof of the program’s value to guys like Zach Veach and Jack Harvey, who did not win a scholarship or a championship but still honed their skills in front of the IndyCar (Series) owners and paddock and proved their worth,” Howden explained.
Tony Kanaan is the 2004 Verizon IndyCar Series and 2013 Indianapolis 500 champion, but the opportunity to begin what is now a 21-year career in Indy cars came when he won the 1997 Indy Lights title. Kanaan still recognizes what it did for him.
“For sure, it’s huge,” Kanaan said. “I ran Lights but did not have the entire ladder series, but it’s great for drivers today because they run the same tracks the same weekend that we do (in the IndyCar Series). I always tell young drivers to do it. It’s great for them to see us, and we can watch them.”
Getting the experience necessary to be experienced. It’s a tricky, often intimidating conundrum.
If you’re reading this beyond your early 20s, it’s sometimes easy to forget the perplexity of navigating the road map without any idea how to open the atlas. Perhaps you look at your career now, and it seems to have fallen in place faster than it actually did.
For drivers aspiring to rise through the field and become IndyCar Series stars of tomorrow, the foundation is there to make the track – and do so on the fast track.
(Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.)