Top Contenders montage

The competitive nature of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES is best exemplified by the season championship being decided in the final race of the season for the 15th straight year.

The top three drivers entering the final race of the season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES were all either former champions or star drivers in Indy Lights. Four of the top five drivers are also graduates of the Indy Lights series.

The road to that highly competitive level starts with the Road to Indy ladder system.

The Road to Indy begins with the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship and moves up to the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, with the top rung of the ladder the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.

The ultimate goal is for a driver to graduate from Indy Lights and earn a full-time ride in INDYCAR.

Five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon’s path to success began in the original Indy Lights series in 1999. He finished eighth in Indy Lights that season, setting the stage for an incredible 2000 season when he won six of the 12 races and the championship.

The following year, Dixon moved up to CART with PacWest Racing. He joined Chip Ganassi Racing during the 2002 CART season and has been with the team ever since.

“I think over the last five or more years, it's been an interesting road that is still producing amazing talent,” Dixon said. “If you look at the rookies this year with Rinus VeeKay, he is extremely fast and producing amazing results in situations that have been tough, starting from the back.

“The Road to Indy definitely produces fantastic drivers throughout. I think the talent that's been coming in recently has been a standout, even some of the guys that have come from Europe. It’s great to see them. I know this year has been a little bit different, but I hope it continues and has great strength in the coming years.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Indy Lights did not participate in 2020, but INDYCAR announced last week that the series will return in 2021.

Dixon takes a 32-point lead in the battle for the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion into the final race of the season over another Indy Lights champion, Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden, who won the Indy Lights title in 2011 driving for team owner Sam Schmidt.

Newgarden won five of 14 races that season and moved up to INDYCAR in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. He has parlayed that into an outstanding career, with NTT INDYCAR SERIES championships in 2017 and 2019 with Team Penske. He also has 17 career INDYCAR wins, including three this season.

“Speaking to Indy Lights and the different versions it has been over the years, it’s a great championship,” Newgarden said. “It’s a great lead-in to INDYCAR racing. You get exposed to the same tracks as the top guys and get an understanding of the flow and cadence of a race weekend.

“There are a lot of positives that it brings. It is inevitable that it has produced a lot of good talent. It should.”

Newgarden believes Indy Lights an attractive place for young talent because they are exposed to the INDYCAR paddock. Indy Lights races are often the support series for INDYCAR, and some of the top INDYCAR teams in the series, such as Andretti Autosport, are also involved in Indy Lights.

“I wanted to be a professional INDYCAR driver one day, and the best path to do that was coming through Indy Lights,” Newgarden said. “It’s something we have to provide and protect. Roger Penske is quite keen on making sure we have a healthy ecosystem, and that is a big part of that. We have to be cultivating the talent from the early onset and providing a good channel to access the series.

“Indy Lights over the years has proved that, even more so lately with our latest champions and drivers that have come through in Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta.”

Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta are the two best examples of how a successful Indy Lights driver can go on to excel in INDYCAR. O’Ward enters the final race of the season fifth in points but was as high as third before the INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR doubleheader at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most recent two rounds on the schedule.

O’Ward believes the Indy Lights machine provides a perfect proving ground to prepare talent for the top step of the ladder even though an NTT INDYCAR SERIES car has more power and is about 250 pounds heavier.

“The car being so close to what the Indy car is now, that’s a big factor to how quick you can adapt to the car,” O’Ward said. “I didn’t have to learn a completely new way to drive the race car, and that is so important. The way you drive the thing is pretty much what you learned in Indy Lights.”

O’Ward and Herta battled each other as Indy Lights teammates at Andretti Autosport in 2017 and 2018. O’Ward won the Indy Lights championship in 2018 with nine wins in 17 races.

Originally scheduled to be teammates with Herta at Harding Steinbrenner Racing, O’Ward never drove for the team in 2019 and split time with Carlin in INDYCAR and the Red Bull driver development program in Europe.

He returned this year alongside 2019 Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew at Arrow McLaren SP.

“I think it’s the most important thing that either INDYCAR or Road to Indy to make it happen because that is going to be the stepping-stone to younger drivers to get into INDYCAR,” O’Ward said.

Meantime, Herta has gone on to Andretti Autosport and become one of INDYCAR’s brightest new stars. Although he never won the Indy Lights title, his third-place and second-place championship finish in his two Indy Lights seasons helped prepare him for more successful in INDYCAR.

“It proves that it’s really competitive and it’s working that guys can step into Indy cars and be fast right away,” Herta said. “They do a good job with the schedule, getting in a mix of everything you are going to run in INDYCAR from short ovals to road courses to street races to superspeedways. It shows the formula is working and what they are doing is really good.

“There is no other place in the world where you can win your way to the top and not have to pay (because of championship scholarships). It’s a formula that has been really good. Every year at the Indy 500, half the field have graduated from the Road to Indy.”

Multiple drivers can come through the ladder system at the same time, rise through the ranks and keep the rivalries going in INDYCAR. That is what O’Ward and Herta have done as recent Indy Lights graduates.

“It puts pressure on everyone in INDYCAR, too, to know there are fast guys coming,” Herta said. “If you think you are in a solid position with a team, you can never settle because there will always be somebody trying to take your spot.

“When you have guys, who are so close to reaching the top, they work that much harder because their dream can become a reality.”

The Road to Indy ladder system charts a road map to INDYCAR. By providing that, it’s up to the driver to make the most of that opportunity.

“It does go to show if you have the work ethic, talent and desire, there is a system in place that can help elevate you from the very beginning step to the top step in INDYCAR,” Newgarden said.

The season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Oct. 23-25 will put the two 2020 Road to Indy champions into the spotlight on track. Both newly crowned Indy Pro 2000 champion Sting Ray Robb and USF2000 champion Christian Rasmussen will finish their seasons with two races each on the streets of the Florida Gulf Coast city.