The man who must fill the potholes in the Road To Indy

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The man who must fill the potholes in the Road To Indy
David Malsher
By: David Malsher
Nov 9, 2018, 4:18 PM

Jonny Baker is the man tasked with ensuring the Road To Indy program capitalizes on a resurgence in IndyCar’s popularity as young drivers struggle to find the finances and opportunities in European open-wheel racing. He spoke to David Malsher.

For many years, it seemed that IndyCar had the best-structured feeder formula system in the world. OK, so the titles of the championships on what was then called the Mazda Road To Indy don’t appear to connect – USF2000, Pro Mazda, Indy Lights – which causes confusion among the non-cognoscenti. But the categories themselves are logically structured: USF2000 has approximately 170hp, Pro Mazda has 270 and Indy Lights has been at 450hp for the past four years.

Mazda, loyal backers of the series since 2010, also introduced a scholarship program so the champion of each category received a substantial prize to help him (and usually his team) graduate to the next level. Since 2015, the Lights prize has guaranteed the champion three entries in IndyCar races the following year, including the Indy 500.

It should have been a glittering success, and in some respects it has been. Certainly one can’t really argue against the fact that the recent champions and nearly-champions in Indy Lights have proven worthy additions to the IndyCar ranks. Josef Newgarden, Spencer Pigot, Ed Jones, Matheus Leist, Zach Veach, Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta all have “secure” fulltime (almost fulltime in Jones’ case) rides for 2019, while Jack Harvey is a part-timer for Meyer Shank Racing, Kyle Kaiser will hopefully make a comeback along with Juncos Racing, and we surely haven’t seen the last of Carlos Munoz, Sage Karam and Gabby Chaves. Yes, some highly talented but penniless drivers have gotten lost along the way – Matt Brabham and Nico Jamin spring immediately to mind – but that’s sadly inevitable and no indictment of the RTI.

Problem is, neither Indy Lights nor Pro Mazda have been hugely successful in terms of grid numbers and there are many theories about why this is so. Is Indy Lights too expensive for what it offers in terms of TV coverage for the sponsors of young drivers? Certainly Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Carlin Racing pulling their multi-car entries in consecutive seasons would suggest so, although both squads are some ways down the road to returning in 2019. Both Sam Schmidt and Trevor Carlin admit they received serious inquiries from well-funded drivers over the past couple of seasons, but they each have an aversion to running a one-car program, and finding a second driver with enough money was the issue.

That being the case, Michael Andretti – who tells Motorsport.com that he is hoping to continue running four cars but is “not there yet” – may well continue to provide around 50 percent of the entries in Lights in 2019.

USF2000 has looked very healthy since the handsome Tatuus USF-17 was introduced in 2017, but its more powerful brother, the PM-18 which Pro Mazda adopted this year, has not given the second step on the Road To Indy the same boost. Last year only seven drivers competed in every Pro Mazda round. Did the FIA-backed US Formula 3 and USF4 series, using Crawford chassis and Honda engines, offer a cheaper alternative that had diluted the RTI talent stream in terms of potential teams and drivers? It’s another unproven theory.

Mazda pulling its title sponsorship of the Road To Indy at season’s end has looked like a gut punch, since Mazda USA has been providing some $1.2m in scholarships across the three series each year. However it was confirmed by Andersen Promotions a few days ago that the champions’ prize fund has been slightly increased for next year, and that the RTI’s longtime rubber supplier Cooper Tires would be the presenting sponsor.

That said, there is still a lot of work to be done to increase the Road To Indy’s appeal, and much of that burden will fall on the new series development director, Jonny Baker. He spoke candidly to Motorsport.com about his immediate aims and the problems that need addressing if the Road To Indy is to continue offering a viable alternative to the European junior formula structure.

Santiago Urrutia

Santiago Urrutia

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

DM: What are your feelings about the European open-wheel ladder system and how it compares to the Road to Indy?
JB:
I’d have said over the last two seasons Europe did a very good job of getting their act together, making the feeder system more defined and getting costs under control at the lower levels – in particular, the regional F4 championships, leading to F3, GP3, GP2. I thought they were doing a good job.

But interestingly it’s going to take a step backward going into next year because you’re going to have F3 replacing GP3, and the old FIA F3 series with Dallaras is going to remain as just an F3 series that follows the DTM events. And now you’ve got Renault upgrading their Eurocup to a Tatuus F3 car and you’ve still got F3 Open and they seem like they’re trying to do an equalization program so the Dallara-Mercedes can come in and race in that series as well. So all of a sudden there’s a bunch of options and none of them, to my mind, seem particularly good value.

The bottom ranks, F4 and Renault Eurocup, are still reasonably cheap and you get a good amount of track time for your money. It’s really hard to beat that value, which is why our USF2000 series has been numerically dominated by drivers from North and South America. But then Pro Mazda is about the same budget level as F3 Open, so at that level they start to have similar appeal, and then the new Formula 3 [that replaces GP3] sounds like it will be a minimum of one million Euros [$1.15m], F2 will be 1.8 million Euros [$2.06m]. After talking to some guys in Barcelona at the Euroformula Open and Formula Renault round, 90 percent of the feedback I got was amazement that an Indy Lights budget for a year is, give or take, around just a million bucks.

So my feedback to Dan Andersen [owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions] and Michelle Kish [COO] is that Indy Lights is not too expensive, contrary to what some people said, but that the message is lost out there. The message needs to be that being an IndyCar driver right now is arguably more attractive than it’s ever been in the last dozen years, and that recent Indy Lights graduates have got full season contracts at the top level. That resonates with a lot of people – as do the scholarships for the champions to help propel them to the next level.

What’s Road To Indy’s TV package like compared with the European junior coverage?
That’s the area where I think we are lacking, because Formula 2 and GP3 has been live on Sky Sports over there, which is pretty tough to beat. But it’s good that NBC Gold will be streaming all the Lights races and hopefully Pro Mazda and USF2000 will continue with the same streaming. But that’s definitely something F2 and GP3 – or F3 as it will be – has going for it.

Tamy [Valkosky] has been working hard with the NBC guys to try and ensure Lights gets good coverage again next year, and I do think that’s important, although I don’t know how much of a consideration that is for drivers looking at potentially making the move to Lights, as opposed to simply thinking in terms of making a good career move. I think European drivers that come over here do so in the knowledge that OK, they’re going to get less air time, less promotion, but it’s also going to cost them less to race here.

Then from the drivers who I’ve worked with, I’ve found they come over here with European backers but after a year or two, they need to source their funds from elsewhere – usually an American company – because their Euro links have dried up.

And does the relative lack of TV coverage hurt the chances of a driver from landing a big sponsor?
I really don’t think so. The biggest success I’ve seen drivers have in obtaining and keeping a sponsor is working the B2B angle, the customer experience angle for partners and suppliers. I mean, even at the top level, I think if you look at most successful IndyCar sponsor-team relationships, it’s the same there. Foster those relationships in the Lights paddock, and you might take them to the next level.

You can see where I’m working toward here – the big question. Why were there only seven or eight Lights cars on the grid this year?
Well I think there was a perfect storm of circumstances. In 2017, the last year of the old – ancient! – Pro Mazda car, there were very low grid numbers, so the pool of drivers that could potentially move up to Indy Lights was very small. This year, with Pro Mazda fields getting stronger, deeper, there will be more drivers moving up to Lights in 2019. That’s one of the keys.

Then there was the loss of Carlin and Schmidt Peterson, again something that I’m hopeful might change for 2019.

And there were also rumors of parity issues regarding engines in 2017 that I think temporarily hurt the series in the eyes of potential entrants. But that seems to be all resolved now, with an upgrade to the turbo wastegate, and there was no one complaining about engine parity this year. So I think that will encourage anyone who thought they were on the rough end of that deal the previous couple of seasons.

The AER engine in the Dallara IL-15

The AER engine in the Dallara IL-15

Photo by: Indy Lights

Have AER and Elite re-committed to maintaining and building the Road To Indy engines despite the lack of Mazda backing from here on?
Yes, they’ve both been fantastic, very committed, and making sure that teams have all they need to test this winter and next year. Seems like they’ve got Dan’s back in a big way.

Regarding Pro Mazda and the Tatuus PM-18 that was introduced this year, before the season started there were engines throwing cranks, rev limits were having to be imposed, and then there were complaints that it used the same brakes as the USF-17 despite having 100hp more. Have those issues been addressed?
To put it bluntly, because I ran Team Pelfrey for the past four or five seasons, from this time last year through until March, I was pulling my hair out over the new car. But I can tell you that Dan [Andersen] was great and he really stepped up on the engine side and as we rolled into St. Pete he had figured out the problem with the cranks, and we’d learned that you didn’t want to run them past a certain mileage, and so you fitted a new one. But now the racing crank has come in, there shouldn’t be any more of those issues and honestly from the Barber round [late April] onward, that was the only problem.

So yeah, I think the car was just a little underdeveloped, and where it is now, I think is where it should have been on Day 1, but we’ve worked it out and I was really happy with it in the second half of the season.

And do you think it has proved the efficacy of the PM-18 being ‘simply’ a USF-17 with more power and more aero?
I think so. At Pelfrey, I felt that as we were running USF2000 and Pro Mazda teams together, having the inventory overlap was a huge help, yes. And it’s a badass racecar. The feedback I get from the drivers is that it’s awesome to handle and we know it’s very quick. And yes, going back to your earlier point, we do go through brake pads a little more but at the end of the day, the USF2000 hardly goes through them at all.

It’s fair to say, though, that the introduction of the PM-18 didn’t have the same impact in terms of Pro Mazda grid numbers as the USF-17 had on USF2000 the year before…
Right, but I’m now really optimistic about Pro Mazda grids for next season. There’s a lot of interest out there. Some of the teams I’ve spoken to are pretty happy with where they’re at regarding plans for 2019, so I think we’ll see more entries next year.

Pro Mazda, St. Petersburg 2018

Pro Mazda, St. Petersburg 2018

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

And how much impact do you believe the introduction of U.S. F3 and F4 have hurt the Road To Indy? Some say a lot, some say not much…
I really don’t think it has made much of a difference. I think, unfortunately, F4 did hurt F1600 [the SCCA-run series that often serves as a stepping stone between karting and the USF2000 series], which is a real shame, because of the number of F1600 graduates who moved up to USF2000 and were successful. However, there are a number of F4 drivers and teams looking to graduate to USF2000 next year, because they’re impressed with how the Tatuus is put together and how reliable it is. Which isn’t surprising really – Tatuus cars are proven globally.

I guess at the end of the day, we can’t focus too much about what U.S. F3 and F4 are doing. It comes back around to the argument, ‘Do you want to be an IndyCar driver? If so, get on the Road To Indy as soon as possible.’ And so if you want open-wheel experience at a young age, it’s hard to look beyond USF2000 because you need that series’ fierce competition to learn and develop.

I think the argument for F3 and F4 is that you get FIA license points – it’s for drivers trying to ultimately make it in Europe. But to get better as a driver at a faster rate, you need competition and that’s where I think the Road To Indy scores highly.

So what are your priorities as Road To Indy’s series development director over the next two to three years?
Getting the grid numbers up, and we’ve got to be realistic that it will be a progressive thing. So for 2019 we want them all to increase, but there’s not going to suddenly be 20 Indy Lights entries next year. USF2000 has been strong and looks like it will remain so. In Pro Mazda it would be nice to solidify what we have and also take a step in the right direction as far as fulltime entries are concerned. With Lights, it would be fantastic if we were looking at 12 to 15 cars next year – that’s going to be the main aim, and that starts with getting the message out there that a) it’s fantastic value, and b) if you’re good in Indy Lights, there’s a very high chance that you will have the chance to also shine in IndyCar.

It’s not like you can ever stop teams from occasionally choosing drivers with F1 or F2 experience over the Road To Indy graduates. But I think you’ll see the majority of young drivers coming into IndyCar will arrive with a Road To Indy background, and are able to prove themselves at the top level.

Kyle Kirkwood (Cape Motorsports), the eventual 2018 USF2000 champion, leads at Mid-Ohio.

Kyle Kirkwood (Cape Motorsports), the eventual 2018 USF2000 champion, leads at Mid-Ohio.

Photo by: Mazda Road To Indy

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About this article

Series IndyCar , Indy Lights , Pro Mazda , USF2000
Author David Malsher
Article type Interview