Race Weekend Central

Open Wheel Wednesday: The Sudden Death of the Indy Lights Series

Question for the readers: have you caught any of the races in the Indy Lights season this year? Oh, you have? Well, what have you noticed? Anything that bothers you, makes you a bit nervous? Perhaps something relating to the series car counts? You have? Excellent, because you aren’t alone.

INDYCAR has a rather serious problem on its hands that no one seems to be doing anything about or even noticing. Its Indy Lights Series, the series meant to bring new talent to the big leagues of the IZOD IndyCar Series, is dying a slow, painful death, one that should be sounding alarm bells among INDYCAR leaders (if those even exist anymore).

Sure, the racing in IndyCar is great, but with its feeder series in crisis, how long before the top division sees the effects?

Think I’m exaggerating? Check the numbers. Over three races, the series has averaged a grand total of nine drivers per race, with a serious shock coming at the season opener at St. Petersburg in which only eight teams showed up to race. Think about that for a second. The series is running on circuits over 2.5 miles in length, with only nine or ten cars on track. By the midway point of the race, a quarter of the field has usually retired due to mechanical gremlins or accidents, leaving anywhere between six to eight cars left on track. For a series that routinely runs races at 100 miles or longer, this is unacceptable. Juxtapose this series against NASCAR’s equivalent to it, the Nationwide Series, where 40 or more teams show up weekly, and you can see just how bad this problem has become.

Sadly, things don’t appear to be looking up for Indy Lights either. The series’ premier race, the Firestone Freedom 100 at Indianapolis, only has 12 drivers signed up to race. That would be the race’s lowest car count since 2004, when 17 drivers signed up. This very race in 2008 saw 27 cars reach the grid, a high point for the series that likely won’t be seen again

It’s easy to place the blame of this problem on the economy, as the costs required to get into the series are astronomical compared to the benefits of competing in it. The way the series is structured, the champion driver gets a scholarship to run in the IndyCar Series the next year, thus depleting the series of its top drivers year in and year out. This made sense when car counts were high back in ’08, but with only 12 drivers left in the series, it may not be prudent of INDYCAR to continue that practice when the rate of replacement teams is so low. Outside of the obvious benefit of the scholarship (which in itself is wrought with problems, as seen above), there is little in the way of financial incentives to participate. The purse sizes are pathetically low and teams are left to survive on what little sponsorship dollars they are able to put together.

So where do we place the blame? Is it the drivers? The series is currently composed of a ragtag group of young pay drivers who offer little in the way of outright marketability and possess only marginal amounts of obvious talent. It’s conceivable the sponsors aren’t willing to pay the high cost of entry to associate themselves with drivers who offer little hope for return on investment.

What about the TV coverage? The series is criminally underexposed as, despite being part of the NBC Sports Network’s lineup, the series has the unenviable position of being a late morning lead in for the IZOD IndyCar Series (which has pitiful TV Ratings on its own), a time slot in which few potential viewers even have their television sets turned on. Related to this, NBC does absolutely nothing to market the series or build it up so that viewers are even interested to watch.

In reality, all of these factors have contributed to this series’ downslide. At this point, the series doesn’t even make sense any more. The cars are not a big enough departure from the Pro Mazda cars to be a meaningful step up the ladder, and they aren’t similar enough to the IZOD IndyCar Series DW12 machines to be considered a worthwhile training ground for young drivers anymore. With those factors in mind, I think it’s time for INDYCAR to axe both the Indy Lights championship and the Pro Mazda championship and create a new series with new ideas. They should model the cars for this new series to be underpowered, smaller, and less aero-intensive versions of the DW12 machines, all with the aim of making the series cost effective. The highly successful US F2000 series would still occupy the entry level position on the Road to Indy Ladder, and this new series could be a cost-conscious training ground that truly does get drivers prepared for the top-level IndyCar Series.

Whatever the case, change needs to come to IndyCar’s Road to Indy system. The system is an excellent idea in principle and has the potential to be great for INDYCAR, but changes are needed to prevent it from becoming stagnant. Seemingly overnight, the Indy Lights Series has entered it’s death cycle, and it’s time for the brains in Indianapolis to realize what is happening and fix this situation before it gets too late.

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