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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Driver Development Programs Key in IndyCar's Momentum

"Momentum" may be the most despised word in the IndyCar fan's vocabulary. An overused term on television broadcasts, describing an abstract concept that ebbs and flows unbeknownst to us all, nine times out of ten it's nothing more than a cop-out to explain something quickly without having to get into too much detail.

Of course, when you apply that term to the sanctioning body, the typical IndyCar fan might change his or her tune.

Yesterday's State of IndyCar meetings went swimmingly, if the many folks tweetcasting from the proceedings are to be believed. The sport and sanctioning body - especially its top two series, the IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights Series - have plenty of new positive concepts to build upon. IndyCar is especially doing its part for future generations of racers and race fans, expanding its marketing to karting, opening up 16 of the 17 garages to fans as young as nine years old, and further bolstering the Road to Indy with incentives to move up.

The most immediate thing that most fans will notice, however, is Indy Lights coverage of every Versus-broadcast event, to be shown the Wednesdays following the races at 6 PM Eastern time.

No top-tier racing series can remain strong without a devoted grassroots program and a development series that continues to produce top talent. The past decade has been hit or miss for Indy Lights; since IndyCar founded its own development series in 2002, the only champions to secure full-time employment in the big cars have been A.J. Foyt IV, Alex Lloyd, Raphael Matos, and J.R. Hildebrand. Especially after this year, which saw some of the smallest Indy Lights fields since the series' inception, everybody knew that things had to change.

And change they did. The new IndyCar regime, led by Randy Bernard, implemented bonuses for the Star Mazda and USAC Triple Crown champions to move into Lights. The Star Mazda champion brings about enough money on his own to run all of the road and street course events, while the USAC driver receives enough funding for the ovals. Those programs will result in the dream combination of Star Mazda winner Conor Daly and Triple Crown winner Bryan Clauson for 2011, paired in the Sam Schmidt Motorsports car that won the 2010 Lights title with Jean-Karl Vernay.

Add the Versus deal to that, and you have what was a left-for-dead development series, one that had been treading water, beginning to establish itself as legitimate.

Of course, that won't prevent some of the drivers from coming into the IndyCar Series through other career paths. Katherine Legge (DTM and Champ Car), Giorgio Pantano (GP2 and Auto GP), and Andy Soucek (Formulas 1 and 2) are among the European talent looking to IndyCar as a career option for 2011. None will end up in Indy Lights if they do, as all have proven themselves at higher levels than that. But that's to be expected - and any big name is a good thing to have.

At least IndyCar's top development series is on steadier footing than NASCAR's premier development league, the Nationwide Series. For the past ten years, a lack of regulation on Sprint Cup drivers have driven that series into the ground, with its past five champions double-duty drivers. NASCAR has announced a rule allowing drivers to collect points in only one of its top three series, but that may not keep the double-duty drivers out entirely. Imagine the black eye that would come with an ineligible Sprint Cup driver "winning" the Nationwide championship once again.

It's just one of the many situations where IndyCar has the edge on NASCAR right now. The TV contract shows signs of improvement as Versus may become the NBC Sports Network. The lack of a contrived championship system is another obvious plus. New drivers, tracks, and most importantly, sponsors are eyeing the series with keen interest for 2012 and beyond, as NASCAR continues to lose its audience.

After a few years of intense struggling, IndyCar clearly has the momentum necessary to become as strong as it was before the split. And now the sport has the driver development program to keep it that way.

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