The future of Indy Lights: hopes and fears

Indy Lights - start st pete 2019
© Road to Indy PR

A small disaster, made up of smaller individual disasters. The official confirmation of the 2020 Indy Lights season being cancelled does not necessarily come unexpected. But for the handful of teams and talented drivers involved in it, it is a serious setback and disrupts some promising careers.

I feel for Kyle Kirkwood, the bright American kid with a ludicrously good batting average in recent years and who was going for a hattrick of Road to Indy series victories.

I feel for my fellow Gothenburger Rasmus Lindh, who worked so hard to get into Lights and was on a fast-track to becoming the third Swede in the NTT IndyCar Series.

I feel for Robert Megennis and David Malukas, two youngsters who I fully expected to build on the success of their rookie Lights year in 2020.

I feel for Santi Urrutia, the man from Uruguay who got that one final chance at winning a title and an IndyCar graduation that should have been his years ago.

And so on.

In other words, the cancellation throws a massive wrench of additional uncertainty in the gears of careers that need stability and progress above all else. Because while we can all agree that there is never a good moment for a coronavirus pandemic, this is arguably the worst moment imaginable.

Just think of the commercial element. Sure enough, Kirkwood will retain the funding from his 2019 Indy Pro 2000 title, but his rocket-like career will stall nevertheless. And for drivers like Urrutia and Lindh, it is not a given they will once again be able to secure their funding needs for 2021.

Marketing plans at most corporations are drawn up annually and priorities change as commercial realities change. So commercial and sponsor agreements that were committed to and signed in pre-corona times may no longer apply in the new, post-corona landscape.

The cancellation is just as worrisome for the series itself. Indy Lights has been struggling for some years now to hit double-digit car counts, and despite early optimism the 2020 counter also stopped at eight full-time entries. The consequences of a year of inactivity for teams, suppliers, mechanics and engineers are substantial.

So what’s next? The official word is that this cancellation is just a one-off and that Indy Lights will be back in 2021. I appreciate the sentiment and I hope that will be the case, but it is also a somewhat obvious statement. Because what else could Andersen Promotions, the owner of the Road to Indy, say at this point?

The reality is that cost levels were already a worry in good times, so it is not surprising that the current downturn has claimed Indy Lights as one of its first victims. Talk to drivers and their people, and a common refrain is: Indy Lights is too expensive. Too expensive on its own, too expensive compared to USF and Indy Pro 2000 (which have managed to maintain healthy car counts).

But who knows, there may be a silver lining to all of this. Under an optimistic scenario, the shock effect of the corona pandemic and the 2020 cancellation provides the final push that is needed for a rethink of the Lights formula, allowing it to re-emerge healthier than ever. The message from both INDYCAR and Andersen is that they continue to see Lights as an important asset.

Which makes sense, because Indy Lights is a series that works on many levels. Despite those small fields, it IS delivering the next generation of quality IndyCar drivers. Colton Herta, Patricio O’Ward, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay all graduated from Indy Lights in the last two years. As a feeder series, it does exactly what it should do.

Right now it is unclear what that rethink looks like, but there is a good foundation to work with. Word has it that Penske and INDYCAR are considering a much closer cooperation between IndyCar teams and Lights teams. That will require some creative thinking, given the fragile financials of some IndyCar teams, but where there is a Captain, there is a way. 

So here is hoping that Andersen, INDYCAR and Penske Corporation can save and recharge our beloved Indy Lights. In Roger we trust.

By Jeroen Demmendaal

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