Indy Lights returns in 2021 with new tracks, more cars

© Road to Indy PR

Indy Lights is back in 2021! America’s answer to Formula 2, the last step under the NTT IndyCar Series, will return after a year affected by COVID-19. Some questions remain about the future, but 2021 might be the year where Indy Lights finally returns to growth. Our resident Road to Indy writer Jeroen Demmendaal considers the lay of the land.

American open-wheel racing fans breathed a huge sigh of relief earlier this month, when Indy Lights officially confirmed it will be back in 2021. To be fair, series runner Andersen Promotions said as much when it announced the cancellation of the 2020 season in June, but at the time I wasn’t quite sure how much faith to have in that statement, with a pandemic raging and all.

Yet here we are: Indy Lights is go for next year and there is a lot to look forward to. Last week, ahead of the IndyCar and Road to Indy season finale in St. Petersburg, we were presented with a brand new schedule for 2021 containing 20 races – which is an increase from previous years. Two of those races are still flagged as To Be Announced, but F1 Feeder Series can confirm that those races will take place at the brand new Nashville street circuit next August.

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Speaking of street circuits, Indy Lights will also return to the Streets of Detroit, which should be a brilliant addition to the calendar. The series last visited the Motor City in 2012 and according to many IndyCar drivers, the temporary course around the parkways of Belle Isle is one of the toughest on the schedule. In other words: a perfect venue for Road to Indy talent to hone their skills.

With the addition of Detroit and Nashville, that makes the calendar the most street course-heavy since 2013. Eight of the twenty races will be on street courses (the others are Toronto and St. Petersburg), while Gateway remains as the only oval race. In terms of road courses, Barber is off the schedule, but classic tracks like Road America, Mid-Ohio, Portland and Laguna Seca remain.

There is, however, one obvious omission on the schedule: the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Previously described by the organiser as “the crown jewel” of Indy Lights, the Indianapolis 500 support race has been scrapped for 2021. PR statements by INDYCAR PR say the decision was made to retain full flexibility in the Indy 500 schedule, an odd claim given the fact that the Freedom 100 has been run during the Month of May for many years without issue.

Moreover, our sources tell us that this was a decision taken at the highest level of INDYCAR, the owner of Indy Lights, despite protestations by several team owners, series management and other relevant power brokers. And like the PR statement, the explanation for the scrapping that we have heard defies all logic. One can only hope that the recent public outcry will be cause for a rethink.

More prize money, less costs

Moving on to the team and driver side, Indy Lights has done a lot to make the series more attractive for both. A common refrain in recent years has been that Indy Lights is too expensive, and Indy Lights has worked closely with suppliers Dallara and Cooper Tires to reduce costs for individual entries. Parts and tire prices have been frozen and might be lowered, while Dallara is also looking at reducing the price of a new chassis. The addition of a halo-like structure, which is new for 2021, has also been done in the most cost-efficient way possible.

For drivers, meanwhile, competing in Indy Lights has become even more interesting than it used to be. The scholarship for the winner has increased to a very healthy USD 1.25 million, while the top three in the standings will receive an IndyCar test at the end of the season at Indianapolis. This means that even if drivers miss out on the title and scholarship, they are still are guaranteed a shot at proving their worth to interested IndyCar teams. Of course, this also places Lights teams in a better negotiating position when trying to bring in drivers.

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So who might we see on the starting grid in 2021? Based on what our Indy Lights Deep Throat has told us and some educated guesses, this is what the current picture looks like to the best of our knowledge:

  • Andretti Autosport is the easy one: the team is on the record as saying they will return with four drivers next year. 2019 Indy Pro 2000 champion Kyle Kirkwood leads the squad (read our interview with him here), while Robert Megennis will return for a sophomore year with the team. The other seats will be filled by Danial Frost and Devlin DeFrancesco, currently frontrunners in Indy Pro 2000.
  • HMD Motorsport will return with at least two cars, one of which will be filled by second-year driver David Malukas. Malukas and HMD spent this year in Formula Regional Americas following the cancellation of the Lights season, and would it be strange if they took a good look at FR Americas title winner Linus Lundqvist for their second Lights car? Not at all – and the Swede comes with a scholarship to fund a Lights ride. HMD has also said it has a third car is ready if a paying driver shows up, so fingers crossed for that one.
  • The same situation applies at Belardi Autosport: it will return with two cars, and has a third one waiting if the right driver comes around. Rasmus Lindh, another Swedish talent, will take one of the cars as originally planned for 2020, while everything seems to suggest that Briton Toby Sowery will also join the team as was the plan for 2020. The third car is still open, but might be of interest for another driver from the European ladder who is not keen on being an also-ran in F3 or F2.
  • The final team that was scheduled to appear in 2020 was Exclusive Autosport. The Canadian squad had made plans to make its Lights debut this year with Russian driver Nikita Lastochkin, and we have received no indication that those plans are shelved for 2021.
  • So where does the additional growth comes from? The obvious candidate is Juncos Racing. The muy simpatico squad with Argentinian roots has a good pedigree in Lights, and it won Indy Pro 2000 this year with Sting Ray Robb. While it originally failed to put together an entry for 2020, Robb’s win comes with a Lights scholarship and Juncos has two Dallara IL-15 chassis in its Indianapolis shop. The other one might easily go to Russian Artem Petrov, who has solid funding and ran a strong Indy Pro 2000 season with Juncos alongside Robb.

And then there is the much-discussed plan by INDYCAR owner Penske Corp to nudge IndyCar teams towards a closer link with Lights teams, or even field their own entries. Details are still scarce and comments by some IndyCar team owners indicate there is still some convincing left to do, but it is not unthinkable that we might see a few extra entries already in 2021. 

Add everything up, then, and it seems like we are looking at around 12 full-time entries next year, with as much as 14 or 15 cars under a more optimistic scenario. Compared to the situation we faced in June, that sounds very good indeed.

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