Loyal viewers of the Road to Indy TV web broadcasts will know him as The Voice of the feeder series for the NTT IndyCar Series. Yet since last December Rob Howden has another, arguably more important job within the Road to Indy organization, as its new Series Development Director. F1 Feeder Series had an exclusive sit-down with the Canadian to discuss his plans for the future.
It’s hard to think of anyone better suited to the role of developing America’s leading feeder series ladder. Rob Howden has been part of the North American karting scene for over 25 years and involved with the Road to Indy (RTI) since 2010, and previous USFF2000 programs since 2004. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the series’ stars past and current and above all, a burning passion for constantly making the RTI better.
Which is exactly what his new role entails. “I act as a liaison between teams, drivers, driver families and the series,” he explains. “It’s crucial to have a constant feel for the paddock, to know what is going on. I can take feedback from the teams and get an overall feel for what we can do to improve and develop the series. So the idea is to take that feedback and come up with new ideas and programs that allow us to make the series better and make the teams successful.”
That last point is an important one, says Rob. “Let’s face it: drivers come and go. They achieve success and then they move on, as it should be. But the teams are really the foundation of the series and we want to make sure that they are strong and financially viable.”
It’s no secret that for certain RTI teams the financial side of things has been a struggle in recent years, but series runner Andersen Promotions has worked closely with its suppliers to improve the cost base for teams – especially for the Indy Lights and Indy Pro 2000 outfits. Smarter planning of this year’s calendar also helps keep travel costs in check.
A healthy ladder
The result is that the entire RTI is looking healthier than it has for quite some time. Indy Lights already has 12 full-time entries confirmed for this year, which is four more than for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Our intel furthermore indicates that Indy Pro 2000 can look forward to around 16 full-time cars, while USF2000 is approaching a field of 28 competitors.
“USF is in a fantastic place right now,” says Rob, “and the first benefit of a full USF field is that we will have a deeper field in Indy Pro in 2022 and 2023.” That is a good thing, since the “middle ground” of Indy Pro 2000 is always a challenge, Rob notes. “There are a lot of families that have backing to make the jump from karting to USF2000, but the next level is usually more difficult.”
Yet Pro 2000 is a crucial step on the RTI ladder, he adds: “Ideally, you have five to six drivers every year that move up from Indy Pro to Indy Lights and fill out that field.” Long term, the perfect scenario envisioned by Rob is to have 30 to 34 cars in USF2000, 18 to 22 in Indy Pro and then 16 to 18 in Lights. “That would be an ideal pyramid to funnel the best talents down.”
To achieve those ambitions, he wants to increase overall awareness of the RTI. In North America the series are pretty well established, but there is still a world to be won in other regions. “I want to increase understanding among drivers at the F4 and F3 level that the Road to Indy is an opportunity for them,” Rob explains. “Someone like Alex Peroni (who joined Carlin in Indy Lights from FIA F3, JD) is a good example of drivers we should attract.”
Talking to the parents
That outreach starts with picking up the phone, says Rob. “I watched almost every F4 race from last year and reached out to some of the drivers that won races there. Just told them ‘Hey, this is who I am and are you by any chance familiar with the Road to Indy?’ So it’s all about reaching out to drivers and let them know that we exist as an opportunity.”
Apart from the drivers themselves, the families behind them are another important target group for Rob as he tries to develop the series. “I talk to parents constantly, I want to find out what their primary hurdles are,” he says. “I’m actually thinking of developing an education program to help them understand what it means to move from karts to cars, in terms of negotiating contracts and the making the right decisions.”
Asked what those right decisions are, he mentions graduating too fast as one example. “I see too many kids making the jump to F4 too quick, too soon without enough experience,” he argues. “My recommendation would be to do F1600 instead coming from karts. They have so much track time in that series, it’s such good training.”
Of course, that training continues once drivers reach the RTI. It’s important for parents and drivers to realize that there are other options beyond IndyCar, Rob says. “One of the beautiful things of this level of competition is that the training you get is so good. The competition is super close.” The skills that drivers develop due to that competitiveness create additional opportunities.
“Say you’re in your second year Pro 2000, and maybe you’re struggling to make it to Lights because of budget. You can then choose to go sports car racing and make an immediate impact. Just look at drivers like Pato O’Ward, Kyle Kirkwood, Aaron Telitz. That’s what I tell parents as well: when they join the Road to Indy, they make an investment in turning their kid into a professional, all-round racing driver.”
Building an international field
Yet in the end the RTI’s primary goal is to get drivers to IndyCar. “Oh absolutely. Our ultimate goal is to get drivers from the top of Indy Lights prepared for IndyCar,” Rob says. “We are trying to develop the complete driver, also from a PR and branding point of view.” He is adamant that the RTI should have an international field. “IndyCar is an international field, so we want international drivers. Usually we have six, seven nationalities on the grid in each series, which is how it should be.”
Many foreign drivers are attracted to the RTI because of the scholarships that provides the winner of each series with the required funding to move up the ladder. For 2021, the scholarships for all three series have been increased yet again and the winner of Indy Lights can now look forward to a very healthy USD 1.25 million. And even if drivers miss out on the Lights championship, they will receive an IndyCar test as long as they finish in the top three.
Of course, this also places RTI teams in a better negotiating position when trying to sign drivers. While many European feeder series have yet to follow its example, Rob says the scholarships are the “calling card” of the RTI: “It’s very simple: if you have success, you go to the next level.”
This year will be a busy one for Rob, as he will continue to be on announcer duty. “I have only been in the Development Director job for two months or so now and it has been like drinking water out of a firehose! There is so much coming at me,” he laughs. “But I love it, it’s great.”
And how could he complain? He arguably has his dream job now and has a huge say in how his beloved RTI develops in coming years. Plus, it is set to benefit from IndyCar’s growing popularity, he notes, referring to Romain Grosjean joining Dale Coyne Racing. “The Grosjean thing is so cool: yet another F1 driver looking to do IndyCar. I have good hopes that will change a few mindsets…”