News analysis: who killed the Road to Indy?

As Andersen Promotions is forced to drop the famous “Road to Indy” branding for its feeder series into IndyCar racing, confusion and disappointment reigns among team owners. What’s next for America’s open-wheel ladder system?

By Jeroen Demmendaal

It was a somewhat surprising announcement that Andersen Promotions sent into the world last week. While rumours about a coming rebrand of Indy Lights have been circulating for some time, the renaming of the American open-wheel feeder series run by Andersen came unexpected. 

As of the 2023 season, it will organise USF Juniors, USF2000 and USF Pro2000 – formerly known as Indy Pro 2000 – under a new banner called USF Pro Championships. More crucially, the press statement by Andersen revealed that the well-known “Road To Indy” branding will also disappear. 

“With INDYCAR taking over the operation of Indy Lights this year, the Road to Indy designation really doesn’t work moving forward for all steps on the ladder,” owner Dan Andersen said in the statement. “Although we’re rebranding the Road to Indy, our goals remain the same – to develop drivers, teams and crew to advance to Indy Lights and ultimately the NTT IndyCar Series.”

As F1 Feeder Series can now reveal, this rebrand was not made by choice. Rather, in the run-up to the 2023 season Andersen Promotions was informed it could no longer use the “Indy” branding, which is owned by IndyCar Series organising body INDYCAR and its owner, Penske Entertainment.

While Andersen Promotions has in recent years paid a hefty licensing fee to INDYCAR and Penske Entertainment for using the “Indy” brand, extending that agreement into 2023 was no longer an option. That in turn forced Andersen to drop the Indy Pro 2000 and Road to Indy names.

Asked for comment on scrapping the Road to Indy branding, a spokesperson for INDYCAR told F1 Feeder Series that “given the dual ownership of the pathway to the IndyCar Series, we are taking some time to reassess overall branding and have hit pause on the phrase”.

Confusion and disappointment

Nevertheless, the rebranding has generated plenty of emotions among team owners and managers on the Road to Indy, as indicated by conversations F1 Feeder Series has had with several of them in recent days. While most preferred to speak on background, when team leaders were asked about the announcement a common theme was confusion and disappointment.

“Unfortunate”, “a huge loss” and “very weird” were only some of the comments we received. Many are worried what the dropping of the Road to Indy means for the future of the series and wonder why INDYCAR and Penske Entertainment would choose to spike one of the most recognisable brands in open-wheel feeder series racing.

That frustration is understandable. Because while the licensing issue might be a complicating factor, to the outside world the “Road to Indy” moniker makes a lot of sense – regardless of who owns and operates each step on the ladder towards the IndyCar Series. Any branding expert will tell you that a recognised, trusted and well-established brand is pure gold for any organisation.

One team owner explained that the new approach may make it more difficult to attract sponsors. What used to be a simple, straightforward sales pitch now becomes a more complicated narrative, with a need to educate companies and their marketing managers on what is still, in effect, a road towards the IndyCar Series.

Others are confused about what endgame INDYCAR and Penske Entertainment have in mind. One team owner argued that rather than scrapping the “Road to Indy” brand, INDYCAR should instead embrace it and help it to grow further. Asked by F1 Feeder Series what the upside could be to the decision, another team chief simply answered they had “no idea” what was going on.

Full support

The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the confusion and lack of clear communication around the Indy Lights scholarship that erupted earlier this year. But regardless of the rebrand, there’s no doubt that Dan Andersen and his staff still have the full support of their competitors. There’s a widely shared and firm belief they will continue to provide teams and drivers with a great ladder system, as they have done for many years.

And considering the health of the series owned by Andersen, that confidence is fully justified. The scholarship system that has made the Road To Indy so successful will remain in place for 2023. The ladder system, which now runs all the way from the Skip Barber Racing School to the IndyCar Series, will continue to reward its champions with a cash prize to graduate to the next level.

Starting with a USD 100,000 scholarship for the winner of the Skip Barber Formula Race Series to graduate to USF Juniors, each champion will get a reward to further their career all the way into Indy Lights. The overall purse of over USD 1.6 million is even slightly higher than it was in 2022, signaling the firm commitment of Andersen Promotions to its series and its competitors.

Overall car counts also continue to be strong. Early intel indicates that USF2000 will have well north of twenty cars on the grid in 2023, while both USF Pro 2000 and USF Juniors are looking at a grid size in the high teens. Combined with an expected twenty or so cars in Indy Lights, those are all reasons to be optimistic about the ladder towards the IndyCar Series.

Tectonic plates

At the same time, it does feel at times like the tectonic plates of INDYCAR and Andersen Promotions are slowly moving apart. As one team owner wondered out loud: will USF Pro 2000 and USF2000 still be part of IndyCar race weekends in a few years from now? Asked for comment on that scenario, INDYCAR told F1 Feeder Series that there isn’t anything “to suggest that the feeder series won’t continue to land on the same INDYCAR weekends”.

And yet, one look at the schedule for 2023 shows that USF Pro 2000 will no longer appear at Barber and Gateway. Instead, the series will race at Sebring and COTA, both tracks that do not host an IndyCar race. USF2000 has also exchanged Barber for Sebring. For two series that have by and large closely followed the IndyCar schedule in recent years, this is a shift.

Series representatives say the move away from Barber and Gateway and towards non-IndyCar venues is by no means the start of a trend. Optimistic minds will also point out that both series ran at New Jersey Motorsports Park in 2020 and 2021. But as subsequent episodes of confusion about INDYCAR’s long-term strategy pile up, it’s not strange that doubts creep in among some people.

As INDYCAR and Penske Entertainment reassess the branding of what F1 Feeder Series will continue to call the Road to Indy for now, one important job will be to reassure competitors in the lower feeder series. If INDYCAR still firmly believes in the power of its entire ladder system and wants to include it inside its broader family, now seems to be a good time to explicitly and clearly say so.

Header photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography

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