Former Firestone Indy Lights champion Wade Cunningham will join the IZOD IndyCar Series for a partial campaign with Sam Schmidt Motorsports this year.
The deal marks the first time since 2002 that Schmidt's team – which has won four Lights titles – contests an IndyCar round outside the Indianapolis 500, with Cunningham choosing to enter the doubleheader Texas event plus the Kentucky and Las Vegas rounds but not Indy, where he has won three times in Lights.
"It was Sam who suggested that rather than focusing on the Indianapolis 500, like a lot of drivers trying to 'break into' the IZOD IndyCar Series, I should look, perhaps, at spreading my budget over three or four races to give me a better chance to show what I can do in one of these cars," Cunningham explained.
"The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a place that I love and it was a painful decision to not pursue the 500, especially with the team that I have had so much success there with. But I felt that it wasn't going to give us the best opportunity to showcase our collective talents. With the new car and engine package debuting next season, there is a real opportunity to become involved with the new manufacturers and build a full season program for 2012."
Cunningham won the Lights championship in 2005, but his only taste of IndyCar since then has been a test with Andretti Green in 2007. The 26-year-old New Zealander continued in Indy Lights to keep himself on the IndyCar radar, taking third in the '06 and '07 standings before contesting part-seasons thereafter.
Schmidt, who ran Cunningham's 2009/'10 Lights programs, said he had great admiration for Cunningham's persistence.
"Wade is a fighter and deserves a shot in the IZOD IndyCar Series," said Schmidt. "You usually don't see a driver race in the Lights cars for six years, but he has never given up his dream. I am glad to be the one who finally puts him in an IndyCar."
Schmidt told AUTOSPORT that he also intends to run Townsend Bell and Jay Howard at the Indianapolis 500, and is keen to expand Bell's program to additional races.