J.K. Vernay didn't know what 2010 held for him at the beginning of the year. After a solid year in the F3 Euro Series and a strong performance in the Macau Grand Prix, the 22-year-old Frenchman had options to compete in Touring Cars in Germany or moving to Japan to race when his management group suggested a test with perennial Firestone Indy Lights contender Sam Schmidt Motorsports. The rest is history.
Despite not knowing any of the tracks when the season began, Vernay led the championship from start to finish. He clinched the Firestone Firehawk Cup as Firestone Indy Lights champion by taking the green flag in the Oct. 2 Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka 100 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“You never know if it's a big solution, but it was a really great thing to come (to America),” Vernay said. “Winning the championship and being Firestone Indy Lights champion is a great thing. We won five races and had nine podiums. That is a great first year in America, but it's just one step. This is just like I graduated from college and now I have to get a good job.”
That would be a ride with an IZOD IndyCar Series team for 2011. Vernay hopes his on-track performance has impressed future employers and knows he has some important selling points when it comes to landing his next job.
“I'm a better driver than I was when I got here,” he said. “I've improved since the end of last year. I finished in F3 with five podiums and I arrived here and I led the championship all year. After Indy, (James) Hinchcliffe and (Charlie) Kimball cut the lead to only five points, but when I had to win, the team did it. That is credit to the team for giving me a car to do that. I never had problems with the car all year long.”
Vernay knows he still has much to learn about racing in North America's top open-wheel racing series – especially when it comes to oval racing. But he's confident his experience in Firestone Indy Lights has prepared him for the next level.
“What I want to do is IndyCar,” Vernay said. “That's why we chose Indy Lights. I have the title and the normal way is for the champion to go to IndyCar. It's the next step. Everybody knows it's not easy to get there, but I'm really confident that we will have a good deal with a good team.
“I like racing in America. The environment is very different than in Europe and it's been a pleasure to race here. I still have a lot to learn on ovals, but I was still competitive this year and feel like I can be in IndyCar. On road tracks, I know I can be competitive. I hope to stay in America for a long time.”