Statistically, there were 32 drivers in the Firestone Indy Lights series this year. But there were only two drivers in the running for the title, and from the moment J.K. Vernay issued his season-opening smackdown of two wins, chief rival James Hinchcliffe was playing catch-up. It was a game the Canadian didn't win, and so Vernay headed to the season finale at Miami-Homestead needing only to start the race to take the title.
Vernay's stats of five wins in 12 races is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he's a rookie, not only to the series but also the USA. After finishing fifth in the 2009 Formula 3 Euroseries and taking a win and a second place in the qualifying and feature race at Macau's famous F3 Grand Prix last year, the man from the Rhone Valley in France made a late arrival in this country. Vernay started the season with Sam Schmidt Motorsports knowing two of the tracks on the schedule and barely knowing the car. But Vernay believes the keys to his success in 2010 are being a quick learner, and absorbing information from his engineer, team owner and teammates.
“I know I'm a good driver,” he says, “but one of my biggest qualities is that I can adapt to new situations, cars and tracks pretty quickly. In the preseason tests [at Barber Motorsports Park and Miami-Homestead's oval], I was P6 or P7, but after that I was always at the front – we improved the car and I improved my driving.”
“Earlier in the year I was still learning things from my teammates and, especially on the ovals, I was getting a lot of help from [SSM teammate] Pippa Mann because she is quick. I'm not pretentious: I know when I have to listen and learn from people. As a team, we help each other as much as possible. Also, Will Power gives me a lot of advice and information.”
Team owner Sam Schmidt has mixed feelings about whether Vernay's performances have surprised him, given that three of his previous drivers (Thiago Medeiros, Jay Howard and Alex Lloyd) have driven SSM cars to the Lights title over the previous six years.
“The result of J.K.'s preseason tests was very positive and, looking at his previous results….well, anyone who sits on pole at Macau is obviously talented. There's always the big questions of, ‘Will it translate to American street courses and ovals?' But if you look back at his performance, he's genuinely been rock solid.”
Vernay had one gap in his résumé heading to Miami in October – a win on an oval. But third-place finishes at Iowa and Kentucky, and fourth at Chicagoland indicate a driver maturely playing himself into this new form of racing – and with a great deal of success. It's a point not lost on Schmidt.
“J.K.'s been a little conservative on the ovals,” says the former Indy car race winner, “but there's nothing wrong with that, because about the time you take those circuits for granted is about one second before you hit the wall. He's done everything right, hasn't put a foot wrong all year. He's really, really, really talented but as we all know, half of this is talent and half of it is keeping the mental side in focus, and he's done a very good job of that.”
Vernay inevitably observes the huge difference between a Formula 3 car and the current Indy Lights car. (“In F3, you brake as late as possible with a lot of pressure but here you brake earlier, carry more speed into the corner and aren't so aggressive with the car.”) But bigger surprises awaited him in the post-session debriefs.
“In European racing, you cannot see the setup sheets, you cannot see what you have on your car, because your team doesn't want you to go to another team and tell them what you learned! So this was my first year that I knew how my car was set up, and at first it was hard to explain to the engineer what I think I needed. Now it goes really well and I think I have a good feel for the car.”
Vernay is optimistic about finding an IndyCar ride for 2011, and is also determined to make America his home.
“I'm not looking to go back to Europe because I want my whole career to be here,” he states firmly. “I feel I'm in good hands with [management company] CJ Motorsports, and we are talking to three or four teams.
“I just love the atmosphere here; it's 10 times better – really professional but also relaxed. There is really good spirit. I don't want to do anything other than IndyCar next year. I mean that.”SCHMIDT: KING OF HIS HILL
The Indy Lights kingpin isn't ready to graduate to the big cars yet
For a man who overcame quadriplegia to run the most successful team in the Firestone Indy Lights series, Sam Schmidt's ambitions for his team are modest. Although he has entered the IZOD IndyCar Series with one-off attempts at the Indianapolis 500, Schmidt (RIGHT) is not about to drive his team into the top tier full time.
“I was a bit naive when I started the team,” smiles Schmidt. “I thought if Chip Ganassi could be successful, anybody could do it – and you can quote me on that! But I've discovered it takes a lot of good people and resources, and ever since we've been successful at this level, it's because we've had both those things. So I won' t move up unless we can compete in IndyCar the same way we compete in Lights.
“The joint entries with Chip at the Indy 500, where it's all our guys and his engineering, have been successful. We've qualified top 11 and raced top 10. But Ganassi's competitiveness is something they gained through experience and millions of dollars of investment. So we're realistic. We're honored to be described as “the Penske of the Indy Lights series” – I don't really feel we live up to that, by the way – and we'll continue to participate in the Indy 500 because it's the world's greatest race.
“Having said that, I'd never not run Lights. This is our bread and butter, what we do very well, and we've got our arms around it.”
Not even the rumored arrival of the new Indy Lights chassis in 2013 would persuade Schmidt to jack in the junior league to move up.
“That's when we can take advantage of our personnel,” says Schmidt. “The other winning teams in Lights are successful because they poached people from us, not because they found the religion internally. We find a lot of stuff; then a team comes along, takes one of our people and their car becomes fast! A new car will highlight the strength of our personnel and give us one or two years with a big advantage.”