Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball in Chip Ganassi Racing-run cars; J.R. Hildebrand at Panther Racing; Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick confirmed at Andretti Autosport: The IZOD IndyCar Series' 2010-'11 off-season has already been a source of joy for domestic fans seeking homegrown talent to cheer for in the year ahead.
Aside from Rahal gaining a Ganassi seat, the big news of the winter was J.R. Hildebrand's test at Phoenix which convinced all at Panther that he was the man to replace the departing Dan Wheldon. An even greater surprise was that he didn't have to bring sponsorship: just be in the right place at the right time with the right talent.
Observes Hildebrand (LEFT): “Driving those couple of races for Dreyer & Reinbold last year helped my cause in getting this full-time ride with Panther, but without doubt a major factor in my favor was the simple fact that there's been a pretty active musical chairs scenario going on in IndyCar this winter.”
The 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion will be the sole driver at Panther, and Hildebrand acknowledges that challenge. “It puts a massively high priority on personal preparation, doing everything I can before I get to a racetrack in order to know everything I can about it. As much as that, it also puts a huge demand on the team to communicate in an effective way. But that's where I feel we'll punch above our weight, because almost the entire team has been together a number of years and I already have a strong relationship with them. I'm optimistic about what we can achieve.”
Last winter, Hildebrand tested – and impressed – for the Force India Formula 1 team, but with the severe limitations on testing, a lack of deep-rooted knowledge of the car and knowing none of the tracks, he saw pursuing that route to stardom as a substantial risk and one he'll only pursue if he's guaranteed substantial track time and a long-term deal.
One American who last year pursued the European route and is expected to continue there in 2011 is Alex Rossi (RIGHT) who enjoyed a superb year in the all-new GP3 Series, scoring two wins and finishing fourth in the championship. At press time, he was looking at options to either continue in GP3 or graduate to GP2. After Rossi finished fourth in the final GP2 test of 2010 Racing Engineering president Alfonso de Orleans-Bourbon stated: “I'm surprised by this young talent. Alexander is for sure one of the contenders for the 2011 season. It was a pleasure for Racing Engineering to work with him and the results show that this combination works well.”Fellow American Josef Newgarden also raced in GP3 last year. The 2008 Team USA Scholarship winner had an outstanding nine-win season in UK Formula Ford in '09, but it was always going to be a big leap into wings-and-slicks at an international level. However, Josef feels the main problem was that his team, Carlin Motorsport, by sheer misfortune, suffered more than most with the inevitable teething problems that occurred with a grid full of brand-new cars.
“Technically we had a well-prepared and strong car,” he says, “because Carlin is a great team with really switched-on engineering staff. But we just seemed to get the short end of the stick in terms of equalization with ECUs and so on. Even Trevor [Carlin] was confused at how this black cloud followed us around, even after we got pole at Hockenheim.”
Newgarden has said he'd love to do another GP3 season – and with Carlin, too – now that the field of cars appear to have had their early issues resolved. However, his attention has also been caught by potential deals with two of the best Firestone Indy Lights teams – Sam Schmidt Motorsport and Andretti Autosport.
Wherever he is, watch him – and the same applies to the guy he shared the '08 Team USA Scholarship with, Conor Daly (LEFT). Daly ripped up the Star Mazda Championship record books last year and, as we went to press, was on the cusp of signing a deal with one of the top three GP3 teams as he, too, looks to Formula 1. However, his father, former F1 and IndyCar racer Derek Daly, is encouraging Conor to keep an open mind, while using the European formulas to gain an aggressive edge. That, he feels, will benefit him if a lack of opportunities in F1 forces Conor back home in two or three years' time.
As well as the full GP3 season, Daly expects to run six of the Indy Lights road/street course races, sharing the car that USAC National Drivers champion Bryan Clauson (BELOW) will drive on FIL's six oval races this year. Clauson's $300,000 scholarship prize is another part of the IZOD IndyCar Series re-establishing its links with its roots and its links with USAC dirt-track scene.
Without question, the biggest news for junior formula drivers in the off-season was the establishment of the Mazda Road to Indy program, encouraging youngsters to go this route: Cooper Tires presents US F2000 National Championship powered by Mazda, Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear, and Firestone Indy Lights, en route to the IZOD IndyCar Series. While the Road to Indy is to promote the best talents, regardless of nationality, a firm and logical structure can only help U.S. drivers trying to poke this country's companies out of their lethargy when it comes to motorsport sponsorship.The additional promotion is reassuring to Sage Karam (at left, BELOW), who last year dominated the US F2000 series (nine wins from 12 races) and graduates with Andretti Autosport to Star Mazda for 2011.
“Ever since I was little and going to the Indy 500, it's been a dream of mine to win that race,” says Karam. “IndyCar was always my ambition, living near Nazareth Speedway, and with the Andretti family right across the street. Now the Mazda Road to Indy is a structured logical path to IndyCar, I'm also glad to be with this team, because I believe sticking with them gives me my best shot at becoming an Indy 500 winner one day. I'm in the right team at the right time, just as they're committing to being on every rung of the ladder.”
Karam's erstwhile teammate Zach Veach is another driver to watch in 2011 as he commits to a second year in US F2000 with Andretti Autosport. He spent much of last season adjusting his driving style to F2000 cars having spent the previous winter testing an Atlantic car. Once he adapted to the F2000's relative lack of downforce, Veach improved in leaps and bounds in the final third of the season so that, despite missing the opening two races, he still finished fifth in the championship. Now he feels he can aim for the 2011 title, and his pole and victory in the US F2000's Winterfest event at Sebring in January served notice of intent.
“Apart from what I learned about how to drive the F2000 car,” says Veach, “2010 was also great for working on my racecraft, and learning oval racing. Things like planning your pass three or four laps in advance is something that's going to be more and more important as you go up through the categories to IndyCar.”
You'll be able to track Veach's US F2000 title bid through his blogs on RACER.com throughout the season ahead, but also keep an eye out for his teammate, Spencer Pigot. Together with Felix Serralles, 17-year-old Pigot won last year's Team USA Scholarship that saw the youngsters sent to the UK to participate in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone. The pair immediately proved themselves frontrunners, running consistently in the top four, despite their lack of familiarity with the tracks, cars – and European racing ethics! Pigot should be capable of becoming a winner in his debut US F2000 season, while Serralles looks set to race in the tough arena of the UK Formula Renault championship.
Other strong U.S. open-wheel talents expected to shine in 2011, wherever they land, include Connor de Phillippi, who will race in Star Mazda again following his victory in the final round of '10. Joel Miller did a fine job in his two Indy Lights outings last year, despite no testing, and though FIL is his aim, he's ready to race anything with four wheels for now.
Miller, for example, can look to fellow young gun John Edwards who realized that open-wheel racing isn't the only option: Sports car racing has proven a great refuge for those who fell between the rungs of the broken open-wheel ladder system pre-2011. Edwards won the 2008 Star Mazda and 2009 Atlantic championships before last year moving to the Rolex GT class of the Grand-Am series with Mazda. Having partnered Adam Christodolou in driving their SpeedSource RX-8 to victory at Lime Rock, Edwards has switched this year to the Stevenson Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro (ABOVE) in the Continental Tire division.
The 19-year-old Louisville, Ky., native admits that although he misses elements of open-wheel competition, he'd be as happy to be the next Allan McNish as the next Dario Franchitti.
“I've talked to many team owners and managers in IndyCar and they tell me how much money they expect. Well, in Grand-Am I can go to teams and tell them how much I expect! I still love open-wheel but it doesn't matter if I'm forgotten by IndyCar teams at the moment: if I found sponsorship and went to an IndyCar team with a couple million in my pocket, they'd still find a way to run me!”
With IndyCar's announcement that the Indy Lights champion will receive $1m there's a step in the right direction, but as Hildebrand observes, it probably still isn't enough: “By formalizing the Road to Indy, IndyCar has made the system more straightforward, but the jump from Lights to the top rung without $2 or $3 million is still a major challenge.”
Let's hope there are corporations out there who are listening. Take it from us, America truly has got talent.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the February 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.