Developmental seasons: 'That perfect bridge'
 September 4, 2015| 
  • Series News

Courtesy of Dave Lewandowski,

First of three parts on the 30th season of Indy Lights competition

Brian Belardi’s voice swells with pride as he recounts watching NBCSN's telecast last month of the ABC Supply 500 in which Gabby Chaves led 31 laps.

Chaves, who earned the 2014 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship with Belardi Auto Racing, went on to wrap up the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Sunoco Rookie of the Year award and its $50,000 prize Aug. 30 at Sonoma Raceway.

The laps led on Pocono Raceway's "Tricky Triangle," and Chaves’ season in general with Bryan Herta’s team, filled the team owner with a sense of accomplishment.

“Racing has always been a passion of mine and it’s something I wanted to get into, and it’s just so exciting to see that the ladder series is working to get these drivers to IndyCar because there are so many young, talented out there,” said Belardi, who will watch his team’s two prospective Verizon IndyCar Series drivers (Felix Serralles and Juan Piedrahita) compete in the Indy Lights championship doubleheader Sept. 12-13 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Completing its 30th season, Indy Lights has fostered the future of Indy car racing and, much like Chaves, the drivers have been well-prepared to make an impact at the next level.

“For its entire history Indy Lights has been absolutely pivotal,” said Sam Schmidt, co-owner of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which has won a record seven Indy Lights titles. “When I was coming up through F2000 I became good friends with Greg Moore and watched him have success in the late ‘90s with Indy Lights, which evolved into him being in Indy car.

“When you look at the guys through history who have won races and won championships and have gone on to have success in Indy car, it’s that perfect bridge between a 160 mph car and a 200 mph car and a 230 mph car, and I don’t think you could make that leap without it. Everything is translatable.

“It’s got to be here, and I hope it’s here for a long time to come.”

Its 100-plus graduates include Scott Dixon, who also at Sonoma Raceway last weekend earned his fourth Verizon IndyCar Series title, Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden and Sage Karam.

“If you look at the current Verizon IndyCar Series grid, who’s come through that, all the good guys have been through Indy Lights at some point," said Dixon, who won six of 12 races with PacWest Racing to earn the 2000 Indy Lights title. "Especially for a lot of the foreign drivers, you’ve never raced on an oval, so that’s where I learned the majority of my race craft on ovals. What an oval means, how to set up a car on an oval, how to respect the oval, how to learn not to crash on an oval.

"There’s a long list of things that without Indy Lights would not have been possible. There were some guys who kind of jumped in (to Indy cars) but they also struggled for quite some time until they got the knack of it. With Indy Lights, I kind of eradicated that. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Indy Lights.”

The original iteration – American Racing Series -- was formed as a developmental program for CART and renamed Indy Lights in 1991. INDYCAR took over the sanction in 2002, and operation of the series moved under Andersen Promotions in 2014 under INDYCAR sanction.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires is the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system, which also includes the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

Indy Lights’ rich history as a driver development platform will be recognized again Sept. 13 with the crowning of the 2015 champion, who will be awarded a $1 million scholarship toward the Verizon IndyCar Series with three guaranteed races including the Indianapolis 500.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian driver Jack Harvey, who was runner-up to Chaves in the championship last year, is the front-runner entering the final two races by six points over Spencer Pigot of Juncos Racing. Ed Jones of Carlin is 18 points out of the lead, while RC Enerson (-36) of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb/Agajanian is also in contention.

“Having gone through that last year, I had my guys working on every scenario in the world and fortunately we were able to pull it off,” Belardi said of the title-deciding races. “This will be exciting. We’re not in the hunt, but I’d sure like to walk out of there with a win or two.”

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