Junior Open Wheel Talent

News and Views on Drivers Chasing Open-Wheel Stardom

Indy Lights: Graduating to the IndyCar Series…

by Ryan Stringfield
Posted October 2, 2009 at 12:25 pm Indy Lights, open wheel racing news

Over the past few years the Indy Lights series has received a fair amount of flack for labeling itself as a “feeder series” to IndyCar.  After all, the last Indy Lights champion to graduate to a full-time IndyCar ride—prior to Raphael Matos— was Mark Taylor, who won the 2003 Indy Lights Championship.  That’s a five year gap.  The last American to win a Indy Lights championship and move into the prestigious IndyCar series was A.J. Foyt IV, who won the 2002 IPS.  That’s not to say that other Lights drivers haven’t made the jump; Hideki Mutoh for example… finished runner-up in the 2007 Indy Lights championship and graduated to a full-time IndyCar ride in 2008.  Which was great, but the point is… we need to figure out a way to get more Indy Lights champions into the IndyCar series.

This year, the IRL scouts have a very solid up-and-coming American prospect in J.R. Hildebrand.  I can’t think of a better opportunity for the IRL to hush criticism for the lack of Indy Lights champions in IndyCar.

Just looking at some numbers from the past two seasons, here is how J.R. Hildebrand stacks up against last year’s champion and current IndyCar driver Rapahel Matos.

Raphael Matos- 2008 Indy Lights champion

  • Average finish: 6.5  (Average finish through first 14-races= 6.79)
  • 3 wins
  • 7 podiums
  • 5 pole positions
  • 5 fast laps

J.R. Hildebrand- 2009 Indy Lights champion (through 14 races)

  • Average finish:  5.6 (through 14 races)
  • 4 wins
  • 9 podiums
  • 5 pole positions
  • 5 fast laps

Now it’s important to note—  you can’t accurately compare two different drivers over two different seasons.  There are simply too many variables.  The point of this piece isn’t to compare Hildebrand and Matos as drivers… it’s just to show you how the numbers stack up.  Both Hildebrand and Matos drove for the same team:  AFS/AGR.

Matos has proven himself as a more-than-competent driver this season in the IndyCar series by qualifying 3rd in just his second IndyCar start.  More recently, he has strung together 4 consecutive top-ten finishes.  If you are strictly looking at the numbers above, there is no reason J.R. Hildebrand shouldn’t be able to do the same thing in 2010.

The real question is, who will step up to the plate and give this young man a shot?

Perhaps the IndyCar series needs to start working with sponsors and long-time supporters to bridge the gap between Indy Lights and IndyCar.  In a recent interview at Planet-IRL.com, Indy Lights team owner Sam Schmidt made an excellent suggestion; the IRL and its sponsors should provide the Indy Lights champion with a Honda engine lease and a Firestone tire deal to bring to IndyCar team owners.  This is a legitimate suggestion and it would be an excellent opportunity for IndyCar, Honda, and Firestone to show their support for today’s up-and-coming talent.

The question remains, who’s going to step up to the plate?

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2 Comments

  1. Felix on October 4, 2009 11:02 am

    Agreed! The kid needs a shot

  2. NaBUru38 on October 9, 2009 1:22 pm

    “we need to figure out a way to get more Indy Lights champions into the IndyCar series.”

    Indy Lights drivers can get promoted to the IndyCar Series only if there are new entries (ie new teams enter the series or current teams enter more cars) or if current drivers leave empty seats. Neither is happening. Too sad, of course.

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