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Inside view: The growth of the IndyCar ladder back into “a land of opportunity”

Written by Archie O’Reilly

The American open-wheel ladder is in a moment of emphatic resurgence. And it really needed that to be the case. 

As recently as 2018, only seven drivers completed a full season in the premier series of those leading into IndyCar - half the tally from the year prior. And as grid sizes suddenly dwindled in the championship previously named Indy Lights, now coined Indy NXT, the production of talent from outside of the Americas became scarce. 

Pato O’Ward was the champion ahead of Colton Herta that year - prodigious representation at the front. But the field saw only a total of 12 drivers compete in any one race across the season. With only seven full-season drivers, the grid never reached higher than nine drivers - achieved only in the first two rounds - for any race during the season.

Considering 14 drivers completed every round only one year earlier in 2017, it was a stark and frankly alarming drop-off. 

Only one driver competing in 2018 was from overseas, South Korean international Heamin Choi, who only ran the final two races. Uruguayan Santiago Urrutia and Brazilian Victor Franzoni were the only other two drivers from outside of North America.

Things were not much better in 2019 either. One more driver completed the season and there was only a marginal increase to 13 competitors across the campaign as Oliver Askew took the championship crown. 

Overseas representation did grow somewhat, with second and third in the championship going to a pair of European drivers; Dutchman Rinus VeeKay was vice champion as Briton Toby Sowery came home third. French driver Julien Falchero ran four races, while Brazilian Lucas Kohl completed the crop of drivers from outside of North America.

But things remained far from ideal. And that was even before a global pandemic ensued in a year scheduled to kick off with a 10-driver field - six from outside of North America. Aside from practice in St. Petersburg, there ended up being no Indy Lights running in 2020 as the spread of COVID-19 ravaged sport worldwide. 

Though emerging from a time where businesses struggled to survive and where sport suffered major financial hits, the series’ eventual return in 2021 actually saw a crucial upwards trend emerge.

Things have started to change in the last three-to-four years. And for the better. 

The return of Indy Lights saw Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas dominate at the top as the grid size trended favourably in 2021. Nine drivers competed across the entire season but there were 15 drivers that completed at least seven events. The grid size sat at 13 for over half of the season.

Six drivers came from overseas in the return year, with a pair of Swedish drivers competing as Linus Lundqvist finished third in the standings and Rasmus Lindh raced in the final seven events. Singaporean Danial Frost was fifth as Sowery returned for a part-season, as well as there being incomplete years for Aussie Alex Peroni and Russian Nikita Lastochkin. 

The format then changed for 2022, with 14 races compared to 20 across 10 doubleheader weekends. But again more drivers competed, with 11 completing the season and 17 participating in total. 

Lundqvist won the 2022 championship as part of five overseas drivers. New Zealander Hunter McElrea finished fourth in his rookie year as Lundqvist’s fellow Scandinavian, Dane Christian Rasmussen, rounded out the year in fifth. Frost returned as Irishman James Roe made his debut.

The series again reached new heights in 2023 as the field sat at just below 20 drivers for most of the year, with 13 completing the season and a total of 26 appearing at some stage. The victor was again from abroad as Rasmussen took the championship, with McElrea second and British rookie Louis Foster fourth.

Frost and Roe returned as part of 11 drivers from overseas. Briton Jamie Chadwick made the switch to Indy Lights as a three-time W Series champion, while there were part campaigns for her compatriot Enaam Ahmed, plus Italian Matteo Nannini and the returning Lindh. Sowery and another Italian, Francesco Pizzi, also competed in a select few races.

Factor in Brazilian pair Kiko Porto and Franzoni - back in the series after appearing in 2018 - and half of the field of 26 across 2023 was from external to North America.

Now in 2024, the contrast to 2018 is remarkably distinct. 

Compared to a maximum grid size of nine as only seven drivers completed the season six years ago, every race so far this year has had either 20 or 21 drivers. And at the midpoint of the season, 25 individuals have already competed compared to a total of 12 across the entirety of 2018.

Ahead of the season, the expectation was that the 2024 season would have the most entries in 16 years.

Five drivers that have competed are from the British Isles, with Josh Mason completing the first two races and part of an English trio consisting of the returning Foster and Chadwick. Irish pair Roe and Jonathan Browne are both full-season competitors. 

Dutchman Niels Koolen and New Zealander Callum Hedge, plus Brazilian pair Caio Collet (full-season rookie after moving over from FIA Formula 3) and Porto (a fill-in for one round), are also among those from outside North America that have competed so far this year.

But what exactly is the appeal that has led to the recent revival of the premier IndyCar feeder series and proliferation of talent moving from abroad? For one, it can be a pathway for even those that are not as well-funded as others may be. 

The 2024 season has seen a total purse of $1.4 million laid out, with $850,000 set to go to the champion. The winner’s scholarship is to be applied to an oval test at Texas Motor Speedway, an Indianapolis 500 entry (Rookie Orientation Programme and Open Test included) and an entry into a further IndyCar race in the following season.

Foster, who currently leads the Indy NXT standings after four wins in the recent five-race period, strongly recommends the move stateside to others with a racing background like his own.

“I say it to a lot of guys I know in Europe or the UK who are looking at the Formula 1 ladder and going up to F3, F2,” he said. “For me, there’s just the junior category series and the scholarship money allowing drivers who don't have all the funding in the world to be able to move up into the next step. 

“Nowhere else in the world has that really, at all. And when they do, there’s nowhere near the sum of money that presents here in America.”

Foster made the move to the United States ahead of 2022, when he competed in Indy Pro 2000 (now renamed USF Pro 2000) and won the championship as a rookie with seven wins and a total of 12 podiums. Prior to that, he had competed in British F4, then British F3 and EuroFormula Open, on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

The largely unparalleled quirks of the IndyCar ladder allow championship-worthy talent from overseas to continue careers that may otherwise go unfulfilled. And the decision to move across the pond may have been one that saved the career of Foster, who turns 21 years old in July.

“For me, if I didn’t come to America, I probably wouldn’t be racing,” he said.

There are also drivers moving to the ‘Road to Indy’ from the higher-ranked series of the F1 ladder, aligning with the increasingly frequent switch of FIA Formula 2 drivers to IndyCar. 

Collet was a four-year member of the Renault and Alpine F1 academy before parting ways early last year. And after three years in F3, consisting of three race victories, he opted to explore the IndyCar route for 2023 with evidently no route into F2. Midway through his rookie campaign in Indy NXT, he has already emerged as one of three regular frontrunners.

“Louis answered that question really well,” Collet added, sitting beside Foster as he spoke. “The series attracts quite a lot with scholarships and everything else. If you don’t have a lot of funding, you still can do a good job. And if you perform, you are rewarded. So I think this is one of the main points [why] I came here.”

The IndyCar ladder is being viewed as an increasingly viable alternative to the feeder series leading to F1. And drivers like Collet - bidding to become the latest of a long list of illustrious Brazilians to reach IndyCar - are embracing the differences and opportunities it presents.

“I was really happy to come to the US,” Collet said. “I’m finding it really fun out here. It’s a little bit different, both series [Indy NXT and F3]. The format of the weekend and also tyres especially, it’s a big thing between those two series. The car itself to drive is not that different at all but the push-to-pass and racing here - the moves you can do, cannot do - [is different]. 

“It’s a little bit different than in Europe. And obviously the starts as well [are different] so it’s just something that I’m getting used to. But I’m really enjoying myself here.”

Chadwick was another driver to make the move from a rung of the F1 ladder, making the switch last year after dominating three years of the all-female W Series championship. And having now notched her first podium, pole position and win in her sophomore season, the success that those in a similar position to Chadwick can gain from this sort of move is glaring.

Chadwick is keen to see others follow suit and hopes her successes - becoming the first woman to win on a road course in the championship and first female victor in 14 years - can inspire others.

“[It’s] a huge option,” Chadwick, one of two female drivers in Indy NXT this year along with Lindsay Brewer, said. “The whole Indy ladder is a really good opportunity with the way it works with the seat time, everything. Europe is also a great opportunity but it is super tough and super saturated. There’s a great opportunity over here.

“It’s incredible to see the growth of women’s motorsport and I’m proud to play a small role in that. Anything we can now do to encourage as many young girls through the ladder as possible… I want to see more girls in USF Juniors, USF Pro [2000] ultimately and Indy NXT. There’s still work to do but it’s very cool to see the progress.”

The likes of Foster, Collet and Chadwick have come from more well-trodden paths to seek a new avenue. Others have come from even further afield to seek opportunities they may not be presented in their homeland, such as Hedge after venturing away from his racing roots Down Under. 

“For us it’s just a land of opportunities,” he said. “Getting to go and chase your dreams from a small country, it’s really hard to put together a deal to come over and race here.”

Hedge has continued a lofty contingent of drivers that have moved over to the IndyCar realm from New Zealand - a group led by six-time champion Scott Dixon. Along with Dixon, Marcus Armstrong and teammate Scott McLaughlin make up a trio of Kiwis on the current IndyCar grid.

“Coming from New Zealand, coming from Australia - my population is five million people compared to the 300 or 400 million it is over here - you get one small opportunity, you have to grab it with both hands and go with it until you run out of money basically,” Hedge added.

The 20-year-old long plied his trade in his homeland, initially in several Formula Ford championships and multiple Porsche-based Australian championships. He was runner-up in the Formula Regional Oceania championship last year before switching his attention to the United States. 

“One of our biggest strengths is we have the championship at home which is called TRS (Toyota Racing Series), which Caio [Collet] and a bunch of other people over this side of the planet, back in Europe, have all raced in,” Hedge said. “It’s now called Formula Regional Oceania - a lot of Americans come over and compete in that championship…

“That’s been really big for a lot of young guys… Liam Lawson, Marcus Armstrong. Without that championship, I wouldn’t be sitting right in this chair right now. Another one of our advantages is we get to drive and get access to driving cars very young - I first started racing cars back in 2016 when I was 12 years old. 

“You get a variety of different conditions, cars from a young age when you’re really impressionable. Overseas, a lot of them are still racing go-karts. You get a different sort of level of experience. I think it really pays out.”

Hedge got a first chance to race the likes of Foster and Jacob Abel in Formula Regional Oceania in the off-season prior to 2023, after which he made the move to race in Formula Regional Americas. After winning the championship as a rookie with 13 wins in 18 races, he made the step up to Indy NXT for 2024.

Hedge stood on the podium for the first time in Indy NXT in Detroit mere hours before a pair of countrymen stepped on the same rostrum in IndyCar; Dixon was victorious in the Motor City as Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Armstrong finished third. 

Far away from home comforts, even those from the other side of the globe are making the IndyCar ladder their home in a now-steady stream.

Some Americans have even made the move overseas before switching back home. Bryce Aron, who achieved the first Indy NXT podium of his rookie year at Laguna Seca, has arrived back from campaigns in the GB3 Championship (formerly British F3) and EuroFormula.

“I raced overseas for a long time,” he said. “It was definitely a good experience. The ladder system here is awesome and that’s why I’m here. For me the end goal was always IndyCar and I’m really happy to be here with Andretti. It’s a dream come true… It’s great to have this opportunity where, if you win, you really get the opportunity to move up to IndyCar.”

The extent to which the IndyCar ladder is now thriving, compared to the state it was in only five years ago, cannot be understated. Interest from drivers has essentially doubled in that period. And this trajectory only looks set to continue.

FOX Sports’ new IndyCar media rights deal for 2025 and beyond contains the guarantee of putting Indy NXT races on television via their FS1 and FS2 channels. This is a major piece of news when it comes to the prospect of drivers and teams attracting sponsors who desire this sort of increased platform.

The IndyCar ladder is once again a highly-regarded haven and even saviour for young racing talent from America and far beyond. And it is an ever-growing stage to showcase their talents in as significant a way as ever.


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