As Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires prepares to celebrate the milestone 400th race in series history this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, champions past are looking back fondly at their days in the top tier of the open-wheel stepladder that leads to the Verizon IndyCar Series.
That includes two men now employed on the television broadcast teams covering the series, Jon Beekhuis and Townsend Bell.
Beekhuis, now a pit reporter and technical expert for both NBCSN and ABC, had one of the most dramatic and thrilling Indy Lights championship battles in his lone season of 1988, the third year for the series known then as the American Racing Series. Beekhuis scrapped it out with Ireland’s Tommy Byrne, taking the title by a slim three points.
“I ended up totaling the car with two rounds to go and we had to find someone else who would lend us their spare car,” Beekhuis recalled. “We came into the final event where I needed to finish sixth or better and I finished fifth.
Driving for small-budget P.I.G. (Personal Investment Group) Enterprises, Beekhuis said the even playing field the series presented was one of a kind and allowed the talent of the driver to truly show.
“It was one of those high-stress, high-pressure things with such a fantastic reward at the end,” he said. “It just made our team, which we were small and underfunded going up against bigger ones, and it was just so gratifying for all of us to be beat the big guns and realize the fact that we had done this as a group – it was very exciting.
“It’s obviously a driver development series and why that’s been so beneficial to so many drivers.”
One of the most dynamic times came in the early part of the millennium, which featured some of the talented superstars of the Verizon IndyCar Series seen today.
Bell, now an NBCSN booth analyst alongside 1990 Indy Lights champion Paul Tracy, finished runner-up as a rookie to Scott Dixon during the 2000 Indy Lights season. If facing an eventual four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion wasn’t enough of a challenge, the following year proved to be just as difficult in battling the late Dan Wheldon.
Bell recalled in particular the second race of the season at Long Beach, where he started sixth because of an engine issue in qualifying.
“It was my second season in Indy Lights and we came back with the expectations that we should win the championship because I finished second in my rookie year to Scott Dixon, who narrowly beat me at the last race in Fontana – and I had won the oval championship,” said Bell, a 10-time Indianapolis 500 veteran with a career-best finish of fourth (2009). “So we came back for 2001 with high expectations. I think I finished second in the opening race in (Monterrey) Mexico and then coming into Long Beach with those (engine) frustrations … we ended up having a great race.
“I remember passing Dan and pulling away for the win. Being a California native, to win at Long Beach, even in Indy Lights, was a proud moment.
“That’s really what started (the title run), we went on to win six of 12 races that year and eight poles out of the 12 races and we wrapped up the championship a race early at Laguna Seca.”
Bell recalls how competing in the pinnacle series of the Mazda Road to Indy became vital to his career progression.
“(Indy Lights) allowed me to apply everything that I had learned about working with the team, the engineer and the mechanics, and also the track knowledge since we were repeating at many of the same tracks,” said Bell.
“Obviously, there’s a lot that you can’t be prepared for and you have to go through the school of hard knocks, but Indy Lights was the ultimate training ground. I can’t think of a better way to enter INDYCAR than through Indy Lights.”
Indy Lights will conduct a 45-minute practice session at 3:25 p.m. ET today. Saturday sees qualifying (9:40 a.m.) and the first race of the doubleheader weekend (3 p.m.). Qualifying for the second weekend race – No. 400 in series history – takes place at 9 a.m. Sunday, with the milestone event taking the green flag at 12:45 p.m. All Indy Lights sessions stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.