BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Sam Schmidt wishes he had competed in Indy Lights when he was a young racer. Scott Dixon is grateful he did. Zach Veach secretly wishes he could have raced in two series this weekend.
All three have valid, purposeful points: Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires – the top tier of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder geared toward developing teams and drivers for the Verizon IndyCar Series – celebrated its 400th race Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, marking a milestone that has produced winners and champions in higher levels of open-wheel racing since the series debuted in 1986.
Among the winners and champions are Dixon, who raced Indy Lights in 1999 and 2000 and is now chasing Michael Andretti for third on the list of winningest drivers in Indy car history, and Veach, who competed in a Verizon IndyCar Series race for the first time Sunday as a substitute for injured JR Hildebrand.
“I’m a little saddened and glad that I’m not going to be in the 400th Indy Lights race,” said Veach, who instead drove the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing to a 19th-place finish in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First.
“I’m happy to say I’ve had my fair share of Indy Lights races, but it’s a little bittersweet for me,” added Veach, who competed in 44 Indy Lights contests from 2013-16. “All of my friends are in Indy Lights. … Without Indy Lights, I wouldn’t have had my (Verizon IndyCar Series) test with Ed Carpenter Racing back in September, and I wouldn’t be here today at Barber with them.”
Schmidt, who raced in the Verizon IndyCar Series for three seasons before a crash in 2000 left him a quadriplegic, became one of the most prolific team owners in Indy Lights history. His drivers won seven championships from 2007-14 while he was also building a successful Verizon IndyCar Series program. He understands the value of a well-defined ladder system featuring a final step that fully prepares drivers for the top level.
Schmidt credits the Mazda Road to Indy with providing a defined, step-by-step process that aims young drivers toward the Verizon IndyCar Series. It starts with the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda, continues to the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires, then leads to Indy Lights.
“It’s really, really relevant,” Schmidt said. “It’s great to see we’re facing the 400th race. The resurgence is fantastic.”
Dixon won seven of his 24 races in two seasons in Indy Lights and the 2000 championship before moving up to Indy cars, where he collected the first of his now 40 career wins at Nazareth Speedway as a rookie in 2001.
“Indy Lights was fundamental to my future,” Dixon said. “I’d raced all my years in junior categories, but I’d never seen an oval until I first came over in 1999. It’s important for development of drivers. … It’s the fundamental part, especially if you’re coming to INDYCAR. Oval experience is very difficult to pick up in any other formula.”
Indy Lights began in 1986 as the American Racing Series. Steven Millen won the first race at Phoenix Raceway and Fabrizio Barbazza won the first championship. The series was renamed Indy Lights in 1991.
Among its past champions are Paul Tracy, Bryan Herta (whose 17-year-old son, Colton, won the 400th race), Greg Moore, Oriol Servia, Cristiano da Matta and Townsend Bell. Among the past participants now competing in the Verizon IndyCar Series are Indy Lights champions Tony Kanaan (1997), Hildebrand (2009), Josef Newgarden (2011), Spencer Pigot (2015) and Ed Jones (2016).
In 1997, future Indy car stars Kanaan and Helio Castroneves battled down to the wire for the Indy Lights championship as teammates at Tasman Motorsports before Kanaan won. Both drivers are celebrating their 20th season racing Indy cars this year.
“It’s a vital resource,” Schmidt said. “When people come from primarily a road racing background, the taste of the ovals that they get at every step of the run is invaluable. You get more into what it takes to be an Indy car driver with each step, whether it’s aero or wings or dampers. You get more embedded in that until you reach Indy Lights. At that point, literally the only thing you haven’t done is pit stops.”
A six-time winner in Indy Lights, Veach is thankful for the experience. Shortly after completing his first live pit stop during Verizon IndyCar Series practice Friday at Barber Motorsports Park, he vowed to credit Lights for what may come in his future.
“I’ll always value my time in Indy Lights,” Veach said. “Those were my first wins. That’s when I saw how effort turns into success. The memories I have are of being a young kid in a situation where you’re just trying to learn every day. That’s when it was the most fun for me because it wasn’t so high-pressure. Once you get to the IndyCar Series, that’s where you want your career to be. That’s when you start to put pressure on yourself to be the best you can be.”