INDYCAR ladder system providing fresh young talent

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In the days leading up to the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Ed Carpenter Racing announced a 2018 full-time ride for Spencer Pigot and Andretti Autosport welcomed Zach Veach to its team with a multiyear Verizon IndyCar Series deal.

Also hanging around the Sonoma Raceway paddock as an observer was Gabby Chaves, a three-time Indianapolis 500 starter hopeful of making each series start next year with Harding Racing.

The significance of promising, young drivers earning an opportunity – Pigot is 23, Veach 22 and Chaves 24 – is a trend not lost on series regulars, particularly the newest champion, Josef Newgarden of Team Penske who’s an “ancient” 26.

“The best thing that’s happened in INDYCAR is that owners are looking more at young talent again,” Newgarden said. “There was a long period there where that wasn’t happening, at least not internally. The Mazda Road to Indy, they weren’t really looking at that talent.

“That’s changed over the last four or five years. When I came in, that didn’t happen very often, where you’d have a guy in a couple years from Indy Lights and it would turn into a better thing. I feel like that’s happening more frequently.”

Newgarden is a big believer in Pigot, who will drive the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet next season. Both are connected to Rising Star Racing, which looks to find opportunities for select young drivers. Pigot is the poster child for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, the driver and team ladder established specifically to develop talent as a feeder system for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Pigot climbed the ladder with Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires and Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires titles in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The Floridian credits the system with properly preparing him to drive the past two seasons on road and street courses for ECR.

Newgarden and Pigot were ECR teammates last season. Carpenter, the series’ only owner/driver, sees the same potential in Pigot as he did in Newgarden, who won three races in two years as Carpenter’s teammate before joining Team Penske this season.

“I think if someone new came in and just wanted to build a team, there’s not a deep pool of guys you’re going to hire and go be in the hunt,” Carpenter said. “The guys that are really racing for the championships are seasoned, experienced guys. (Alexander) Rossi is kind of the newest one putting himself in the mix. He’s new here, but he still has a ton of experience with the rest of his career. You look at the Scott Dixons, the Will Powers, Simon Pagenauds, Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden, they’ve been around and done a lot.

“You don’t just go and get those guys. You’ve got to develop and grow with them. Scott has been in Ganassi since he was a young guy. Helio has been with Team Penske since he was a young guy. We put in some time with Josef and Penske is carrying on.

“I do think when you look ahead that it makes the young guys intriguing because there’s not many plug-and-play guys to go replace guys who are moving onto something else. That’s why you see some of that now. It’s my mindset and certainly others’ as well.”

Chaves won four Indy Lights races in capturing the 2014 series title for Belardi Auto Racing. The Colombian raced full time in the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2015 for Bryan Herta Autosport, finishing 15th in the points. After seven starts for Dale Coyne Racing in 2016, he had three races this past season for newly formed Harding Racing with a career-best finish of fifth in team’s No. 88 Chevrolet in the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway in June.

Veach also came through all three levels of the MRTI system, earning three Indy Lights wins for Andretti Autosport in 2014 and three more for Belardi in 2016. The Ohioan made his series debut at Barber Motorsports Park for Ed Carpenter Racing in April and his first start in the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in May, finishing 26th for AJ Foyt Racing.

“For me, this is what the whole Mazda Road to Indy has been about,” said Veach, who will drive the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda in 2018. “It was a privilege from Day 1 to be associated with Michael (Andretti's) team and USF 2000, and I think when we started that relationship early on, we knew this was going to be a family and a home for us. We were very lucky to continue up the road to Indy with them, through USF 2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights, and we really got spoiled in a way to be with them from Day 1.”

Andretti said he always envisioned Veach returning to his team to drive in this series. The longtime team owner is proud to have four Americans in his stable for next season with Veach, 2016 Indy 500 winner Rossi, 2012 series champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti.

“To finally have (Veach) come back is really cool,” Andretti said. “I'm glad that we were the first ones to have him go all the way through the system. I don't think any other driver has actually gone from (USF) 2000s to INDYCAR, I don't believe, with the same team. Proud to say that we were the first ones to do that.

“Says something about the ladder system as well. I think it's a great thing that they have there with the whole system. If you look at the grid now, I think 90 percent of the guys have gone through the system, and I think it really says something about that. There's a lot of great talent coming up through.

“Great American talent as well, which I'm really proud to have four Americans on our team. People talk a lot about that and it's important, and I'm glad that we've been able to do that.”

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