One of the more interesting sidebars of Ed Jones’ fascinating career arc is the teammates he drew for his first two seasons in the Verizon IndyCar Series – Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon. Interesting enough that a younger Ed Jones wouldn’t have believed it.
“If someone had told me five years ago that in my first two years in INDYCAR I’d have Bourdais and Dixon as teammates, I wouldn’t have believed them,” Jones said. “It’s pretty surreal.”
Two other points can be gleaned from last week’s announcement that Jones, now 22 and embarking on his second season in the series, had joined Chip Ganassi Racing for 2018. First, the Mazda Road to Indy is working. Second, he isn't the only one. A breadth of young talent is standing at the gate.
If you won the lottery and decided to give the money away by starting a race team, you’d be smart to hire Conor Daly, Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam, Tristan Vautier, Kyle Kaiser or any of the other young drivers standing in that line. Like Jones, Josef Newgarden and Spencer Pigot – three drivers with MRTI success on their resumes – all are worthy of a shot and capable of success. But when the music stops before the 2018 season, some of those young drivers will be without an INDYCAR ride.
A large pool of young talent almost always outnumbers the opportunities, but it seems as if the current pool is deeper than ever. That’s a good thing. It’s also a bad thing. Good for obvious reasons, but bad because it narrows the chances to reach the goal. And, once the goal is reached, the margin for error is slim.
For Jones, the MRTI scholarship he received for winning the 2016 Indy Lights championship was crucial. He took the money to Dale Coyne Racing for 2017, finished 14th in the final standings with four top-10 finishes, was named Sunoco Rookie of the Year and landed with CGR for 2018.
It’s a great hire. Let’s hope the trend continues.
Jones’ story is full of interesting sidebars. Born in Dubai of British parents, he won the United Arab Emirates karting championship as a 10-year-old. He advanced through several formula series in Europe, eventually winning the European F3 Open championship at 18, then joined Carlin Motorsports in the FIA Formula 3 Championship. In 2015, Carlin and Jones joined Indy Lights, and the 2016 championship catapulted him to the Verizon IndyCar Series.
It was anything but easy, but it wasn’t impossible.
“It’s an extremely hard series to break into,” Jones said. “It’s a huge amount of work. I saw that and realized it was going to be really tough. It made me up my game even more. I realized that if I wanted to make an impression and wanted to have a chance of being with one of the top teams like Ganassi or Penske and have a long-term career in INDYCAR, I was going to have to make a statement from the very beginning.”
He did that almost immediately. A top-10 finish in the opener at St. Petersburg led to a sixth-place effort at Long Beach. His podium finish in the Indianapolis 500 turned controversial when he wasn’t named the race’s rookie of the year (it went to Fernando Alonso instead), but it was clear that Jones had arrived.
It’s more proof that the MRTI development stepladder format christened in 2010 -- USF2000 to Pro Mazda to Indy Lights – is working in 2017. Newgarden, the 2011 Indy Lights champion, is the reigning champ of INDYCAR at 26 and the first MRTI graduate and scholarship winner to claim a Verizon IndyCar Series championship. Pigot, 24, the 2015 Indy Lights champ, recently completed his second season in INDYCAR. Zach Veach, 22, who won six races during his three years in Indy Lights, is set for a full-time INDYCAR ride with Andretti Autosport in 2018.
While Jones only partook of the top level of the ladder, the lure of an established, three-tier driver development system played heavily in his decision to cross the Atlantic.
“The great thing about it is that it attracts more drivers over to the States because they can see this happening – a clear path of what you need to do,” Jones said. “If you perform, you can get what you want, what you’ve been working for the whole time. It’s really important to have that clear path.”
The money, as always, was the point.
“It’s a saving grace in some ways to have a scholarship for drivers trying to break into a top series,” Jones said. “Where else do you have something like that? I knew on the funding side I had that one chance to make an impression. It was going to be very tough to have enough funding to go another year. I gave it everything I could, and it paid off.”
Paid off, indeed. Let’s hope it happens for others, as well.