The offseason may be winding down, but Andretti Autosport is still pushing to complete its driver lineup for the 2019 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season.
Andretti Autosport made the top rung of the Road to Indy a personal playground last year, capturing 14 combined victories across 17 races with drivers Colton Herta, Ryan Norman and series champion Patricio O’Ward. Dalton Kellett also was also in the mix, scoring a pole in the Freedom 100 and a pair of podium finishes.
The team returns Norman for a third consecutive season and has announced the addition of series rookies Robert Megennis and Oliver Askew. And there may be more to come, even though the season looms less than two weeks away.
“The target is to be at four cars again,” said Rob Edwards, chief operating officer of Andretti Autosport. “That's what the model is and that's what we feel gives us the best opportunity to have as much up-and-coming talent in house and to be able to progress them. It's about balancing between ability and budgets and the right people being the right fit for the seats that we’ve got.”
An important reason to stay the course with four cars isn’t just for driver development, but also for grooming mechanics and engineers. To that end, Indy Lights is a key building block for Andretti Autosport.
“That's a very important part of what we do overall,” Edwards said. “It isn't just about the drivers, which are obviously the most visible part, but the engineers and the crew as they progressed through. Be it progressing to full-season positions on the (NTT) IndyCar (Series) program or one of our other programs (in other disciplines), but also on our additional car at the Indy 500.”
Andretti Autosport typically adds at least one car to its Indianapolis 500 roster alongside the full-season entries. This year it is Conor Daly with U.S. Air Force sponsorship.
“With announcing Conor's program, there's opportunities for engineers and crew members on the Lights program to be involved in that as well. We wouldn't be able to run those additional programs without the benefit of the Lights crew and the Lights people.”
Finding the right fit to complete a driver lineup takes time. The ability to find the best blend of talent and budget is tricky, but fortunately there is an opportunity to seek out both in the lower two rungs of the Road to Indy ladder: the Indy Pro 2000 Championship presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship.
“We're always looking at the timesheets and looking at how the guys in those other classes are doing,” Edwards said.
“Towards the end of the season, we have a short list of people that we're interested in based on what we've seen on performance. Then it's a case of talking to those drivers and developing a relationship with those drivers.
“In some cases, they might have a (personal sponsor) budget straight away and know what they're looking to do. In other cases, it's a case of working together with the driver to see what their level of funding is and see what we're able to bring and how to get the right combination or the right balance of drivers with speed and performance. But, obviously, that we can fund the program as well.
So how does Andretti Autosport top the achievements of a near-perfect 2018 Indy Lights campaign? Repeat it.
“I don't think that the goal for 2019 is any different: Win as many races as we can and retain the championship,” Edwards said.
“It's one thing to win a championship. To retain it is even more difficult because you kind of get a target on your back and everyone is obviously gunning for you. You set the bar after each year and everyone's gunning to knock you off it, so it's going to be tough.
“Part of us being able to achieve what our goals are is by having four drivers that are all capable of winning races. That's the hard work between now and (the season opener).”
All three Road to Indy series open their seasons with doubleheader races during the March 8-10 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend. For the first time this year, Indy Lights races will stream live on INDYCAR Pass, the direct-to-consumer product on NBC Sports Gold offering more than 200 hours of broadcast-quality content this season. For more information and to subscribe to INDYCAR Pass for the discounted price of $49.99 for the season, click here.