You won’t have to go far next season to understand and validate the impact of the Road to Indy ladder system on the NTT IndyCar Series. You also won’t have to go far back in time to notice how quickly that impact has expanded.
Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew, who signed with Arrow McLaren SP in late October, are recent Indy Lights champions. A few weeks later, Rinus VeeKay signed with Ed Carpenter, giving the NTT IndyCar Series three full-time signees with recent experience in the Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires.
For the uninitiated, RTI is the developmental series launched in 2011. It’s comprised of three rungs -- the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, Indy Pro 2000 Championship and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires -- designed to train drivers for eventual rides in the IndyCar Series. Operated by Andersen Promotions, RTI provides support races during most IndyCar Series race weekends. It also has become an essential element to the present and future of INDYCAR.
To wit: Since 2015 alone, 14 RTI graduates have advanced to the IndyCar Series, a remarkable statistic for any developmental series. They list is: Askew, O'Ward, VeeKay, Spencer Pigot, Zach Veach, Jack Harvey, Felix Rosenqvist, Colton Herta, RC Enerson, Matheus Leist, Ed Jones, Max Chilton, Zachary Claman De Melo and Kyle Kaiser.
“A couple years ago (the NTT) IndyCar (Series) looked so far away, let alone Indy Lights,” Askew said when Arrow McLaren SP announced his and O’Ward’s signings. “So it's been a whirlwind couple of years. It's a testament to the people around me, for sure ... starting with Cape Motorsports and USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000 and then Andretti Autosport this year in Indy Lights.”
Askew’s stats this year in Indy Lights were astounding. He won seven of the 18 races, recorded seven pole positions, led 141 of the 600 laps and completed 561 of them. VeeKay, who finished 21 points behind Askew in the final standings, won six races and scored seven poles.
“It’s a dream come true and something we have worked extremely hard for over the last couple of years,” VeeKay said when ECR announced him as the driver of the team’s No. 21 Chevrolet. “To step up from USF2000 to the NTT IndyCar Series in three years is really special. … The number of available seats in the NTT IndyCar Series is very limited, so it’s a great honor that (Ed Carpenter Racing) has chosen me to join their team.”
In 17 Lights races with Andretti in 2018, O’Ward (pictured above at last month's test at Sebring International Raceway) won nine races with nine poles for the championship. In two seasons in the Indy Pro Series with Team Pelfrey (2015 and 2016), O’Ward won seven races and finished second in the 2016 championship. Needless to say, landing the Arrow McLaren SP ride was huge. Not just for him, but for Askew and the Road to Indy.
“It's very big, not just for me but for all Oliver as well,” O’Ward said. “We're just starting our journey into the professional side of this sport and it's something we have been working towards our whole lives, so I'm very much looking forward to the opportunity, I'm very thankful and I think there's no better team to do it than with Arrow McLaren SP. I think the guys have just proven that they have what it takes to win races, to challenge for championships. So I'm very excited to see what the future could have in store.
To make the points of effectiveness and timeliness of the RTI program, look no further than the 2019 IndyCar Series result. Specifically, races at Circuit of The Americas and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Herta, a graduate of USF2000 and Indy Lights, won at COTA and Laguna Seca in his first full season in the IndyCar Series.
At the Arrow McLaren SP announcement of O’Ward and Askew, Sam Schmidt said this:
“It's a different time. When (McLaren sporting director) Gil (de Ferran) and myself were coming through the ranks, there was no sort of clear path. What we're seeing recently with the Road to Indy is nothing short of amazing. If you win, you advance.
“And the other part of it is these kids aren't coming in with three and four and five years of experience. … We're talking 13, 14 years of racing experience, and so they're coming in a lot more advanced than the rookies of days of old.
“So we saw, it's no shocker. I mean, what Colton Herta did this year was nothing short of amazing, and these guys come from exactly the same background. So we're hoping we'll have the same type of results. So a lot of people have said that it's really risky, it's a gamble, but we really don't think it is.”
It’s been established. Young drivers with RTI experience are ready to race at the top level. It’s not risky or a gamble. It’s the future, and it’s here now.