IMS and IndyCar owner joins insider Nathan Brown on a special edition of Pit Pass Live. Indianapolis Star
Kyle Kirkwood was staring at a chance to make history entering his 2020 racing campaign. Now, it’s a mix of opportunity and uncertainty, but it excites him all the same, as he pursues life outside of the Road to Indy Ladder series that announced the cancellation of the 2020 Indy Lights season on Monday.
“It’s certainly disappointing, but it’s a very similar situation that lots of other people are in right now in various sports,” the 21-year-old Andretti Autosport driver told IndyStar. “But it’s really not the end of the world for me. We were already six months through the year already, so it’s not like we’re losing an entire year as of right now.”
The news came after a lengthy, in-depth conversation between Dan Andersen, the owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions – which owns the US F2000 and Indy Pro 2000 series and is heavily involved with Indy Lights – and IndyCar owner Roger Penske and his closest advisers. Andersen maintained he would move forward with 18-race scheduled for the two series on the first two rungs of the ladder, but said holding a 2020 Indy Lights campaign as currently constructed amidst the uncertainty of drivers, teams and races the pandemic had created simply wouldn’t do justice to the series that has provided IndyCar with young, competitive talent for years.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom for the series moving forward. With Penske involved, Andersen said, there’s an evolution in store that may just take advantage of the stoppage caused by the coronavirus pandemic that could leave Indy Lights stronger and more vibrant and competitive than ever before.
And until then, there’s opportunity for their drivers to expand their racing resumes, too.
“We had challenges as a series trying to figure out where we were going to fit in a consolidated situation,” Andersen said. “And it became a numbers game, but we realize where we were going to end up, maybe this is the right time to take a pause and figure out how to do things better than how we’re doing it now.
“Roger has got some very interesting and exciting ideas for the future, and I’m expecting the commitment IndyCar has to Indy Lights to be as strong, if not stronger, than ever, even if this year it ended up being a challenge to do right by Lights.”
'The right call to make'
For the past couple of years, the Indy Lights grid has been shrinking – a problem not lost on Andersen. For a third consecutive year, the series was prepared to run with 10 or fewer full-time drivers – a number that very well could have fallen off as the breakneck planned schedule wore on with teams, drivers and sponsors desperately trying to weather financial woes.
And to add to that, the opportunities to be on TV were falling off the calendar fast. Lights had lost its chance to race on the IMS road course alongside IndyCar for the Fourth of July weekend, as well as the Harvest GP in October, and they’d been asked to find another time to run at Road America outside IndyCar’s rescheduled doubleheader weekend, in order to have as few folks in the paddock as possible.
And running standalone weekends wouldn’t then be viable to try to place Lights on NBC Gold.
“Lights is supposed to, and needs to be fully on TV,” Andersen said.
To make matters worse, a handful of international drivers and crew members were struggling to make it back from overseas – even though the rescheduled season wasn’t set to open up till mid-July before Monday’s news.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’m not the manager for Indy Lights. IndyCar owns it, and I own the other two. They weren’t going to force me, but still, it was their ultimate decision,” Andersen said. “It just all came together as the right call to make for this time.”
But as has so often been the case since Penske was announced as IndyCar’s new owner in November, the racing mogul had a plan to leave a dire situation better than when he first took over.
Another Penske plan in motion
Andersen couldn’t divulge many of the details, but it’s the skeleton of a plan that has been tossed around in IndyCar for years. And with Penske in charge, he said, it seems as if it may finally come to fruition.
Why, Andersen wondered, does the pro racing series have a feeder series that has provided it year in and out with a couple of instantly competitive drivers, yet have so little involvement from IndyCar’s own teams?
With Juncos unable to field a Lights team in 2020, Andretti Autosport was set to be the only one, with nearly half the pro-drivers-in-training under its umbrella.
“When you’re an international driver coming over here, to have that link with an IndyCar team, I think others struggle a bit because drivers want that connection, and having more IndyCar teams would certainly help us a lot,” Andersen said.
Does it involve some way to incentivize those teams to participate?
“That’s the plan,” he answered. “Roger has some ideas about that very thing.”
It could prove to be a very key piece to the 2021 Indy Lights framework, given the amount of talent the series could see. With Indy Pro 2000 still running, a number of its top drivers will, like every year, look to make the jump up to Indy Lights, but Andersen anticipates most Lights teams will look to field most – if not all – of their planned 2020 drivers in the series next year.
We could see some teams slide this year’s drivers back to Indy Pro 2000 this year in pursuit of the one scholarship that they could then use in 2020 – a quick fix to keep some of those drivers on the cusp of IndyCar busy the next several months. Other Indy Lights teams, Andersen said, are looking to compete in Indy Pro 2000 in the future, which could then see them shuffle 2020 Indy Lights and 2020 Indy Pro 2000 drivers around this offseason to where they feel they’d be most successful. At the same time, some Indy Pro 2000 teams may try to jump up in adding a second level to their racing squads.
In all, it may allow Indy Lights to both have a larger, as well as more competitive field in 2021.
“I’m disappointed we have to pause for this year, but I’m excited we can make lemonade out of lemons,” Andersen said.
But in order for all that to fall into place, he said he had to keep his lower two series running, even during the pandemic. Monday afternoon, the two series released their latest takes on an 18-race calendar – the same number as is typically promised at the start of any given year.
It may not look or feel quite the same, given the circumstances, Andersen said, but the important thing is the schedule still lives.
“It’s a fragile business model for teams in all three levels, but especially the lower levels,” he said. “It’s incumbent of me as a promoter that I provide them a platform they can use in their business model, and I need to give them the right number of races and the ability to satisfy their customers and keep their doors open.
“Frankly, if we shut some of the junior levels down for a year, they’re out of business. Some of those teams, they’re not strong enough to take a year off. It’s not the best schedule we’ve ever had, cause we’re doing a couple stand-alones, but it is what it is, so that hopefully we can keep the pipeline going.”
'Better in the long run'
In the meantime for those Indy Lights drivers, it means trying to find an open cockpit for the next several months to keep their driving senses strong, if they’re to be ready for potentially their toughest season in the Road to Indy yet. Already with a three-race minimum scholarship in IndyCar on the line for the 2021 Indy Lights season winner, Kirkwood said that stretch of his racing career will be as important as ever.
Which is tough, he said, because he already felt at the top of his game in the early months of 2020.
“I was the most prepared I’ve ever been and the most confident I’ve been, and some of that has been extinguished now that that preparation seems like it was useless,” he said. “Which it’s not, in reality, but man, we did all that work for something that’s no longer happening. But it’ll go toward next season if I’m in Indy Lights, which there’s a very high chance of.”
Though this year has proven nothing is certain, Kirkwood said he believes he’ll be back in an Andretti Indy Lights car come 2021. There were the early makings of plans to place him in an IndyCar race in 2020, he said, and he believes those plans haven’t been abandoned, though he hasn’t had any concrete discussions with the Andretti team about his 2020 future following the announcement.
To fill up the rest of this year, Kirkwood said he may even stay under the Andretti umbrella in an entirely new series, and he also plans to look into an opening with IMSA’s LMP3 class, where he won the two races he had entered. Maybe an opportunity could arise in Europe, though he said the opportunity and the funding to do so would be even more of a longshot.
“I’ll figure something else out to drive. I look at it as an opportunity to create relationships and open doors that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, while I was a full-time Indy Lights driver,” he said. “It might create an opportunity or unearth a new sponsor or something else I didn’t expect, and that could be a positive.”
And when 2021 rolls around, he’ll still be looking to become the first-ever Road to Indy Driver to win a championship in three consecutive years at all three levels. It may prove to be a tougher task, given the field, but he hopes to be a stronger, more seasoned competitor, too.
“All of it, I think it could be better for us all, as drivers, in the long run,” he said. “Cause for us going into IndyCar, we want to create a championship with a lot better racing against more cars. That’s always a plus.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at @By_NathanBrown.