Title winner to receive help toward racing in Firestone Indy Lights next year
In a bold move designed to help American open-wheel racing's feeder system, IndyCar has announced that they will award a scholarship to the United States Auto Club national driving champion that will enable him to compete in Firestone Indy Lights next season.
The scholarship will be worth $300,000 according to IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, but will only go towards the oval portion of the FIL schedule. However, that didn't stop Bernard and USAC president Kevin Miller from trumpeting the new alliance between their series.
"I think it's important we work together," said Bernard, who also mentioned that IndyCar will have the final word on which FIL team will run the scholarship winner. "I'm a big believer that all boats rise on a high tide. That's what we're trying to do here -- helping the racing world and IndyCar and USAC."
"We have a lot of young talent starting at age five with quarter midgets that are moving up through the ranks," Miller said. "They have aspirations. The [Indianapolis Motor] Speedway is the highest aspiration. Bridging the gap that exists today is that missing link."
USAC and the Indianapolis 500 have had a traditional link to one another but in recent years, USAC has been seen as a stepping stone to NASCAR. With today's announcement, both sides are hoping that drivers will be able to have an easier time moving up through the open-wheel ranks.
Bernard hopes that the scholarship will help repair what he sees as a break in IndyCar's development ladder between the Star Mazda and FIL series. As a result, the scholarship could also provide IndyCar a stream of homegrown talent -- something that the fan base has wanted for a long time.
"The one thing we kept hearing time and time again is, 'We need more Americans,'" he said. "I think it's more important to say, and I've said it from day one, in order for the IZOD IndyCar Series to have Americans, we need the very best Americans. We need the very best drivers. Then when I went to some of the USAC events and I saw the crowds -- I saw the talent, I saw how personable they were, how many of those folks love IndyCar but have just not been associated with it.
"I knew it was very important for us to reconnect with these folks."
Miller also noted the importance of re-establishing the USAC-Indy 500 bond.
"It's definitely a boost," he said. "The Speedway is the ultimate goal of the open-wheel racer. As a child growing up, the Speedway was my icon out there. It continues to be for racers around the world. Having the door through USAC is very meaningful to me running our series and it does create quite a carrot, especially if we can start moving some of our drivers through that door.
"You saw what happened in the last decade with NASCAR. Obviously, we would like that connection with IndyCar."
Levi Jones and Bryan Clauson are currently the top two combatants for this year's USAC national driving title. With four races remaining on the USAC Sprint Car schedule, Clauson holds a 22-point edge over Jones in the national standings. However, Jones leads Clauson by 91 markers on the Sprint Car side.
The national title is determined by tallying competitors' best 25 finishes across the 88 overall races in USAC's three divisions: Silver Crown, Sprint Car and Midget.
Both Jones and Clauson have had face time recently with Bernard and both had positive things to say about the IndyCar-USAC alliance that could put them one step closer to racing in the '500.'
"It means a lot to me to be one of the first guys that has a shot at accomplishing that," Jones said. "It's huge. Not only for myself, but...you know, our last dirt race at Eldora, there were over 200 kids in quarter midgets. If they can see me win at Eldora and have a shot to possibly drive an IndyCar, that only makes their dreams bigger and better."
"For short track, open-wheel guys to have an opportunity now to move on to the next level in open-wheel racing and head towards the Speedway again is, you know, something that hasn't been there over the past five, ten years," Clauson said. "To open that gate back up is something that we are all really excited about.
"Hopefully, if it's not me or Levi, whoever does get the opportunity does us proud and continues the success down that way and we can keep doing this."
All quotes were taken from today's IndyCar-USAC teleconference. Video credit: IndyCar.