Road to Indy Working

I have long questioned the effectiveness of the Mazda Road to Indy program. Established in 2010, the MRTI was designed to give up-and-coming drivers a chance to start in US F2000, the lowest rung of the ladder and work their way up to the Verizon Indycar Series. After F2000, there's Pro Mazda, and then the Indy Lights series, the long-standing last rung of Road to Indy. Each series awards a scholarship to the champion at the end of the season to help them move up to the next series.

I have questioned not only Indy Lights but the legitimacy of the program. Yes, it does give a lot of drivers the chance to gain experience and work their way into Indycar, sharing paddocks and racing on the same tracks as Indycar. But many drivers get to Indy Lights and then struggle to make the jump into Indycar, or they make the jump and then either fizzle out with lack of results or cannot find the funding to continue.

With the recent driver announcements, it appears now more than ever that the Mazda Road to Indy system is working. Here are success stories that are attributed to the MRTI that race in Indycar today (since the MRTI started in 2010, I am focusing on drivers since then):

Bryan Clauson
MRTI Stats
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Starts: 8

Indycar Starts: 2

Bryan Clauson gained some of the skills necessary to compete at the Indianapolis 500 from his time in Indy Lights. The Indiana native, who is a USAC driver by trade, ran at all of the ovals on the 2011 Indy Lights calendar, and two ovals the next year. This coupled with his years and years of dirt racing make Bryan a viable option for any team looking for a driver for the Indianapolis 500. Jonathan Byrd's Racing seized this moment, and signed him for 2015 and the upcoming 500 in 2016.

Carlos Munoz
MRTI Stats
Wins: 6
Podiums: 10
Starts: 24

Indycar Starts: 37

Carlos Munoz has blossomed into one of the fastest, most aggressive drivers in Indycar. Like others, Munoz came to America looking for a new career path. He earned his shot with Andretti Autosport, and has been affiliated with the team ever since. His career highlight was his first Indianapolis 500 in 2013, where Munoz was a relatively unknown. He finished second and impressed everyone. He claimed his first win in the 2015 season at Belle Isle. Munoz continues to build on his resume and will look to be a factor for years to come.

Charlie Kimball
MRTI Stats
Wins: 0
Podiums: 5
Starts: 28

Indycar Starts: 84

A two year stint in Indy Lights that proved Charlie Kimball could consistently run up front, and this, coupled with sponsorship backing, got Charlie up to Indycar with Chip Ganassi Racing. Two career highlights, a win Mid-Ohio in 2013 and a third place at the 2015 Indianapolis 500, as well as many other highlights demonstrates that Charlie is a mainstay in the series with a large following of fans.

Conor Daly
MRTI Stats
Wins: 9
Podiums: 21
Starts: 32

Indycar Starts: 6

Conor Daly, the 2010 Pro Mazda champion and journeyman driver who has been looking for a way into Indycar, has finally gotten this opprotunity with Dale Coyne Racing and Jonathan Byrd's Racing for 2016. He has raced in Indycar in 2013 and 2015, but with no full-time Indy Lights rides and an unsuccessful attempt to climb the European ladder into Formula 1, Daly has been left searching for a full-time ride into Indycar. Finally, a weight has been lifted off of his shoulders with his deal that was recently announced. Here's hoping he finds success in Indycar after his long journey.

Conor Daly in a Pro Mazda car at Iowa (Photo: JOWT)

Gabby Chaves
MRTI Stats
Wins: 7
Podiums: 31
Starts: 43

Indycar Starts: 16

Gabby Chaves was a fantastic MRTI driver. After a stint in GP3, Chaves came to America in 2012 and found a home in Pro Mazda. After finishing second in the championship, Chaves moved up to Indy Lights in 2013 and again, finished second. Finally, in 2014, Chaves broke through and won the championship and thus got the funding to move up to Indycar. Driving for Bryan Herta Autosport, Chaves looks to be back with the team in 2016.

Jack Hawksworth
MRTI Stats
Wins: 11
Podiums: 18
Starts: 28

Indycar Starts: 33

Jack Hawksworth came over to America in 2012, earning a shot in Pro Mazda. Instant success was found, and Hawk won the championship, giving him a chance to move up to Indy Lights in 2013. Despite not winning the championship, Hawk earned a ride with Bryan Herta Autosport in 2014 and AJ Foyt Enterprises in 2015. Mixed results ensued, but there is no denying that Jack is talented and he belongs in an Indycar.

James Hinchcliffe
MRTI Stats
Wins: 3
Podiums: 13
Starts: 28

Indycar Starts: 74

The Mayor of Hinchtown, James Hinchcliffe, learned many of the skills that have transferred into success from Indy Lights. 28 starts and a second place finish in Indy Lights championship in 2010 gave Hinch the resume he needed to move up to Indycar in 2011 with Newman/Haas Racing. After 2011, Hinch moved to Andretti Autosport, earning three wins for the team. In 2015, Hinch reunited with his 2009 Indy Lights team Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to drive the primary Indycar. A fan favorite and a favorite to watch on the track, Hinch is yet another product of Indy Lights and the MRTI.

Josef Newgarden
MRTI Stats
Wins: 5
Podiums: 10
Starts: 14

Indycar Starts: 67

Josef Newgarden has blossomed into one of the best examples of an Indy Lights champion making it into Indycar. Newgarden gradually progressed from his rookie season in 2012 till the point where he was a championship contender in 2015, notching two wins. Sarah Fisher gave Josef his chance, and with Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing on the rise, Josef will continue to blossom in Indycar for years to come.

Josef Newgarden is a shining example of the Road to Indy. Newgarden stood
out in his tenure in Indy Lights (Photo: The Canadian Press)

Matthew Brabham
MRTI Stats
Wins: 18
Podiums: 30
Starts: 47

Indycar Starts: 0

Mazda Road to Indy, well I would go as far as to label him "legend", Matthew Brabham got his deal to move up to Indycar in 2016. Brabham and Pirtek Team Murray signed a deal for Brabham to race twice in May, in conjunction with KV Racing Technology. Brabham won the 2012 US F2000 championship, and 13 of the 16 races in the 2013 Pro Mazda championship. Despite sluggish times in Indy Lights, Brabham has now found the right situation to move up to Indycar in 2016. He joins Sage Karam and Spencer Pigot as three drivers who have gone through every step on their way to the Indycar Series.

Pippa Mann
MRTI Stats
Wins: 1
Podiums: 2
Starts: 27

Indycar Starts: 13

Fan-favorite Pippa Mann continues to be a mainstay in May in Indycar over her Indycar career spanning back to 2011. Having reached some success in Indy Lights in 2009 and 2010, Mann has made a part-time appearance in every season since 2011 (exc. 2012). Her willingness to go above and beyond for fans has made her a favorite amongst the crowd. She will look to continue to feature herself in Indycar, and the Indianapolis 500 (where she has started four times) for years to come.

Sage Karam
MRTI Stats
Wins: 17
Podiums: 34
Starts: 52

Indycar Starts: 13

One of the most controversial drivers to race in Indycar in 2015 was young-gun Sage Karam. Many tout Karam as a stuck up daddy's-boy who needs to learn how to drive. Many would be surprised to know learn that Karam was one of the most dominant MRTI drivers in the program's short history. He is also one of three drivers (to my knowledge) to drive in every ladder of the MRTI and to end up in Indycar (Pigot and Brabham). While he has never landed a full-time role in Indycar, Karam will be racing in Indycar for many years.

Sage Karam on his way to a win in St. Petersburg in USF2000 (Photo: JOWT)

Sebastian Saavedra
MRTI Stats
Wins: 4
Podiums: 16
Starts: 38

Indycar Starts: 63

Sebastian Saavedra serves as an example of longevity in Indycar. Sure, he doesn't have a career highlight to stick his hat on, or glittering results in any season of his career, and he's gotten lucky with sponsorship money. But Saavedra keeps finding ways to stay in Indycar. A successful tenure in Indy Lights, followed by a maturation move in 2012 to step back from Indycar to Indy Lights helped him jump back up to Indycar in 2013 and beyond.

Spencer Pigot
MRTI Stats
Wins: 24
Podiums: 41
Starts: 72

Indycar Starts: 0

A true product of the system, Spencer Pigot will make his debut in Indycar in 2016 for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Starting in 2011, Spencer spent two years in US F2000, two years in Pro Mazda, and then a year in Indy Lights. Constant success and pace means the 22 year old American will reach the final rung of the MRTI ladder in 2016.

Tristan Vautier
MRTI Stats
Wins: 10
Podiums: 16
Starts: 36

Indycar Starts: 30

A veteran of MRTI since its inception in 2010, Frenchman Tristan Vautier spent three years working his way up to Indycar, collecting two championships along the way. Despite an unsuccessful rookie season in 2013 and no activity in 2014, Vautier made his way back into Indycar in 2015 with Dale Coyne Racing. His highlight was a very impressive race at Detroit #2, racking up a forth place finish. Vautier has still yet to breakthrough in Indycar, but he is and still stands as one of the best MRTI drivers in its short history.

MRTI Stats
Wins: 115
Podiums: 248
Starts: 477

Indycar Starts: 438

Some drivers on this list ran in all three rungs of the MRTI ladder before getting to Indycar, some raced in a couple rungs before getting to Indycar, and some only ran Indy Lights before getting to Indycar. Any way you slice it, the above 14 drivers and their varying successes and experiences in the MRTI shows that this system is one of the best things Indycar has going for it. I would love to see continued support for the program from teams, fans, and drivers wanting to enter it.

Thanks for reading!

-Matthew Hickey