INDYCAR: Road to Indy scholarship programs a step in the right direction

A new USAC "scholarship" will see the USAC National Champion get a partially-funded Firestone Indy Lights Series ride starting next season. (Logo: USACRacing.com)

IZOD IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard is expected to announce today that USAC's National Champion will be the beneficiary of a "scholarship program" that will see the driver get a partially-funded Firestone Indy Lights Series ride.

The announcement will be made today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with USAC's president Kevin Miller and USAC standouts Bryan Clauson and Levi Jones in attendance.

On Autosport Radio Tuesday night, Bernard let slip some details of the new program, revealing that the scholarship funding for the graduating USAC driver would be limited to oval events only. "The last thing we want to do is set them up to fail," Bernard told AR's Don Kay.

The FILS team owner who fields the ride for the USAC graduate may include road and street events at his or her discretion; however, they will also be at his or her own expense.

On a related topic, during the same Autosport Radio interview, Bernard mentioned how keen he is to keep Star Mazda standout Conor Daly, son of former F1 and IndyCar driver Derek Daly, racing in the United States. Bernard mentioned that he had meetings with Derek and that he is working behind the scenes to provide Conor with a FILS opportunity at the earliest opportunity.

Bernard also said that he is working to incorporate a scholarship program similar to USAC's into the Star Mazda side of the Road to Indy program, but that talks are still in the preliminary stage.

All of this adds up to a long-overdue strengthening of the IZOD IndyCar Series' development ladder, which should be cause for celebration for IndyCar fans as well as future competitors. These are the first blows to the glass ceilings that lurk over "feeder" series that prevent drivers from following a course of progression from the grassroot levels to IndyCar racing.

In theory, the "Road to Indy" should start at the karting level. Karting is the nation's most heavily-populated motorsports demographic, a rich and varied wellspring of burgeoning racing talent. However, with the exception of the now-defunct Stars of Karting series, the IZOD IndyCar Series has not had official ties to any karting sanction, nor has it marketed to those sanctions and driver groups directly in hopes of driving up interest in an IndyCar career path.

Bernard says that this will change - and hopefully soon - but for now the impetus is focused more directly on strengthening the existing rungs of the development ladder and clearing the way for young, deserving domestic talent to start supplanting the ride buyer culture that has dominated IndyCar for the past few years.

"We want young American drivers to come race in IndyCar," Bernard said. "We don't want to promote guys who are racing on daddy's money. I'm not trying to offend anyone, but we want the best drivers in the world to be racing at Indianapolis and racing in IndyCar."

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