For years, I have been pestering, badgering, complaining, urging, pleading, and generally kvetching about the lack of a real ladder system in IndyCar racing.
On Twitter, I get a lot of grief from Tony George loyalists about how he was the one who first built the Road to Indy. And yes, Mr. George indeed was behind the first iteration of the IndyCar ladder system.
The problem is that that first iteration of the ladder system was nothing more than some sanctioning agreements and a stack of stickers. It was useless in practice. The ceilings that drivers ran up against on their way up were not even glass - they were made of thick steel, and the racers could not even see what they were missing.
The present-day Mazda Road to Indy is changing all of that - not all at once, but in small, significant pieces. First, the road map was put in place from USF2000 all the way up to the IZOD IndyCar Series. Then the way stations were opened up with scholarships to facilitate (not guarantee, which is an important distinction at this juncture) a champion's rise up the ladder's rungs.
Today, what could be the most significant step on the ladder - the first one - was put in place with the Mazda Road to Indy Scouting Combine.
Karting is the world's most prolific form of motorsport with its affordable costs and wide accessibility. It has long been considered a spiritual first step towards a career in open-wheel racing; however, the complexities of making the jump from karting to the open-wheel ladder system historically have been prohibitive. In simple terms, it has been incumbent upon the karter to figure out what his goals are and then pursue them on his own.
The Scouting Combine seeks to change that by establishing a clear goal for ambitious future racers and then giving them the means to achieve it. Think of it as an American Idol for IndyCar racing. Idol changed the face of the entertainment industry by throwing the doors open to the music world to average, everyday people who otherwise would have had no recourse. Even with only a single winner per year, Idol's huge popularity and the sheer numbers of hopefuls wanting a shot at the prize testifies to the appeal of opportunity, no matter how slim. Some chance, in other words, is better than no chance.
That is the deep-seated feeling that the Mazda Road to Indy hopes to tap. Invited drivers from the World Karting Association (WKA), SuperKarts! USA, International Karting Federation (IKF), and Rotax championships, together with other invitees from regional kart series and USAC, will be evaluated over three days at Andersen Race Park in Palmetto, Florida in November. According to Jason Penix, INDYCAR's grassroots marketing manager, drivers will be judged under the watchful eyes of officials, team owners, and drivers not only for their driving skill, but also for presentation - the "total package," as it were. The top performer will be rewarded with an entry in the St. Petersburg rounds of the USF2000 National Championship in 2012.
"The Mazda Road to Indy's goal is to develop formula car drivers, and forming a link to karting is essential in achieving that," says Penix. "Karting plays such an important role in the career of a young driver, and the Scouting Combine will give someone the chance to make the step into cars. Hopefully, we will find several young drivers ready to make the Mazda Road to Indy their next racing home."
Critics will continue to point out that this is only one small opening in the door. That's as may be, but an opening is an opening - and if American Idol has taught the world anything, it's that if the door opens even a crack, there will always be plenty of people rushing to be the first through.