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Mazda hands aspiring racers road map to Indianapolis

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INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard announces the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship program at the PRI Auto Show, Thursday, December 9, 2010 (Photo: IMS Photo)
INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard announces the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship program at the PRI Auto Show, Thursday, December 9, 2010 (Photo: IMS Photo)

A lot of very positive things have happened during this IZOD IndyCar Series off-season. In fact, so many positive things have happened that I'm starting to wonder if Ashton Kutcher is secretly taping us for Punk'd so he can watch our faces as we realize it was all a massive practical joke.

Fortunately, Ashton Kutcher is too busy being a Twitter celebrity these days to bother, and moreover I think Punk'd ended in 2007 (although I hear Justin Bieber is going to be hosting a revival, but enough of "News That Makes People Want To Eviscerate Themselves With Sporks"). So we can reasonably assume that all of this good news is legit and lasting.

For me, yesterday's announcement that Mazda was sponsoring the Road to Indy program was one of the top three most important; indeed, in my mind it's almost as significant as the 2012 chassis in terms of long-term growth.

I have railed and railed for years about how the IndyCar development ladder was full of rotten rungs that couldn't support the weight of those who tried to climb it. Or, to use another metaphor, there were glass ceilings at every level of the ladder that ensured that drivers could be part of the Road to Indy, but they couldn't exploit it for its designated purpose.

The recent announcement that USAC's National Champion would receive a Road to Indy scholarship was a positive step, but the problem is that USAC's front-engined race cars and dirt pedigree are not directly tied to the rear-engined asphalt formula racing that IndyCar has become. Further, there is no preparation at all for USAC drivers to race road courses, which are inextricably part of IndyCar series racing. A USAC driver could legitimately attempt to race at Indianapolis, but beyond that his preparedness is sadly lacking.

The last time the Road to Indy bore any resemblance at all to a legitimate feeder system was before the Split. Post-Split, the Road to Indy stickers on USAC midget and Silver Crown cars were ironic jokes, road signs that pointed towards a dead end. The Split-era Road to Indy was one where drivers wandered, essentially lost, until they stumbled across NASCAR.

I bring up NASCAR because, of all major-league racing series in America, their development ladder is the best-realized (even if opportunity is rare in a tight economy these days). If an aspiring racer wants to race at Daytona, there is a clearly-defined direction to take from the lowest-level grassroots. It's been that way for decades, too.

That's why I have little patience with those who are already pooh-poohing the Mazda Road to Indy. There are wags out there already sniffing at the Mazda scholarship dollar figures. Others question the value of series like USF2000 or Firestone Indy Lights in terms of affordability and driver education.

The Mazda Road to Indy's value is better assessed in terms of opportunity. No, the scholarships for the USF2000 champion, Star Mazda champion, and Firestone Indy Lights champion won't fund a full-season ride. But it is enough to be a foot in the door - $500,000, for instance, is enough to get a Firestone Indy Lights champ a ride for the Indianapolis 500 instead of spending a month wandering Gasoline Alley with his helmet, a HANS, and a poured Dallara seat.

Beyond that, you have to examine Mazda's involvement in other grassroots motorsports efforts outside of the formula-based IndyCar ladder. Specifically, you need to remember the Skip Barber Racing School and BF Goodrich Skip Barber National Series. While there is no official Road to Indy program in karting, the Skip Barber school and national series is the perfect transition step between America's largest grassroots racing discipline and the first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy.

In theory, at least, thanks to Mazda IndyCar now has an established development pathway from the youngest Cadet karter directly up the chain to the IZOD IndyCar Series - something that has been missing for many, many years.

There is a lot to be done before the Mazda Road to Indy becomes a true asset to IndyCar racing, of course. The financial buy-in from Mazda is only the first step. Now IndyCar teams need to follow the example of Andretti Autosport and extend their own development programs down the ladder to start mining young talent for the future. IndyCar and Mazda also need to start a heavy sales campaign down to the lowest grassroots levels, selling aspiring racers on the dream of racing at the Indianapolis 500 - a dream that honestly hasn't been realistic for decades.

But the first big step has been taken, and clearly momentum is building so that steps forward will start to outnumber steps back. While practical problems may continue to exist - the cost of USF2000, the suitability of Indy Lights tech, and so forth - the idea that they are unsolvable thankfully is beginning to fade.

That's enough "zoom-zoom" to make any IndyCar fan optimistic for the future.