The 2012 season will mark the third year of existence for the Mazda Road to Indy, which aims to formalize the American Open Wheel ladder and prepare its driver for all aspects of the sport, both on and off the track.
Unfortunately, developing talent for IndyCar racing had become an enormous problem during the 2000s. Neither INDYCAR's Firestone Indy Lights nor Champ Car's Atlantic Championship could consistently churn quality, young talent. And, when they did, rarely were they ever able to get a strong foothold in open wheel and were often exiled to other forms of racing.
However, the 2011 season proved to be a positive turning point for the program. In the lower rungs, the Cooper Tires USF2000 championship continues to add young talent into the pool. Bobby Kelley, the victor from November's scouting combine, will have his chance behind a USF2000 car in St. Petersburg, FL to open the season. Other newcomers will be Roman Lagudi, Jason Wolfe, Colin Thompson, Scott Anderson, Matthew Brabham, Dalton Kellett, among others, while Spencer Pigot will return to the series and make one more run at a title.
Sage Karam, the 2010 USF2000 champ, claimed Rookie of the Year in the 2011 Star Mazda Championship and will return for a second season of competition in that series. Tristan Vautier, the Star Mazda champion, will move on to the Firestone Indy Lights Series in 2011 with powerhouse Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
Finally, and most obviously, the Firestone Indy Lights produced several graduates in the 2011 Izod IndyCar Series season. J.R. Hildebrand and James Hinchcliffe identified themselves as potential stars, Charlie Kimball also showing some mettle in the latter half of the year. Ana Beatriz and Pippa Mann also moved into IndyCars after successful stints in Firestone Indy Lights.
The 2012 season continues to build on that, with Josef Newgarden, the reigning Firestone Indy Lights titlist, signing with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for 2012. What's more, Simon Pagenaud, a former Atlantic champion who lost his open wheel seat after unification, will make his full-time return in 2012 with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Both drivers have all the makings of future stars in the sport.
For a long time, the open wheel ladder system had some holes. However, the Mazda Road to Indy is well on its way to filling in the gaps and creating success stories.