“Well, first off, I think INDYCAR is what Formula 1 used to be, to a large degree” says Bobby Rahal, as I take a deep look on why so much European talent is coming here now

INDIANAPOLIS — Formula One may be on the rise here in America in terms of popularity, but the NTT IndyCar Series is still on the climb up as well. See, INDYCAR is on the verge of that major breakout and I sense it’s coming right around the corner.

The numbers are growing year over year and they’re just one moment away from that breakthrough to the top. The series hasn’t been in this kind of condition in decades. An entitlement sponsor in for the long haul on a new contract extension. Same for the TV package. Car counts are rising. Attendance and TV viewership remains on the rise in both areas.

I think on the flip side, F1’s rise in America is eventually going to be capped. There’s only so much you can do to grow here before you’re maxed out. I mean there will be two races here beginning in 2022, but when a majority of the races aren’t on his hemisphere and run in the early morning hours, there’s not a realistic possibility of this series becoming a juggernaut here stateside.

The numbers were already pretty low but since ESPN and Netfilx has done a great job with F1 here in the United States, the viewership and popularity truly is rising. But, they’re not to INDYCAR’s level here of course and honestly won’t be. It’s hard for a global racing series to contend with a more regionalized series here than abroad.

Now, not only is INDYCAR rising here, they’re rising overseas and that’s also due to the rising talent over there coming over to race here. That’s all due to how things are setup to get into F1 and then to stay there. It’s the driving force behind these drivers coming over to the United States.

In a perfect world, Christian Lundgaard, Calum Ilott and others would be in F1. Instead, they’re here in INDYCAR and now that they’ve had a taste, they may never go back.

Politics are the only reason keeping them out of top race contending rides and the longer you go without one, the more career suicide you’re pulling. They can’t do it any longer. They’re at the top of their games in the F1 feeder series’ but they’re not getting any younger and the longer you wait, the more someone younger with more money than you will come along.

For much of the last decade, unless you had a Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari seat, you weren’t going to win. You likely weren’t going to podium either. The further and further you went down the grid, the luckier you’d be to even score points.

So, mix that with younger drivers bringing money, the rides weren’t necessarily going towards talent but who had the biggest checkbook *cough cough Haas’ situation.*

So, drivers with tons of talent who were good enough for an F1 seat were forced to look elsewhere while also still in their prime. Now, this is also trickling down to the younger drivers coming up too. They are coming through Europe and into F3 and F2 seats but there’s really no where for them to go up into F1. The seats are all basically spoken for and are taken not only into 2022 but beyond.

That’s why someone like Lundgaard looked here. He’s only 20. He won twice in F2 last year. Has a track for a seat at Alpine but with Alonso and Esteban Ocon back in their F1 cars next year, what’s he supposed to do?

Ilott wanted to be with Ferrari. How can he with Carlos Sainz Jr. and Charles LeClerc in those rides?

F1 isn’t going to have many more than 20 cars on the grid, so once they’re filled, they’re filled. What are you supposed to do?

“My dream as a European has always been to go to F1, but we also know that there is 22 cars — 20 cars, and there’s 20 drivers,” Lundgaard said. “If they perform to the level that the team wants, they’ve still got the seat and so on. So it’s very difficult for the younger drivers to come in without the proper funding, without the proper results.

“It’s all about timing. You look now this year, for example, I’m still a part of the Alpine Academy for the remaining of 2021. And we look at Oscar, he’s leading the championship, and what is he going to do for next year, the seats are taken.”

Lundgaard, said this is an opportunity for him to come over here and to prove what he can do.

“You know, it’s not just for one single year,” he continued. “We can keep on building, and then maybe in four or five years if the time is right and the space is there, if that’s what it’s going to be, then that’s what it’s going to be.

“For me it’s always about winning what I’m doing and then we take it from there. I came into 2021 expecting to win the championship and it didn’t go that way; now I’m coming here and I’ve got a fresh start, and then I’ll take it from there.

“But I’m very confident that I’m at the right place with RLL, that’s for sure.”

Bobby Rahal, his new boss, says that he feels like INDYCAR now is what F1 was which is why the attraction is there for them to look here as their next move.

“Well, first off, I think INDYCAR is what Formula 1 used to be, to a large degree,” said Bobby Rahal. “Clearly we don’t have the politics. Clearly we don’t — there’s a lot of things that don’t exist in the INDYCAR paddock that exist in the Formula 1 paddock.

“You look at how many really good guys are in F2 who maybe are frustrated now because they can’t make that next step, and yet they’ve kind of proven their abilities.

“As Christian mentioned, I think that — if I’m a young guy in Europe and I look at the potentials, I think the potential for my career is much greater here in INDYCAR than it is there.

“I fully expect — as we once had a number of years ago where we had a number of Europeans and Brazilians in INDYCAR racing, I see a greater representation from countries in Europe, countries in South America towards INDYCAR.”

Lundgaard, said when asked on why INDYCAR, it came down to what he personally wanted to do and what will he enjoy the most. The INDYCAR opportunity here on the IMS road course back in August showed him that these cars are fun to drive and something you can be competitive in.

“For me when I did the race over here, that’s what I enjoyed the most,” he said. “I haven’t enjoyed a race weekend as much as that one for years, except obviously when you have a very good weekend in whatever you’re doing and you are winning and dominating.

“But to come in for one race weekend and enjoy it that much surprised me. So from there on, that’s what I personally wanted to go to, and in the end we made that work, so I’m happy that we’re here now.

“The car. The speed. I think the general history of the series. It’s, again, so different. I think Bobby mentioned it earlier, like what INDYCAR is now is probably what I would think F1 was before I was born. You know, it’s the proper racing I want to do.

“I spoke to some drivers a few days ago that’s been in INDYCAR and they say, here, you come, you enjoy, you like driving. But the first — when you begin in Europe, you have the, let’s say the proper feeling of racing that you enjoy, but the more you do it you kind of die, the spirit die.

“Where for me over here it just continues. That’s what I had when I came for the race in August, that this is just so different. It’s a complete new spark that just fired in me, and I wanted to continue with that.

“I think it will. I’m pretty sure it will. INDYCAR is the place to be, and I’m perfectly happy with where I am with RLL.”

That sounds a lot like what Grosjean has been saying all year. This was what he said at Indy back in May.

“I love the atmosphere between the drivers, I love the tracks. The cars are fun to drive. We can go for some good stuff. I’m really happy. I’m happier, I’ve said it for a few times, I’m happier than I’ve been for a very long time. It’s like being alive again.”

Even what Ilott said in his few brief starts that ended up landing him a full-time gig with Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Ilott, is only 22. He was second in the final standings in F2 last year. He just has no room to go up and was forced to look elsewhere if he wanted to remain at a high level.

Will what they do help attract more drivers like him to come over? I mean, why play the political game overseas when you can come here, make a decent living and have an actual chance of winning every week.

“I’m sure it will,” Lundgaard said of INDYCAR and its style of racing will be attractive for even more of these younger drivers to come over. “I’m sure there will be more European drivers coming over here let’s say pre-F1. I think nowadays we’ve seen a lot of ex-F1 drivers come over, but I still believe that it’s something you can take as a step towards F1.

“For me the series is great. Looking at me and Callum, we’ve competed in F2, we know each other, and you know, over here it’s pure racing. I like the racing over here. Yeah, that’s what attracts me and the racing itself, so I’m definitely positive for next year.”

This could be the next great pathway for this series as well as what they have from the Road to Indy program. There’s so many paths going to INDYCAR right now and that’s a very good thing. It’s only going to make the series deeper and deeper with F1, F2, F3 and Indy Lights pointing in this direction.


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