During the IndyCar season it is hard to miss the occasional plug for Indy Lights' success in providing drivers for the Verizon IndyCar Series.
You hear the numbers almost every other race. Fourteen IndyCar drivers have Indy Lights experience or fifteen drivers have Indy Lights experience. This many IndyCar drivers won an Indy Lights race and so on. There is nothing wrong with those numbers, as they are factually correct. The Indy Lights series has done a good job getting drivers to IndyCar but it is the rhetoric used that bothers me. Maybe bothers isn't the right word but it gets me thinking.
James Hinchcliffe is described as an Indy Lights graduate. Josef Newgarden is described as an Indy Lights graduate. Conor Daly, RC Enerson and Spencer Pigot are labeled as Indy Lights graduates. However, some of those drivers aren't graduates.
The dictionary definition of graduate is "a person who has earned a degree or diploma from a school, college or university." Of course, drivers aren't attending schools and they don't get diplomas but they can earn something and that is a championship. If you win the Indy Lights championship, you get a scholarship to run three IndyCar races. However, it is only one prize. Can only one driver be a "graduate" each year? No but just because a driver moves up to the next level doesn't make him or her a graduate.
Take RC Enerson, who made his IndyCar debut this season at Mid-Ohio and ran three races. Enerson started out 2016 in Indy Lights but dropped out after the Freedom 100 to save his funding. He took his funding and got an IndyCar seat at Dale Coyne Racing. He isn't a graduate. He didn't complete the course load. He dropped out after his sophomore year and went out and made it on his own. The same can be said of Conor Daly. Daly won the Star Mazda title in 2010 and then ran a handful of races in Indy Lights the following year but his entrance into IndyCar wasn't because of success in Indy Lights. Daly went to Europe and ran in GP3 and GP2 and has more starts in those two series (68) than he does in Road to Indy series (32). Daly isn't an Indy Lights graduate. He dabbled in Indy Lights but ultimately transferred abroad.
I would argue Jack Hawksworth is an Indy Lights graduate. Though he didn't win the title Hawksworth used he experience in the Road to Indy system to get an IndyCar seat. Carlos Muñoz is an Indy Lights graduate, though he did spend a few years in Formula Three, because it was his Indy Lights success that landed him an IndyCar ride. Charlie Kimball is an Indy Lights graduate, who just like Muñoz had a fair amount of Formula Three experience before joining Indy Lights. Marco Andretti wouldn't be an Indy Lights graduate. He ran a handful of races and won a few but showing up for the equivalent of a semester doesn't make you a graduate. Max Chilton would be an interesting one. He raced in GP2 and Formula One before contesting one season in Indy Lights with Carlin and then moved up to Ganassi. The Road to Indy system can't claim that he is a driver it developed. Chilton developed in Europe and then spent a semester in Indy Lights before transferring to the big time. He wouldn't be an Indy Lights graduate.
It will be interesting in the next few years as drivers, such as Dean Stoneman, Félix Serrallés, Kyle Kaiser, Santiago Urrutia and Ed Jones, look to move to IndyCar. Jones just won the Indy Lights championship and his Indy Lights experience is greater than his Formula Three experience. Stoneman won the Formula Two championship and raced in Formula Renault 3.5, GP3 and GP2 before joining Indy Lights. He really hasn't been developed here. Serrallés is another one with a fair amount of Formula Three experience. Urrutia had one season of GP3 under his belt before he joined Pro Mazda in 2015 but notably for Urrutia is he has clearly advanced his talent in the Road to Indy system compared to when he was a 17-year-old in GP3. Kaiser just completed his second season of Indy Lights after running two seasons in Pro Mazda. He is a great example of the success of the Road to Indy system but if he feels his money would be better spent attempting the Indianapolis 500 and a few other races than running another full season of Indy Lights or he pulls an Enerson in 2017 and jump up midseason, I am not sure we could call Kaiser a graduate.
As much as IndyCar and Indy Lights promote the graduates they should also promote and embrace the dropouts. We live in a world where college education is monumentally important for the future of a young adult but college isn't for everybody. Some try it and drop out because it is either not for them or because of financial reasons. I think embracing some of the drivers as dropouts can actually speak to a segment of the population and show that despite not following the clear-cut path and not earning some certificate you can still make it and be successful.
Labeling drivers such as Enerson, Daly and Andretti might not necessarily cause an influx of fans to IndyCar races or bloat TV ratings but a simply wording change can show acceptance of an otherwise isolated group. IndyCar wants to show the ladder system is a success but acknowledging the different paths a driver can take to make it to the top shows that success can come in many forms.