Note: Last month, Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon took us through the Mazda Road to Indy, driving US F2000, Mazda Star and Indy Lights cars explaining how this ladder system prepares drivers for the ultimate challenge of IndyCar. His accessibility, keen insights and winning attitude show through in this feature, which appears in the December issue of Road & Track and underscores how much he will be missed.
—Matt DeLorenzo: Editor-in-Chief, Road & Track
Dan Wheldon hurried through the garage at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on a cool and overcast morning. Carrying his gear over his shoulder, the gregarious 33-year-old was looking for a place to change clothes and do what he does best: drive a race car.
Nearby sat three open-wheel racing cars, silent and waiting. They will be wrung out today at the hands of the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, flogged about the IMS road course in a unique exhibition designed to call attention to the burgeoning "Road to Indy" program.
For nearly 30 years, a variety of development series have come and gone in open-wheel racing, each dedicated to providing young racers a pathway to Indy cars. It's been a patchwork of various formulas, some of which no longer exist. Today, as Indy racing steadily distances itself from a tumultuous and difficult period, a complete ladder system—officially known as the Mazda Road to Indy—is now intact, each series sanctioned by IndyCar.
An aspiring young racer can begin his or her career in the USF2000 National Championship Powered by Mazda, a 2-liter formula that has been tried and true for more than two decades. The next step is the Star Mazda Championship, followed by the Firestone Indy Lights. After progressing through these three series, a driver should possess the skills needed to compete in the Izod IndyCar Series. Perhaps the most notable element of the system is this: The champion of each respective division is provided a Mazda-funded "scholarship" to race the following season at the next highest level. (Although Mazda is best known for sports cars, it has been involved with open-wheel racing since 1984, when the rotary-powered Formula Mazda series was created.)
Wheldon is an ideal candidate to speak of the importance of a ladder system, because he's a walking, talking example of how it should work. After honing his skills as a go kart racer in his native England, Wheldon came to America in 1999 to dominate the F2000 series. He then spent a season in Formula Atlantics, and the following year won two races and captured Rookie of the Year honors in Indy Lights. After moving to Indy cars in 2002, he quickly proved his ability, eventually winning the series title—and the Indianapolis 500—in 2005. Although his driving status in 2012 has been uncertain, this past May he reasserted his prowess with an inspired run to capture his second 500 victory.
After slipping away for a few moments Wheldon reappears, clad in his colorful IndyCar fire suit. He quickly hurries to the F2000 car, fielded by Andretti Autosport and driven in 2011 competition by Spencer Pigot. Wheldon seems genuinely eager, grinning broadly as he slips into the tight cockpit.
This is a case of déj vu for Wheldon; he can look back upon himself 12 years ago when he first came to America to challenge a car nearly identical to this one.
In many respects, the F2000 car is a throwback to a simpler time in racing. The tube-frame car utilizes a 4-cylinder dohc fuel-injected Mazda MZR 2.0-liter engine, generating in the neighborhood of 170 bhp and capable of speeds up to 150 mph. Equipped with a 4-speed gearbox, the car races on 13-in. Cooper tires. Engines are prepared and sealed by Elite Engines of West Bend, Wisconsin. The series requires the use of chassis built exclusively by Van Diemen, manufactured from 2001 to 2011.
Wheldon wastes no time getting reacquainted with the car. He roars from the garage area onto the Indy road course, the engine rising and falling in pitch as he runs through the gears. Soon the sound of the car echoes across the historic facility, the voice a raspy growl.
Wheldon steadily grows faster, finally recording a quick lap of 1:31.49.
"That was fun," he says as he climbs from the car, brushing his tousled hair from his forehead and wearing a warm smile. "This car is similar to my first car, when my Indy car career started. The cars really haven't changed that much.
"This F2000 car made me feel a little old, I must say. I've been driving the 2012 [Indy] car a ton lately, and it's got a hand clutch and basically does everything for you. But this has the standard H-pattern gearbox and a clutch, and it's different. But there are basics you need to learn as a race-car driver and driving these cars is part of the process.
"One of my most vivid memories of driving in the [F2000] series was when I first showed up to do an oval race at Phoenix [in 1999]. I have to tell you, when I did the track walk, I went, `Oh, man, these American people are crazy...this looks fast, and it looks nuts!' But I remember settling into it well, and really enjoying that style of racing.
"To this day, the fastest I've ever felt on an oval was in a 2-liter car at Lakeland, Florida, on my first-ever oval test. I've never felt so quick on an oval in my life...I could feel the chassis creaking as it loaded up in the corners."
The F2000 car, he says, is all about teaching a young racer the fundamental elements required of any professional open-wheel racer.
"This teaches you how to match the engine revs with the speed of the car on the downshifts to keep the rear of the car stable. Things happen at a slower speed, and you're able to learn more from that. And you've got to consider, these kids have come out of go karts and this will probably be their first race in a car. There are many things to learn, racing behind other cars when you pick up an understeer because you don't have that same downforce level on these cars. Just the main principles of racing."
Wheldon has spent the past 10 seasons behind the wheel of a 625-bhp Indy car; this car surely feels puny in comparison. Yet, Wheldon laughed when asked if he could still scare himself in one of these cars. "You can scare yourself in any car! It's funny, you get so excited when you first get in it, and you drive it like a go kart...not very neat and tidy. I talked about learning the basics, but that kind of goes out the window because you're having fun and sliding around the corners, and obviously that's not the quick way. So you have to think okay, enough playing around, now you have to go quick."
Minutes later Wheldon is buckled into the Star Mazda machine owned by Team Pelfrey, with team drivers Connor De Phillippi and Nick Andries on hand to provide input. Wheldon has never driven one of these cars, and he struggles to get comfortable in the cockpit, his knees brushing the bottom of the steering wheel.
Despite the tight fit, Wheldon shows no signs of consternation as he roars onto the course. Star Mazda machines, based on a carbon-fiber tub, are powered by a 1.3-liter Mazda Renesis rotary engine, generating 260 bhp at 8600 rpm and paired with a Hewland 6-speed sequential transaxle. The MoTeC encrypted ECU includes a rev limiter, pit speed limiter, traction control and fuel trim.
Lap times for the Star Mazda cars tend to be about 2 seconds quicker than F2000 machines, although the larger wing tends to keep top speeds nearly the same. Cars are constructed by Star Race Cars of Pacoima, California.
Wheldon's first few laps are actually 2 sec. slower than those he recorded in the F2000 entry. After exchanging some curious looks, officials bring Wheldon in to trim the front and rear wings. He returns to the course and immediately improves his time by nearly 4 sec., ultimately recording a fast lap of 1:29.19.
"This is way different than anything else I've driven," he says as he climbs from the car. "It feels very short, and it reacts very, very quickly. This car is very much momentum-driven. It doesn't have that big, brute horsepower; it has a thinner powerband you really have to stay within. You've got to attack the corners, but you can't really load on the brakes...you've got to carry your momentum through.
"You can tell you've moved up a rung on the ladder with this car. You've got the sequential 6-speed, you've got traction control. It seems sophisticated for an entry-level car, which is great. You can do so much more in the cockpit; it would do no good to go straight from the 2-liter car to the Indy Lights car, because this gives you the grounding of being able to adjust the traction control and other things."
Would this be a good car to teach a young racer the driver/car interaction? "Yes, and the engineer. You've got a lot to change to maximize the speed of the race car. This car provides the start of that relationship between the driver and the engineer, and learning to deal with cockpit controls.
"The rotary engine, it's a little screamer. It reacts well to throttle input, with a slightly narrow powerband...which is another discipline drivers need to learn. When your power range is wider, you can make mistakes and get away with it. But with this car, you have to be smooth and carry a lot of speed through the corners and keep up the engine speed. Actually, with Indy cars on an oval, it's important to stay within a rev tolerance. That's one of the first things I felt with this car."
Wheldon's attention now turns to the Firestone Indy Lights machine normally wheeled by Anders Krohn and fielded by Belardi Auto Racing. When the car was fired and Wheldon began to pull away, there was a distinct feel that this is a much more powerful, more substantial race car.
The Dallara-built Lights car, with its carbon-fiber tub, remains the closest relative to the contemporary Indy car. Slightly smaller in both wheelbase and track, the Lights car is powered by a 3.5-liter 90-degree V-8 (of Nissan origin) generating 420 bhp at 8200 rpm. Lap speeds on the IMS oval in May typically range around 190 mph.
Wheldon is quite comfortable on this Indy road course, having recorded over 400 miles here last week testing the newly developed 2012 Indy car. His lap times in the new car were in the 1:18 range; as he laps the Lights car today, he quickly gets to 1:25.38 before returning to the garage.
"I liked that," he laughs as he removes his helmet. "This car gives you tons of confidence to go fast. You begin to feel the weight like the Indy car. That's the most relevant feel you get, the big, heavy car. Those two cars [F2000 and Star Mazda] are good steppingstones, but you can see why this car is the last rung on the ladder.
"It's very nice to drive. It's got that kind of brute, grunt power. Everything gives you a good feel. And it has very similar characteristics to an Indy car. Not quite the same power, of course.
"The weight means you have to muscle it around and teaches the drivers the physical aspect of it. The gearbox is a 6-speed sequential, and it feels nice. But again, you know what I think is good? You could definitely break the gearbox, if you just started downshifting at the wrong points. Which I think is important, because learning that maintenance and being easy on equipment is very important as you move up the ladder.
"There are things you learn early in your career that are very, very important to engine manufacturers. That's going to be even more the case now that multiple engine manufacturers are involved. With the development stuff they are allowed to integrate, they want you to be easy on equipment. There are motors that last a certain distance, and if you are hard on equipment they aren't going to last. You have to allow the development car to be breakable to teach a young driver how not to break it."
The test is finished, and the respective crews begin to wheel their cars into position for our photo shoot. Wheldon pauses to reflect on the overall Road to Indy ladder system, and admits that not everything learned is technical.
"The media doesn't see the huge pressure on some of these kids. For some of these young guys, who don't have the sponsorship, sometimes it's their parents' money. When it's your parents paying, you don't ever want to let them down. That pressure is immense. That's why you don't want too much going on too soon; that's why the 2-liter car is good that it's basic, for example. That allows you to focus on a limited number of things and that's good.
"As they learn to cope with that pressure, you can integrate more, such as the traction control and such. When you get to the Indy Lights car you've got all that, the big physical aspect and the longer races. Typically, at that point, if you've got 20 cars on the grid, you've got 20 good guys...it's winnowed down to a more select group. When I did Indy Lights, I was paid to drive. You've got professional people doing it, and it becomes harder.
"That's when you have to deal with the pressure. There is nothing like Chip Ganassi, or Michael Andretti, or Bryan Herta breathing down your neck. That's what you have to learn. And with the economy as it is, the team owners have to justify to the sponsors why they should invest this money...the team owners need their guys to deliver."
We are seeing, he says, a new era in IndyCar racing, specifically in the overall development of the modern Indycar driver.
"When I left Europe, the ladder system had gone crazy with so many different formulas. When I first came over here, that was one of the most—if not the most—attractive parts of racing in open wheel. We lost that to some degree for a while, but now it's back. We've got to embrace that because it's good for everybody: the young drivers, the teams, everybody.
"That's why Michael [Andretti] has all these ladder teams, because he can hand pick the talent now, and move people to his Indy car. Michael will probably pick them up cheap, because he picked me up cheap that way. But that's good for these guys, because it gives them an opportunity."
Wheldon is one who placed his image on the Borg-Warner trophy at Indy, and there are dozens of young racers who look upon his career with hope and yearning. It's a tough, hard road, but it's open. Do well today, and earn a shot at tomorrow. That's what the Road to Indy is all about.
|US F2000||Star Mazda||Firestone Indy Lights|
|Engine||Mazda MZR 2.0-liter dohc inline-4||Mazda 1.3-liter Renesis rotarty||3.5-liter 90-degree V-8|
|Horsepower||170bhp @ 7000 rpm||260bhp @ 8600 rpm||420bhp @ 8200 rpm|
|Chassis||tube frame (Van Diemen Elan)||carbon-fiber tub (Star Race Cars)||carbon-fiber tub (Dallara)|
|Wheelbass||102.7 in.||100.5 in.||117.0 in.|
|Width||1035 lb (dry)||1070 lb (dry)||1490 lb (oval), 1520 lb (road course), (with driver, minimum)|
|Lap time (IMS road course)||1:31.49||1:29.19||1:25.38|