Plenty of Reasons for IndyCar Teams to Pay Attention to Indy NXT Series
IndyCar’s junior league is a picture of health and wealth, with 19 full-time teams slated to take part in the 14-race 2023 series.
Indy NXT (formerly Indy Lights) has been around since 1986, and under full IndyCar sanction since 2002.
Among former Lights champions who have gone on to IndyCar stardom include Paul Tracy, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Townsend Bell, J.R. Hildebrand, Josef Newgarden, Sage Karam, Ed Jones and Pato O’Ward.
It wasn’t too long ago—less than a decade—that the Indy Lights developmental series was on life support. The number of full-time teams had dropped to six and the series’ future appeared dismal at best.
Fast forward to today and IndyCar’s junior league is a picture of health and wealth, with 19 full-time teams slated to take part in the 14-race 2023 series, which was rebranded during the off-season from its longtime Indy Lights moniker to the Firestone Indy NXT (a cute way of saying “Next”) Series.
The new season begins this weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The change from Lights to NXT also includes Penske Entertainment taking over the entire formerly Lights program from previous overseer Andersen Promotions (which remains associated with the Road to Indy, overseeing the lower-tier USF Juniors, USF2000 and USF Pro 2000). The changeover ultimately cost 2022 Lights champion Linus Lundqvist roughly between $600,000 and $750,000, which was previously staked by Andersen.
Instead of having roughly $1.1 to $1.25 million in overall prize money for winning the Lights championship that included the Andersen bonus amount, Lundqvist received only the $500,000 scholarship provided by IndyCar. The previous season, Kyle Kirkwood took home $1.2 million—$500,000 from IndyCar and over $700,000 from Andersen—after winning the 2021 Lights crown that helped field him a full-time IndyCar ride last season with A.J. Foyt Racing.
Not receiving what he anticipated for winning the Lights championship, Lundqvist is still looking for an IndyCar ride with only the $500,000 in seed money. IndyCar is also attempting to help him secure some type of ride, be it a one-off, part-time or perhaps a late full-time entry (or as a replacement driver).
“We are all big fans and supporters of Linus,” Indy NXT series director Levi Jones told Autoweek. “He's supremely talented, proved himself on the ovals, on the whole circuit, right? We fully support him and think he can be successful in IndyCar and hope and try to get him an opportunity to show what he can do.
“I don’t have a checkbook just to make it happen 100%. And, you know, any of the scholarship winners in the past in motorsports, it's taken more than what that scholarship is.”
Among former Lights champions who have gone on to IndyCar stardom include Paul Tracy, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Townsend Bell, J.R. Hildebrand, Josef Newgarden, Sage Karam, Ed Jones, Pato O’Ward and Kirkwood.
The Lights/NXT program for 2023 will show significant changes in the series’ structure. Among the most noticeable changes is after roughly three decades of racing on Cooper Tires, the NXT Series will ride on Firestone Tires, just like the parent IndyCar Series.
“With the name, the rebrand, what we're doing, this was the time to do it,” Jones said. “Bringing Firestone involvement back into the series, we're able to look at our development series as a way to try things and the focus on how we can go to market to connect with hopefully new and potentially new fans of our sport.”
But even bigger than Firestone’s involvement will be 19 full-time teams, which is the most in the Lights/NXT Series since 2009.
“We have several new teams like Cape Motorsports with two cars, teams like Juncos Hollinger that are coming back into the series after being away for a while with two cars, and then having Abel Motorsports committed to the series and ramping up their program (with two cars), Andretti has been a series staple with four cars and HMD having nine,” Jones said. “So it's a really promising season on the horizon.”
IndyCar owner Michael Andretti, who has long been a supporter of the Lights Series with several entries each year (and he continues with four entries this year in the NXT Series), said in an interview earlier this year that “finally, the IndyCar scene (has realized) how important Indy NXT is to their future.”
It's not like Lights/NXT is something new. What is considered the highest step on the ladder to IndyCar has actually been around since 1986, and under full IndyCar sanction since 2002.
Jones is in his second full season of overseeing the Lights-to-NXT program.
“It is satisfying,” Jones said. “I think it's a testament to everyone here at IndyCar. That was the No. 1 goal, to make the Indy NXT paddock inclusive to the IndyCar paddock. And the things we've been able to do gives the teams that confidence that IndyCar’s belief and efforts we're putting into the series, has translated to a number of drivers wanting to be in the series, and proof of how many of our development series drivers are in the Indy 500.”
The Indy NXT Series will have three less races on its 2023 racing schedule than the parent IndyCar program, including several high-profile weekends such as the Indy 500 weekend, the Brickyard 400 weekend and, of course, this weekend’s season-opening race in Florida.
There will also be a significant bump up in earnings for NXT drivers. Prize money last season was increased to over $700,000, which will be roughly the same overall season purse in 2023.
But perhaps one of the biggest upgrades to the rebranded series is, after several years of IndyCar providing a $500,000 scholarship to the Lights series champ to use towards buying into a IndyCar ride the following season, this year’s scholarship amount has been increased by 70% to $850,000.
That amount will allow the 2023 NXT champion to spend it on competing in two IndyCar events in 2024, including the Indy 500, as well as rookie orientation tests at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (both the oval and road course) and Texas Motor Speedway.
In addition, year-end awards will be increased for finishers in second place ($125,000) and third place ($65,000). Race purses have also been increased to $15,000 (first place), $5,000 (second place) and $2,500 (third place).
And for the first time, the championship-winning team will receive a prize ($35,000).
While Lundqvist’s IndyCar future is unclear at this time—he’s optimistic an upcoming test in April will lead to a ride in this year’s Indianapolis 500—Jones pointed out that two other drivers from Indy Lights last season have moved up to full-time IndyCar rides as rookies in 2023.
Those two drivers are Sting Ray Robb, who will race for Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports, and Benjamin Pedersen, who will drive for A.J. Foyt Racing. However, Lundqvist will be happy to point out that he had five wins in the series last year, while Robb and Pedersen had just one win apiece.
In other words, winning races or even winning the championship in Indy NXT is not the most important line on the resume' that IndyCar teams want to see.
“Last year, we had Devlin (DeFrancesco) and Kyle (Kirkwood) both moved up,” Jones said. “This year we also have two with Sting Ray and Benjamin. It shows the health of the series and the training ground Indy NXT provides, but the grid can fill up pretty quick. Being able to have a couple of guys every year, a couple drivers every year to be able to move up, is ultimately what we're trying to do.”
With 19 Indy NXT teams and 27 full-time IndyCar teams slated to compete in 2023, if field sizes continue to increase, one thing under potential long-range consideration is developing a true feeder system, with one NXT car to coincide with an IndyCar team.
“We continue to explore those options of what makes sense and how that could work,” Jones said. “The one thing right now is the additional test for current Indy NXT drivers to have an IndyCar test. So that's something that teams have used and taken advantage of. It's been helpful. And I always say for us, it's better for the current teams to see what we are doing rather than just saying what we're going to do.
“But from this time last year to this time right now, the current IndyCar teams are definitely paying attention (to Indy NXT).”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski