Why an Indy Lights Championship Was Not Enough for Linus Lundqvist to Get an IndyCar Ride
Linus Lundqvist won the Indy Lights championship with five wins and nine podiums in 14 races in 2022.
The Road to Indy ladder system centers around a scholarship program designed to promote its champions to the next level.
Lundqvist, however, found out after the 2022 season that the scholarship that would have earned him at least a partial season in an IndyCar seat had been reduced, leaving him suddenly less attractive to IndyCar teams.
The 2022 Indy Lights champion will be at this weekend’s season-opening IndyCar race in St. Petersburg, Fla., but instead of being in an open-wheel Indy car, Linus Lundqvist will be relegated to the unflattering role of a spectator.
Lundqvist didn’t anticipate it being that way, but with changes in the structure of the Indy Lights program—now rebranded as Indy NXT for 2023, and under new ownership with Penske Entertainment taking over for longtime promoter Andersen Promotions last year—Lundqvist finds himself not as an IndyCar rookie but rather as a Indy Lights champion without an IndyCar ride.
So what happened?
“That’s a great question and I wish I had an answer for you, but unfortunately I don’t,” Lundqvist told Autoweek. “I've been doing what I can to look at any option really to be racing this year. Obviously, the target and the plan was to be in IndyCar. But for reasons, that didn't happen, at least not full-time.
“The target now is to do a couple of tests, and then hopefully a couple of races this year, but you never know with this business. In the meantime, I've been looking at trying to do a championship along with that, maybe something like IMSA or WEC. I’ve even looked at some championships in Europe to make something happen, but it’s been very tricky. I’ve been looking at every series there is to race somewhere.”
Lundqvist, who turns 24 on March 26, should have had his big break this year. In 14 Indy Lights races, Lundqvist had five wins and nine podiums. Series runner-up, Sting Ray Robb, won one race and and had eight podiums.
Robb got an IndyCar ride this year.
In past years, virtually every Indy Lights champion has gone on to take a $500,000 scholarship from IndyCar plus an additional scholarship between $6000,000 and $750,000 from Andersen Promotions. That money is not cash given to the drivers, but is to go toward drivers being able to buy themselves a ride either for an entire season, parts of a season, or at the very least, a guaranteed spot in the Indianapolis 500.
But with Penske Entertainment taking over last year, the extra Andersen Promotions money evaporated, and Lundqvist was left with some money, but not enough to buy a ride.
“It definitely didn't improve my chances, let’s put it that way,” Lundqvist said of the loss of the Andersen money. “You're guaranteed three races, whereas one is the Indy 500, with the way that the scholarship was. And now, this year, you're guaranteed two races, whereas one is the Indy 500. So no, that would have been the difference that, minimum, I’d do either three or two races wise this year. We got the scholarship, but there were no guarantees with it.”
By comparison, 2021 Lights champion Kyle Kirkwood took the combined $1.2 million from both Indy Lights and Andersen Promotions and brought it with him for a full-time rookie season ride last year with A.J. Foyt Racing. Kirkwood has since moved on to race for Andretti Autosport this season and beyond.
It originally appeared as if Lundqvist might get a full season IndyCar ride with Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports, for which he raced in Lights in 2022. But instead, Sting Ray Robb got that ride.
While he’s not necessarily angry at Robb, Lundqvist admits that he’s still upset that he wasn't able to parlay an Indy Lights championship into an IndyCar seat of his own.
“I mean, it comes and goes,” Lundqvist said. “I've been in this business for quite some time and I know how it works. Obviously, budget is required in a lot of places. So I'm definitely not the first driver to be in this position and certainly won't be the last. But it doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt.
“I believe that we deserve a shot, a chance to show, to prove what I can do. But we haven't gotten that, which obviously hurts. I know what I'm capable of, I know what I want to do with my life, which is drive race cars, whether it be here in the U.S. or in Europe and in IndyCar or WEC car, whatever it might be. So yeah, I'm looking for any opportunity out there.”
During IndyCar media days earlier this month near Palm Springs, Calif., several of Lundqvist’s former rivals in Lights unanimously agreed he should be in IndyCar this season.
“I would rather have it to be that they wish I wasn't in IndyCar (competing against them),” he chuckled before adding seriously, “It's nice to see and hear that from them. There's a mutual respect between almost every one of us drivers. It's nice to see that they speak up and say that, ‘Hey, this guy actually deserves to be here.’ I mean, I agree with them.”
Even Robb is somewhat surprised that he got the Coyne/HMD ride over Lundqvist.
“I assumed Linus was locked into the seat,” Robb said. “Obviously he had a good year. With the HMD association (HMD Motorsports, which partners with Dale Coyne Racing), I just assumed that was a perfect shoe-in.
“There was a few teams that we were talking to, and Dale's team was not the one that was at the top of the list because we thought they already had a driver. Obviously with Linus winning the Indy NXT (Lights) Championship, we assumed with the HMD association there that there would be a straight shoe-in for him.
“But I actually was (working out) one day with Linus and discovered that was not the case. That created an opportunity for us that allowed me to call up my manager, Peter Rossi, and get him on the phone, and he immediately called Dale and said, ‘Hey, we're available.’
“We had a really good test in 2023 right at the beginning of January, and I think that was kind of the one that set the tone that allowed me to get in the seat.”
Robb, who finished second in the Lights standings last season, brought with himself money and sponsorship—as well as having a slightly better result than Lundqvist in the January test—that prompted Coyne/HMD to give him the keys to one of his team’s Indy cars for 2023.
“Well, I believe that I deserve a seat and (Lundqvist) beat me (for the championship), so there's your answer,” Robb said. “So Linus does deserve a seat. His on-track performance was incredible. But it takes more than just a driver to get into IndyCar. You've got to have a village around you that supports you, and so I think that that is where my group made a difference. It wasn't just in my performance, but it was the people around me. I feel bad for Linus because as a driver.”
Where Lundqvist goes from here, even he doesn’t know. He plans to continue racing and is eyeing the WEC series, along with other series, including racing in his native Europe (he hails from Stockholm, Sweden).
Lundqvist, who lives currently in Indianapolis, has ruled out returning to NXT.
“No,” Lundqvist said. “I believe all the rides are full in Lights. For me, I don't have the budget to come back to do Lights.”
Lundqvist is still hoping to find a one-off ride for the Indy 500, having talked with several teams thus far, but nothing has been finalized.
“I've been talking with every team up and down the paddock,” Lundqvist said. “Obviously, first and foremost was for a (full-time) ride in 2023, but that didn't happen. Now it's just testing opportunities, and if there's any race opportunities that they're adding another car (for a one-off) or whatever it might be. And the 500 has been one of the things that we’ve spoken about, but the focus is more than just trying to get into a car, whether it be for a test or race.”
In the meantime, Lundqvist still has the $500,000 Lights scholarship money sitting in the bank. Unfortunately, though, he cannot use the cash for any other racing series other than IndyCar. But that half a million could go a long way towards a potential seat in the 500 if the right opportunity arises and sponsorship can be found to round out the overall budget package.
While Lundqvist previously had interest several years ago in F2 or F3 in Europe, that ship – and the potential of eventually reaching Formula One – has pretty much sailed.
“The budget required to do F3 or F2 is above my pay grade, let’s put it that way,” he said. “Yeah, no, that's definitely not there on the table.”
With Sting Ray Robb and David Malukas in Coyne’s two full-time IndyCar rides, Lundqvist is hoping that if—or when—Coyne were to field a third car in a race, be it the Indy 500, at Gateway in southern Illinois or perhaps any other race, that he’d have a shot at that third ride.
“Obviously, they've got two full-time drivers signed with David and Sting Ray, but if they were to have a third car, then obviously I'm, I'm interested and I'm speaking with them at the moment, seeing if there's anything I can do. Like I said, I'm trying to talk to every team up and up and down this paddock for just about any opportunity.”
Lundqvist has a test in an IndyCar—he can’t mention the team, which is understandable—coming up in April. He’s optimistic it may lead to bigger and better things.
But, as he's found out, there's no guarantees.
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski