(Quite possibly the last in the series. Maybe.)
Imagine this. The Firestone Indy Lights Series championship is coming down to the last lap. Two up-and-coming young drivers dueling not only for a points title, but for a guaranteed ride in the IndyCar finale a day later.
For all the benefits attached with winning an Indy Lights title, a guaranteed ride in the IndyCar Series is not one of them. Take for instance Wade Cunningham, your 2005 Indy Lights champion. Can you recall Wade ever racing in the IndyCar Series? It's because despite all the plaudits he has received since moving to Indycar racing, he has never raced in the ICS. Wouldn't fans enjoy viewing how Cunningham's talents measure up to drivers in the "big boy" series? Even if it was just one race?
Let's move to 2009. Firestone Indy Lights champion J.R. Hildebrand has been everywhere in the blogosphere over the last week (here with Pressdog, and here with 16th and Georgetown). Dubbed "Captain America," Hildebrand is a young, charismatic American driver. He has wrapped up the points championship already. Instead of just handing him a trophy Friday night at Homestead-Miami, why not give him a guaranteed ride for Saturday's IndyCar Series finale along with his trophy?
Look at Hildebrand's bio: Had a 4.12 GPA in high school; received a two-year deferral to MIT; played varsity baseball in high school. Doesn't that sound appealing? Shouldn't a series champion like Hildebrand receive some air time during Versus broadcast of the IndyCar Series race on Saturday? Doesn't that sound like the kind of young, American driver that open-wheel racing fans have been looking for and that they'd want to be a fan of?
Plus, while not only rewarding Hildebrand, his primary sponsor this year, ARPRO, would receive significant air time as well, since they'd be on the sidepod of his IndyCar Series ride. Would this encourage more sponsorship in Indy Lights, as sponsors would know that by teaming with a championship contender, they would possibly be receiving air time at the ICS finale should they win the Lights title? It might. And it probably wouldn't hurt.
Yes, there are some logistics to work out. The IndyCar Series will need to find a team to support such an effort (perhaps Andretti-Green). However, under my plan the series picks up the tab for the Indy Lights champion, which should help with the "no team has money complaint." Basically, whichever team agreed to give Hildebrand a car to drive would receive the money to support such a ride. Sounds like a winning proposition for the team, seeing as how they spend no money of their own and receive additional air time during the race when Bob Jenkins says something like,
"There is J.R. Hildebrand, the 2009 Indy Lights Champion, driving today for __________ (fill in the blank of the team."
Basically, this creates a tangible reward for winning the Indy Lights title - you get to run the IndyCar Series finale and show what you have. It allows fans to watch drivers move from one level of Indycar racing to the next, something that this series needs - the belief that the Indy Lights Series actually produces ICS-caliber drivers. Isn't finding a young driver and watching them move from Indy Lights to IndyCar one of the main aspects that Indy Lights is supposed to provide? This certainly helps that.