INDIANAPOLIS, August 24, 2004 - Perhaps, as the Indy Racing League and United States Auto Club would have us believe, the Road to Indianapolis does indeed go through USAC's regional and national midget, sprint and Silver Crown series after all. Maybe it's even possible to become an IndyCar Series driver by competing in the World of Outlaws.
For the past decade or so, it's seemed that no one who succeeded in USAC open wheel racing found rides in Indy cars. Look what happened to Jeff Gordon, see how Tony Stewart got snatched away from the Indy Racing League, witness the rise of Ryan Newman in NASCAR Nextel Cup closed wheel racing.
The real reason why none of these guys, or Dave Blaney, Casey Mears, Kasey Kahne and a host of others are not plying their trades in the open wheel world is simple: money. NASCAR has opportunities for young drivers; it appeared, of late that open wheel racing just hasn't had the rides available.
Can this change? Will it change?
The Menards Infiniti Pro Series (MIPS) is the newest creation of that clever Englishman Roger Bailey. Bailey, who was the godfather of Indy Lights when CART was on its way up joined the IRL with the notion of creating the final rung of the ladder for talented young drivers who needed a wee bit of seasoning before taking on such awe-inspiring circuits as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
When the Pro series began at Kansas in 2002, it was A.J. Foyt IV who mesmerized everyone with his innate talent and engaging personality. Although just barely 18 at the time, Foyt showed impressive and aggressive driving skills, together with his famous grandfather's ability to snake through traffic, all those talents that make champions. He became the Pro series' first titleholder and immediately graduated to Indy cars, albeit with far less success.
Last year Briton Mark Taylor came and conquered with a Panther team that had won the previous two IndyCar Series championships. But like Anthony Foyt, he's had troubles with the larger and more powerful Indy cars and hasn't really made his mark yet.
Another Pro series graduate, Ed Carpenter is learning the ropes in the IndyCar Series this year and could emerge next season as a true talent, even though he hasn't really revealed his skills sets. Carpenter has the benefit of savvy Alex Barron as a teammate; Taylor and Foyt are on single-car teams.
In 2004 tall Brazilian Thiago Medeiros has put his personal stamp on the Pro series in his second season, winning four consecutive races and finishing out of the top five only twice. He'll likely take the championship from current second place driver Paul Dana. But there are other guys just waiting for Medeiros and Dana to fall.
In just the past month, a couple of drivers have emerged in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series who are worthy of our attention. And a third is waiting in the wings. These guys have come from the open wheel ranks; one of them never even competed on pavement until slipping into a MIPS Dallara.
P.J. Chesson joined the Pro series at Kansas after an okay time in the World of Outlaws. He did win the "Big One" at Eldora Speedway but never really looked like someone who could swap fans away from the Kinsers, Lasoskis and Swindells that populate WoO. He had an okay first race in Kansas, starting tenth and ending up eighth when felled by an accident (like many others).
In Nashville Chesson started tenth again and finished sixth; at the Milwaukee Mile the 25-year-old New Jersey native started ninth and finished second. The best was yet to come: Chesson went on to win at three extremely diverse oval circuits: Michigan (2-mile), Kentucky (1.5-mile) and the 1-mile Pikes Peak International Raceway just this past weekend. In the Colorado contest, Chesson led only seven laps; watching him move through the field to lead those laps was heart-stopping.
Not only is this guy talented in the race car, he also possesses a wild personality, body piercings and modern, expletive-deleted language skills. Driving a Mo Nunn Racing entry that's owned by Morris Nunn's wife Kathryn, Chesson has been crazy both on and off the track. Heck, he even climbed the fence at Pikes Peak after winning from fifth on the 11-car grid last weekend, just like Helio Castroneves..
I'm impressed, but I understand P.J.'s younger brother James Chesson, 23, who joins the Infiniti Pro Series tour at Chicagoland in early September, has as much - or even more talent that his older sibling. And if he has as much attitude, the combination is scary.
On the other hand, there's Travis Gregg, also 25 and hailing from Camden, OH. Gregg has, to date run only one MIPS race for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, the same outfit that campaigns Medeiros. Travis Gregg made his professional pavement and Pro series debut in Kentucky, led every session (including qualifying) but fell back to fifth in the race itself.
The personable and polite Gregg will reappear in Chicagoland and just can't wait to beat his former open wheel compatriots when they all get to butt heads again on that 1.5-mile oval. He's made his mark in non-winged sprint cars on dirt, a career hardly anyone in the business claims would prepare a driver for winged, pavement-attached, high downforce Pro series cars.
If you have occasion to watch USAC midget, sprint and Silver Crown races, you'll see that most competitors have decals on their cars that read: Road to Indy. For the past few years that concept has been laughable, but no more.
With team owners like Kathryn Nunn, who will field cars for both Chesson brothers starting at Chicagoland and Sam Schmidt, an acknowledged talent finder and developer placing their hopes in guys like these three, the future could be a heck of a lot brighter for USAC midget, sprint and Silver Crown - as well as World of Outlaw pilots.
Drivers who don't want to languish in NASCAR's lower series before being discovered by the few team owners who have sufficient budget to allow them mistakes now have another venue to discover: it's the Menards Infiniti Pro Series and it's slowly, but surely becoming a viable alternative to tin-top racing.
(c) 2004 Anne Proffit