Seeking to create a defined path for young, career-minded, race drivers to reach the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, the Indy Racing League has launched its 'Road to Indy' initiative.

A developmental ladder system that will include Firestone Indy Lights, the Star Mazda Championship and the Cooper Tires-backed USF2000 National Championship - but notably not the historic Atlantic Championship - was unveiled at the annual Performance Racing Industry show at Orlando in Florida, and promises to advance talent from the lowest rungs of the ladder to the very peak of US open-wheel racing.

"In creating the 'Road to Indy', we are trying to bridge the gap between the premier open-wheel racing divisions and the entry level open-wheel series by creating a clear career path for aspiring racing drivers," Brian Barnhart, president of competition and racing operations for the IRL, explained.

"With the 'Road to Indy', a driver has the opportunity to hone his professional racing skills at an early stage of his or her career and has a chance to build upon those skills in a professional environment while driving similar-style open-wheel racing vehicles on similar tracks at every step."

Drivers from each of the affiliated 'Road to Indy' series will have the opportunity to progress to the next level of the ladder system through participation in programmes put together by each series or the Indy Racing League, which also will sanction USF2000 National Championship races.

While the long-term goal of the programme is to help prepare drivers and teams to progress at the highest levels of motorsport, drivers and teams in the three 'Road to Indy' series will see added benefits almost immediately.

All three affiliated series will offer the challenge of racing on ovals, road courses and temporary street circuits and programme participants will have the opportunity to showcase their drivers and teams in front of IZOD IndyCar Series teams and owners each year. In 2010, all three series that make up the programme will join the IndyCars on the streets of St Petersburg and at Iowa Speedway.

Additionally, all four series will conduct events in Indianapolis on Memorial Day weekend, with the USF2000 National and Star Mazda championships racing at O'Reilly Raceway Park at the 'Night Before the 500', while Firestone Indy Lights will stage its Firestone Freedom 100 ahead of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"The Indy Racing League is open-wheel racing here in North America, and it is my great privilege to work with them again in the creation of a true ladder for young drivers to follow," said Dan Andersen, co-owner and chief executive officer of Andersen Promotions, which oversees the USF2000 series.

"There is finally a clearly defined path to a career in the IZOD IndyCar Series, and I am looking forward to seeing many of tomorrow's IZOD IndyCar Series stars racing with us in the USF2000 series in 2010."

"Today's announcement is a formidable milestone in the 20th year of our history as a development series," added Gary Rodrigues, founder of the Star Mazda Championship, "For the Star Mazda Championship to be honoured with a formalised position in the pathway to an IZOD IndyCar Series driving career is not only gratifying to us, but provides a clarity that open-wheel drivers and fans have long been seeking. Now young driving talent can know where they need to be and where they are trying to go. Race fans can now determine where to watch for tomorrow's stars.

"I am convinced that everybody in our sport wins with this programme. The best new talent can build their motorsport careers, [and] race fans in North America eventually get to see them in Indycars."

The formation of the 'Road to Indy' programme could, however, sound a death knell for the Atlantic Series, once a mainstay feeder for the now defunct Champ Car World Series. Currently sanctioned by sportscar overseer IMSA and running, in part, alongside the American Le Mans Series, the Atlantic field fell to single figures at the end of the year, despite featuring a thrilling three-way battle for the title that was only resolved on a tie-breaker between Newman Wachs Racing team-mates John Edwards and Jonathan Summerton.

Summerton, incidentally, has revealed that his is Europe-bound to test an F2 car, having also campaign in the Firestone Indy Lights Series in 2009.