The Firestone Indy Lights is getting involved in a scholarship programme that has helped shape the career of several of today's top American racers, having confirmed that it will be among the supporters of the Team USA Scholarship taking two young drivers to England to compete in the Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy.
Ten past winners of the scholarship have gone on to compete in either the IndyCar Series and/or Firestone Indy Lights, and this year's recipients, Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden, will be hoping to follow in their footsteps.
"Firestone Indy Lights is an essential step for drivers seeking to compete in the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500, and supporting the Team USA Scholarship is a natural fit for our series," said Roger Bailey, executive director of the Firestone Indy Lights series, "The success of the programme's alumni speaks volumes for the kind of programme Jeremy Shaw has put together and, hopefully, we can work with these very promising young drivers very soon."
The Brands Hatch-based Festival is the same event as helped launch the career of Danica Patrick – who finished as runner-up to future F1 pilot Anthony Davidson on her way up the British racing ladder - and has been a regular stop for those on the Scholarship, although Formula Palmer Audi has also attracted the best American drivers in recent years.
"I'm thrilled to have the Firestone Indy Lights championship as a supporter of the Team USA Scholarship,” said founder Shaw, “Our programme has quite a history with Indy Lights, dating from Bryan Herta, who won the scholarship in 1991 and then the Indy Lights title in '93, to JR Hildebrand, the 2005 scholarship winner, who was a front-runner this year with RLR-Andersen Racing. It's very encouraging to see the higher echelons of our sport seeking to help out deserving youngsters at an early stage in their careers."
Expectations were high for Daly and Newgarden as they went into the opening day's qualifying sessions for the Formula Ford Festival. The two patriotically liveried Ray GRS06/7s, prepared by Irish-based Cliff Dempsey Racing, had been at - or very near the top of - the testing charts during the three days leading up to the event, despite the number of competitors gradually increasing as the week progressed.
Unofficially, Newgarden posted the fastest time of the week at 50.7secs, with Daly - whose father Derek won the Festival in 1976 - and several others merely a tenth of a second or so slower.
“I feel our third test day with Cliff Dempsey Racing went really well, and that not only ourselves, but the team, has been making steady progress,” said 17-year old Newgarden, “Throughout the entire day, Conor and I remained the guys to watch, despite all the red flags and heavy traffic. Today's four 25-minute sessions provided us with more than ample time to fine-tune our dry track condition set-ups.
“Tomorrow will be a short but critical day, as Conor and I will have one 15-minute session to set our grid position for Saturday's heat races. The team's chemistry has been mega all week and I feel we have a strong chance at qualifying up front tomorrow.”
Daly's efforts were hindered slightly by an obscure misfire, which, thankfully, appeared to be cured with a change of carburettor prior to the final session.
“Testing the last several days has gone very well I think,” the 16-year old commented, "Josef and I have learned so much about the track, cars and all kinds of weather conditions! Going into qualifying, I am very confident. During testing, we have either been the two fastest drivers or not far from it! We have worked with the set-up a lot the last few days and have now got it fine-tuned for qualifying. It will be very important to get a good starting position, so everyone will be at their best!”