Freedom 100 glory paves way to Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – The dream for nearly every race driver is to one day race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

For over a century, the hallowed ground has tugged on the heartstrings of drivers and fans alike. While the NTT IndyCar Series is the centerpiece with Sunday’s 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, the next generation of talent has its eyes squarely focused on Friday’s Freedom 100 presented by Cooper Tires (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The crown jewel of Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires – the top rung of the three-tier INDYCAR-sanctioned development ladder – provides a taste of what it means to compete at the iconic 2.5-mile superspeedway.

Since 2003, the race has been a signature on the tour and prime undercard for Miller Lite Carb Day. It has also proven to be an endorsement of drivers that can go to the next level.

Ed Carpenter won the inaugural event and went on to become a three-time pole sitter of the Indy 500. Prior to his 2017 championship in the NTT IndyCar Series, Josef Newgarden crossed the coveted yard of bricks to record a monumental Freedom 100 victory in 2011.

More recent history still suggests the rise of the Freedom 100 winner to the NTT IndyCar Series ranks. Among those racing Sunday in the Indy 500 are past Freedom 100 winners Jack Harvey (2015), Matheus Leist (2017) and Colton Herta (2018).

There is a unique feel to this year’s edition of the 40-lap Indy Lights classic. Eight rookies make up the 11-driver field.

Although Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Juncos Racing) holds the overall championship lead by a single point over Oliver Askew (No. 28 Andretti Autosport), a lot of the attention will be put on two debutants to the series.

Jarett Andretti, son of former Indy car and NASCAR driver John Andretti, is piloting the No. 18 entry for Andretti Autosport. Meanwhile, the grassroots racing community will be well represented when Chris Windom, the 2016 USAC Silver Crown and 2017 USAC National Sprint Car champion, slides into the cockpit of the No. 17 for Belardi Auto Racing.

Over the years, the Freedom 100 has continued to rise to the occasion with some of the most phenomenal racing and close finishes, including the classic four-wide finish at the line that saw Peter Dempsey beat Gabby Chaves by a narrow 0.0026 of a second in 2013. That margin of victory was eclipsed in 2016 when Dean Stoneman pulled out a last-gasp run to edge Ed Jones at the line by 0.0024 of a second.

There are two realities when it comes to the Freedom 100.

Winning doesn’t guarantee the Indy Lights $1.1 million championship that carries a three-race scholarship for the following NTT IndyCar Series season, including the Indianapolis 500. In fact, only twice since 2008 has the Freedom 100 winner gone on to claim the title (Newgarden in 2011 and Chaves in 2014).

However, history shows that winning the Freedom 100 increases the chances that a driver will one day get a shot to run in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

This moment is everything aspiring drivers dream of. And for the 11 pilots in Friday’s Freedom 100, it’s a chance to share a piece of history at a venue that has the most storied past in racing lore.

So hold on tight, folks. The next generation is trying to make their push for the majors.

From the fans