There will be a second New Zealand driver on the grid at three rounds of the IZOD IndyCar Series in the United States this year as former world karting champion Wade Cunningham finally gets his opportunity to step up from the Firestone Indy Lights feeder series.
Cunningham, now 26, has been the dominant figure in the Firestone Indy Lights Series since winning it on debut in 2005. But though he earned a test with Andretti-Green Racing in 2007 on the strength of his form in the feeder class, only now has he been able to put the necessary team/funding package together to contemplate a move to ‘the main game.’
That move is with the team he has been working with for the past two seasons, Indianapolis-based Sam Schmidt Motorsports. The team will run Cunningham at three rounds, all on ovals; the Firestone Twin 275 double-header races at the Texas Motor Speedway in June, and the Kentucky Indy 300 and season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October.
Up until now the only Kiwi driver to have made it to the IZOD IndyCar Series is former series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon. Cunningham makes it two, and he says he has several people to thank for the opportunity.
“First and foremost are the companies that are backing me, Creatherm, which manufactures energy saving radiant heated floor panels, Mobile Drill International, a leader in the drilling industry since 1947, and Zephyr Technology, a company which specializes in real-time physiological and biomechanical monitoring.
“I’d also like to acknowledge the role Sam Schmidt has played in me making the step up. It was Sam who suggested that rather than focusing on the Indianapolis 500, like a lot of drivers trying to ‘break into’ the IZOD IndyCar Series, I should look, perhaps, at spreading my budget over three or four races to give me a better chance to show what I can do in one of these cars.”
Despite running only limited campaigns in the United States for the past three years, Cunningham has one of the best track records of any contemporary New Zealand driver – not just in the United States either.
After success on kart tracks here and in Australia he went on to win the Asia-Pacific Karting championship in Japan in 2001 and the World Karting Championship in Italy in 2003 before moving to the United States to race cars.
There he found immediate success in the Cooper Tires Formula Ford Zetec 2000 series, claiming pole position on debut at Sebring and going on to finish fifth in the US championship in 2004.
On the strength of that he moved to the Firestone Indy Lights championship where he was again immediately competitive, taking the 2005 title in his debut year.
He returned the next year to defend that title only to be sidelined by the need for an emergency appendectomy on the eve of one of the key double-header (double points) rounds, eventually finishing third overall.
He repeated that result in 2007 before sitting out 2008 then returning to finish fourth in 2009.
Along the way he established a new record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning the Freedom 100, the Firestone Indy Lights series support race there, a record three times, first in 2006 then again in 2009 and 2010.
He has also amassed an impressive set of Indy Lights category statistics including most career races led (25), most career laps led (796), most career pole positions (10) and most career total points (1496).
It is that tenacity, as much as his proven race and championship-winning credentials, which Sam Schmidt says stands Cunningham apart.
“Wade is a fighter and deserves a shot in the IZOD IndyCar Series. He is dedicated to racing in the IndyCar Series. You usually don’t see a driver race in the Lights cars for six years, but he has never given up his dream. I am glad to be the one who finally puts him in an Indy car.”
– Fast Company