As NHRA closes in on 100 wins by female racers, it all started with one of the greatest, Shirley Muldowney

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As the National Hot Rod Association prepares for its sixth race of the 24-event Mello Yello Drag Racing Series this weekend in Baytown, Texas, history could be made.

The NHRA is just two wins away from recording 100 victories by female drivers in the sport’s all-time annals, which could happen in this weekend’s 27th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals presented by Super Start Batteries at Royal Purple Raceway.

And while all eyes this weekend will be on drivers such as Alexis DeJoria and Courtney Force (Funny Car), Brittany and Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel) and Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock) as potential candidates to set that significant milestone, it’s also time to reflect back on who started it all, the legendary Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney.

Driver of what became a signature hot pink Top Fuel dragster, Muldowney stormed out of her native Syracuse, N.Y., won her first NHRA national event in 1976 and went on to win 17 more races, as well as national Top Fuel championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982.

Although she’s been retired for 10 years, Muldowney still talks occasionally about climbing back behind the wheel. She missed the thrill, the excitement and the competition.

But at the same time, she’s also proud to watch today’s female racers who have followed in her shoes and in unison point to Muldowney as being one of their biggest inspirations when they decided themselves to become drag racers.

“I think it’s a terrific thing,” Muldowney said in an NHRA media release. “A lot of ladies played a big part in getting to 100 wins and it’s good for the sport.

“Anything that shows women can be competitive with men and come out on top, it’s a good thing. There are a lot of cars capable of getting that 100th win.”

Regardless of her gender, Muldowney set a number of significant marks in the sport, including becoming the first NHRA driver – male or female – to win three championships.

There was even a major motion picture made about her life (“Heart Like A Wheel,” starring Bonnie Bedelia as Muldowney).

“Nobody could hold me back from what I wanted to do,” Muldowney said. “When the NHRA saw that I was capable in the driver’s seat they relaxed and were great. They were very accepting. They knew I could sell tickets and that I had the goods.”

Indeed, the NHRA was the first major motorsports series – and one of the first major professional sports entities in general to accept female athletes.

Muldowney quickly went from being a curiosity due to her gender to being quickly accepted for her talent and ability, to becoming one of the sport’s biggest stars and most popular drivers.

Once she started winning, she was no longer a female drag racer. Rather, she was looked upon as just one of the guys, which became one of the highest compliments ever paid to her for her gender was no longer relevant to her success behind the wheel.

“Some of the most wonderful things people said to me or said about me just because I drove that race car is really special and unbelievable,” Muldowney said. “It was my life and it means a great deal to me. That tells me I made a difference, had an impact, helped the sport and did something good.

“It’s amazing to see how I am treated all because of that race car and I can’t say enough how much I appreciate it. I love the sport and I think drag racing is the most exciting motorsport around. There’s nothing like it.”

In a career that spanned more than three decades, Muldowney said she has two special memories that stand out. Winning the U.S. Nationals – drag racing’s Super Bowl – in 1982, as well as her second Top Fuel championship in 1980.

“In 1980, we slayed them,” Muldowney said. “We came out of the box (in the season opener) at Pomona with a brand new car that I had never even driven before and we won. I was really proud of that.”

Thus far this season, DeJoria has won two races and Enders-Stevens has one win.

“I think today’s crop is very good,” Muldowney said. “Erica is as good as anybody and is good as I’ve ever seen. She does an incredible job and you don’t see many mistakes from her, and the job all of them are doing is great.”

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Qualifying for this weekend’s race begins Friday with sessions at 4 and 6:30 p.m. CT, with the final two qualifying sessions Saturday at 12:30 and 3 p.m.

Final eliminations are Sunday, starting at 11 a.m.

Here’s a brief history of female drag racers who have competed in the NHRA, as well as those who have won races (and how many).

The following women (listed in alphabetical order by category) have competed in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series:

Top Fuel (18): Vivica Averstedt, Dannielle DePorter, Vicky Fanning, Gina Ferraro, Brittany Force, Rhonda Hartman-Smith, Lori Johns, Kim LaHaie, Lucille Lee, Shirley Muldowney, Shelly Payne (Anderson), Cristen Powell, Leah Pritchett, Sue Ransom, Joanne Reynolds, Rachelle Splatt, Melanie Troxel, Hillary Will

Funny Car (14): Alexis DeJoria, Vicky Fanning, Courtney Force, Ashley Force Hood, Rodalyn Knox, Paula Martin, Shirley Muldowney, Paula Murphy, Cristen Powell, Leah Pritchett, Susie Spencer, Melanie Troxel, Della Woods, Carol Yenter.

Pro Stock (6): Erica Enders-Stevens, Grace Howell, Judy Lilly, Lucinda McFarlin, Shay Nicols, Shirley Shahan

Pro Stock Motorcycle (16): Dawn Matthews Baugues, Connie Cohen, Vicki Farr, Lori Francis, Linda Jackson, Anne Hansen, Elvira Karlsson, Peggy Lewellyn, Dawn Minturn, Stephanie Reaves, Angelle Sampey, Angie Smith (McBride), Karen Stoffer, Katie Sullivan, Valerie Thompson, Holly Wallace

Female leaders in victories:

1. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle 41 (first at Reading 1996, last at Houston 2007)

2. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel 18 (first at Columbus 1976, last at Phoenix 1989)

3. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock 7 (first at Chicago 2012, last at Las Vegas 1 2014)

4. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle 6 (first at Houston 2004, last at Denver 2011)

5. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel-Funny Car 5 (first at Pomona 1 2006, TF, last at Bristol 2008, FC)

6. Shelly Payne, Top Fuel 4 (first at Reading 1993, last at Seattle 1996)

Lori Johns, Top Fuel 4 (first at Pomona 1 1990, last at Memphis 1991)

Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car 4 (first at Atlanta 2008, last at Indianapolis 2010)

9. Courtney Force, Funny Car 3 (first at Seattle 2012, last at Epping 2013)

10. Alexis DeJoria, Funny Car 2 (first at Phoenix 2014, last at Las Vegas 1 2014)

11. Lucille Lee, Top Fuel 1 (Atlanta 1982)

Cristen Powell, Top Fuel 1 (Englishtown 1997)

Peggy Llewellyn, Pro Stock Motorcycle 1 (Dallas 2007)

Hillary Will, Top Fuel 1 (Topeka 2008)

 

Female pro series world champions:

Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel ­ 3 (1977, 1980, 1982)

Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle ­ 3 (2000, 2001, 2002)

 

NHRA Mello Yello Series victories by female drivers:

1. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 13, 1976, Columbus, Ohio

2. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 10, 1976, Ontario, Calif.

3. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 12, 1977, Columbus, Ohio

4. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, July 16, 1977, Englishtown, N.J.

5. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Aug. 7, 1977, Montreal

6. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Feb. 3, 1980, Pomona, Calif.

7. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 8, 1980, Columbus, Ohio

8. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Sept. 21, 1980, Seattle

9. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 19, 1980, Ontario, Calif.

10. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, March 15, 1981, Gainesville, Fla.

11. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, April 26, 1981, Atlanta

12. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, March 14, 1982, Gainesville, Fla.

13. Lucille Lee, Top Fuel, April 25, 1982, Atlanta

14. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 13, 1982, Columbus, Ohio

15. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Aug. 22, 1982, Brainerd, Minn.

16. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Sept. 6, 1982, Indianapolis

17. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Feb. 13, 1983, Pomona, Calif.

18. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 16, 1983, Irvine, Calif.

19. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 15, 1989, Phoenix

20. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, Feb. 4, 1990, Pomona, Calif.

21. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, April 22, 1990, Atlanta

22. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, May 6, 1990, Memphis

23. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, May 5, 1991, Memphis

24. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, Sept. 19, 1993, Reading, Pa.

25. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, Feb. 6, 1994, Pomona, Calif.

26. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, May 5, 1996, Richmond, Va.

27. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, Aug. 4, 1996, Seattle

28. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 15, 1996, Reading, Pa.

29. Cristen Powell, Top Fuel, May 18, 1997, Englishtown, N.J.

30. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 28, 1997, Topeka, Kan.

31. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 17, 1998, Englishtown, N.J.

32. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 20, 1998, Reading, Pa.

33. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 11, 1998, Memphis

34. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 21, 1999, Gainesville, Fla.

35. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 16, 1999, Atlanta

36. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 25, 1999, Englishtown, N.J.

37. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 27, 1999, St. Louis

38. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 10, 1999, Memphis

39. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 9, 2000, Las Vegas

40. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 7, 2000, Atlanta

41. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 18, 2000, Columbus, Ohio

42. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 16, 2000, Denver

43. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 9, 2000, Englishtown, N.J.

44. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 25, 2001, Houston

45. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 17, 2001, Columbus, Ohio

46. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 8, 2001, Pomona, Calif.

47. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 22, 2001, Denver

48. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 3, 2001, Indianapolis

49. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 7, 2001, Reading, Pa.

50. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Nov. 11, 2001, Pomona, Calif.

51. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 5, 2002, Atlanta

52. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 2, 2002, Chicago

53. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 30, 2002, St. Louis

54. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 2, 2002, Indianapolis

55. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 16, 2002, Reading, Pa.

56. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 27, 2002, Las Vegas

57. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 16, 2003, Gainesville, Fla.

58. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 13, 2003, Houston

59. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 1, 2003, Chicago

60. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 18, 2004, Houston

61. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 16, 2004, Atlanta

62. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Aug. 1, 2004, Sonoma, Calif.

63. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 10, 2004, Reading, Pa.

64. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Nov. 14, 2004, Pomona, Calif.

65. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 10, 2005, Houston

66. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 26, 2005, St. Louis

67. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 18, 2005, Reading, Pa.

68. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, Feb. 12, 2006, Pomona, Calif.

69. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 19, 2006, Gainesville, Fla.

70. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 2, 2006, Houston

71. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, April 9, 2006, Las Vegas

72. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 21, 2006, Columbus, Ohio

73. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 1, 2006, Richmond, Va.

74. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 18, 2007, Gainesville, Fla.

75. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 1, 2007, Houston

76. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 29, 2007, Atlanta

77. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, May 6, 2007, St. Louis

78. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, Sept. 16, 2007, Memphis

79. Peggy Llewellyn, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 23, 2007, Dallas

80. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, April 27, 2008, Atlanta

81. Melanie Troxel, Funny Car, May 18, 2008, Bristol, Tenn.

82. Hillary Will, Top Fuel, June 1, 2008, Topeka, Kan.

83. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, March 29, 2009, Houston

84. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, Sept. 7, 2009, Indianapolis

85. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, Sept. 6, 2010, Indianapolis

86. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 24, 2011, Denver

87. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, July 1, 2012, Chicago

88. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Aug. 5, 2012, Seattle

89. Courtney Force, Funny Car, Aug. 5, 2012, Seattle

90. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Aug. 19, 2012, Brainerd, Minn.

91. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Sept. 30, 2012, St. Louis

92. Courtney Force, Funny Car, Feb. 17, 2013, Pomona, Calif.

93. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Feb. 24, 2013, Phoenix

94. Courtney Force, Funny Car, June 23, 2013, Epping, N.H.

95. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Sept. 29, 2013, St. Louis

96. Alexis DeJoria, Funny Car, Feb. 23, 2014, Phoenix

97. Alexis DeJoria, Funny Car, March 30, 2014, Las Vegas

98. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, March 30, 2014, Las Vegas

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Alonso, Rossi visit NASCAR AMERICA as part of New York media day (VIDEO)

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The defending Indianapolis 500 champion and the driver who’s generated most of the headlines around this year’s 101st running included NBCSN’s NASCAR AMERICA as part of their New York media tour.

Alexander Rossi and Fernando Alonso joined the show this evening. Rossi, driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda will start third and Alonso, driver of the No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, will roll off from fifth.

The race airs Sunday at 11 a.m. ET on ABC. NBCSN’s coverage of Carb Day is live on Friday from 11 a.m. ET.

 

Indy 500 media day roundup

Photo: IndyCar
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Tuesday marked a busy day for the drivers that make up the field for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. While there was no on-track activity, and won’t be again until Miller Lite Carb Day (5/26 at 11:00 a.m. on NBCSN), the field of 33 were scattered around the country doing a bevy of appearances in the lead up to Sunday’s race. Below is a list drivers and the places they visited.

Bristol, Connecticut/ESPN: James Hinchcliffe
Buffalo: Graham Rahal
Charlotte: Will Power
Chicago: Juan Pablo Montoya
Columbus: Mikhail Aleshin
Dallas-Fort Worth: Tony Kanaan
Dayton: Jack Harvey, Zach Veach
Denver: Buddy Lazier
Detroit: Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, Spencer Pigot
Fort Wayne: Jay Howard, James Davison
Houston: Helio Castroneves
Louisville: Pippa Mann, Ed Jones
Miami-Fort Lauderdale: Oriol Servia, Gabby Chaves, Sebastian Saavedra
Milwaukee: Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball
New York: Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly, Fernando Alonso
Philadelphia: Marco Andretti, Sage Karam
St. Louis: Ed Carpenter, Takuma Sato
San Francisco: JR Hildebrand
Tampa-St. Petersburg: Ryan Hunter-Reay
Toronto: Scott Dixon
Washington: Josef Newgarden

It was a day that began early for all drivers, particularly those in transit. However, drivers like Fernando Alonso, Alexander Rossi, and Conor Daly got a jump on their travels last night.

Meanwhile, Oriol Servia, Sebastian Saavedra, and Gabby Chaves flew out early this morning. Servia used the travel to get in some much needed rest ahead of the busy day.

Unsurprisingly, the driver most in demand was Fernando Alonso, who spoke with such outlets as CNN and Sports Illustrated, among others.

Conor Daly, meanwhile, had a unique run-in with professional wrestling star Ric Flair.

Last year’s pole sitter, James Hinchcliffe, kept himself busy with a visit to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. He also spent time at their Los Angeles location ahead of this year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, a race in which he won.

And not all of the appearances were within the United States. Polesitter Scott Dixon ventured north of the border to Toronto for his media blitz.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, on the other hand, ventured closer to home, as the Florida native spent his day in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area.

 

Some drivers even got a little racing in. For example, Pippa Mann enjoyed an arm chair race (which she won) during her stop in Louisville.

Rossi and Alonso, however, kept their racing in the virtual world.

Perhaps the most interesting activity, however, was reserved for Ed Jones. Before joining teammate Pippa Mann in Louisville, Jones joined Zach Veach and Jack Harvey at American Dairy Association Indiana, where Jones was afforded the chance to milk a cow.

A full rundown of events can be seen via the Verizon IndyCar Series twitter.

 

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Alberico living up to ‘Rising Star’ name in solid start to second year

Alberico and Hale. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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INDIANAPOLIS – There’s something about Neil Alberico in his second year in a Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires series that brings out the best for the 24-year-old out of Los Gatos, Calif. who now lives in San Clemente.

Alberico, the Rising Star Racing-supported driver, always seems to improve in year two and has done so throughout his now six years in the MRTI.

In the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, Alberico switched from JDC Motorsports as a rookie to Cape Motorsports as a sophomore from 2012 to 2013. He improved from seventh in points to second, and won six races that second year.

The same story applied on the next rung in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, although he stayed with Cape for both seasons. Third without a win in 2014 ceded to four wins and second place in 2015.

Arguably the best driver who has not yet won a championship in those series, Alberico has positioned himself nicely for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title this year as Carlin’s emerging lead driver following a solid first few weekends of the year, as he now seeks his first win in Indy Lights to keep the career trend going.

Entering Friday’s Freedom 100, the marquee race of the Indy Lights season (live, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Alberico has opened his 2017 account in the No. 22 Dallara IL-15 Mazda with two thirds, two fourths and a sixth place thus far in six races. He sits fourth in points with 103, 36 back of points leader and fellow Californian Kyle Kaiser. For reference, persistent and continual mechanical issues and engine changes stunted a miserable debut season in 2016, and Alberico only had two top-six finishes all season, and left him 11th in points.

Now though Alberico has ascended to the team leader role at the Trevor Carlin-owned, Colin Hale-managed squad. He drives alongside Zachary Claman De Melo, who switched from Juncos Racing, and rookies Matheus Leist and Garth Rickards. All but Rickards have at least one podium this season as the new-look lineup finds its footing.

“Playing the leadership role in a team, I’m used to it,” Alberico told NBC Sports. “I’m comfortable doing what I can do. And that’s your job as a teammate. You have to be fast yourself, but there’s driver and team championships that exist – and we want to win them both.”

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Alberico credits a healthy offseason program where he undertook a lot of private testing and a year’s worth experience both in these cars and with a team that has led to his growth. He also feels more comfortable with the Indy Lights-specification of Cooper Tires, as he struggled to maximize their pace on an optimal lap in qualifying last year.

“Every year you adapt to new challenges as a driver. Last year as a rookie the tire was a big part of that challenge that I needed to learn,” he said. “But it’s now gone more to my favor – or more what I’m used to.

“Going into the offseason, it’s been nice to have a lot of private test time. When you have a private test, there’s driving stuff you can work on, being good on cold tires, or having new tires to work on. It’s the small little details. When you have private time to work on yourself, that’s the most productive.”

While Alberico is serious about the task at hand, he’s not afraid to have fun and laugh it off at the track. That humor involves his engineer, Geoff Fickling, team manager, Hale, and his supporters in Rising Star Racing.

Alberico and Fickling, a renowned and championship-winning engineer in multiple rungs of the MRTI (Ed Jones with Carlin last year and Gabby Chaves with Belardi in 2014 in Indy Lights, plus Jack Hawksworth with Pelfrey in 2012 in Pro Mazda), live not far apart in San Clemente, and at times, almost spend too much time together.

Alberico and Fickling. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“Geoff and I get along great on a personal level. But sometimes he hates when I’m at his house looking for data – he’s gotta be like, ‘I want to get away, and I can’t get away from my driver!’” Alberico laughed. “But he’s very thorough. He’ll go the extra mile to teach me more what I need to learn.”

Alberico has also started making his Instagram videos must-see-content for the rather hilarious interaction between the laid-back Californian and the focused, often intently serious Hale, who has made Carlin a championship-winner in Indy Lights in just its second season. There’s a confidence Alberico has in providing humor here that may not have existed last year given the struggles that were out of his, or the team’s control.

And then there’s the fact Alberico was the one responsible for bringing in the most out-of-left-field IndyCar sponsor this year, which was awesome, in Loki the Wolfdog. We’ll let Neil take it from here…

“Rising Star Racing is, for those that don’t know, such an awesome initiative through MRTI into IndyCar,” Alberico said. “Spencer Pigot and I have been part of that program, which does a lot for young drivers.

“The Loki deal is just basically a friend of mine with a really famous Instagram dog. Social media has become a huge part of the sport the last several years, and I think sponsor and teams need to adapt at those times.”

Loki was on site at Long Beach and met Pigot there for the first time, thanks to the connection between the Rising Star Racing teammates. It’s not been the only partner Alberico has brought in; Laguna Beach-based modern drug addiction and alcoholism treatment center Oceanfront Recovery is on both Alberico’s Indy Lights car and Pigot’s No. 11 Juncos Racing Chevrolet in the Indianapolis 500.

Pigot and Alberico have been Art Wilmes’ two “primary” drivers for RSR over the years, but not the only ones RSR has supported.

Pigot, Loki the Wolfdog, and “Squad” over their shoulder. Go figure. Photo: IndyCar

There’s others such as last year’s Pro Mazda champion, Indy Lights rookie Aaron Telitz (who actually won on his debut at St. Petersburg and has been overlooked from a media perspective) and another MRTI veteran Jake Eidson in the RSR roster. RSR is set to formally add Oliver Askew, who’s off to a stellar start in USF2000, rather soon.

Telitz (center), Herta (left) and Alberico (right) made it an all-American podium at St. Pete. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

As Alberico heads to the Freedom 100 this weekend, he’s got the continuity from a team and engineering standpoint, and determined to secure his breakthrough win in a year when Telitz, Colton Herta and Nico Jamin have all become Indy Lights race winners.

“I like staying with the same team. When you gel with team mechanics, engineers, you don’t want to go through the new process again,” Alberico said. “That’s why you do better in your second year, and in the third year even more so.

“At the IndyCar level it’s about those 10-plus year relationships – and that’s hard to create as a rookie! So you have to learn and adapt with those with 10-year relationships.

“Here, the wind is a bigger factor. But we have the race lap record! We’re not slow. We like this place. Let’s put ourselves in position to win the race.”

Alberico, who mentioned the wind there, also had the chance to play weatherman for the local CBS affiliate (WTTV-4) here in Indianapolis last week. And that provided him and Telitz a chance to provide some competitive banter beyond what they’ve done on track.

Trio of new entrants add intrigue to INDYCAR’s ownership pool

Juncos (17, leading) and Harding (88) are mixing it up among IndyCar's regulars, like Penske (22). Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – One came to America with almost nothing from Argentina. One has operated a local construction firm and taken his passion from fandom to his own team. And one has been a staple of the sports car scene for more than a dozen years, yet now finally gets to live out his original passion back in the open-wheel world.

Add in an iconic name in McLaren coming back to the Brickyard after a several-decade hiatus and you’ve got three new team owners and one returning major manufacturer name as the team newcomers in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Combined, they field five cars. Ricardo Juncos making his INDYCAR debut with a full two-car effort for Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra. Mike Harding has assembled a new one-car entry on his own for Gabby Chaves. Mike Shank has partnered with Andretti Autosport to run a car for rookie Jack Harvey, while McLaren, Honda and Andretti have combined as branding partners for the Fernando Alonso entry that folks hope will eventually preview a fuller McLaren entry down the road.

The McLaren name is back at Indy, via Andretti Autosport and Honda. Photo: IndyCar

As for the three that are here from a team standpoint, Juncos has the most successful open-wheel pedigree among the three entrants. Any keen-eyed observer of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires will have seen Juncos’ team’s success and preparation showcased in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, championships which they won by the end of their second full season in each. Spencer Pigot won him championships in both back-to-back in the two in 2014 and 2015 and Conor Daly won the Pro Mazda title in 2010; both are Juncos alumni now in IndyCar.

Pigot and Juncos back again. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

But stepping up into IndyCar was always going to be a question of timing, opportunity and financial resources with which to do so. Luckily as KV Racing Technology’s era of operation drew down, so its equipment became available, and Juncos was able to acquire what was needed to step up.

All this was occurring while Juncos was prepping a two-car Indy Lights team as scheduled for 2017, and then completed an eleventh hour deal to keep its Pro Mazda team going after selling off that equipment. But this also comes after Juncos moved into his new 44,000-square foot shop in downtown Speedway, Ind. in December.

“A lot’s been going on – like a storm!” Juncos told NBC Sports. “But we put a full IndyCar team together in two months, from zero, in terms of everything. We assembled and put the cars together, and all these people together, without missing anything on the Pro Mazda or Indy Lights teams.

“Last weekend, when we won both races in Pro Mazda, and were able to win the one in Indy Lights, it’s all about the team effort – we are doing IndyCar without making any issues on these teams. That’s the goal. It was a lot of work, but everything is very good. I’m still learning everyday. I’m excited for what the future can give us, for this race.”

Pigot lights it up after a pit stop. Photo: IndyCar

The crew features a number of KVRT alumni, including Greg Senerius (team manager). The engineering staff includes technical director Tom Brown, an open-wheel and sports car veteran, along with past Indy 500-winning entrant Steve Newey and fellow IndyCar veteran David Cripps, who came up frustratingly short of winning when he was with Panther Racing.

Shank, who brings the majority (but not all) of his Acura NSX GT3 sports car crew to the Andretti team, which keeps the band of lifers together from his shop based outside Columbus in Patalaska, Ohio. They got the chance to go with him to Le Mans last year and now get to add Indy, with Shank, to their resumes. Noting how much people love Shank, his longtime friend and Rolex 24 driver AJ Allmendinger and Allmendinger’s friend and current Shank Acura driver Katherine Legge have been here for support this week.

“It’s not about me. It’s always been about my guys,” Shank told NBC Sports. “My guys have been with me from 10 to 23 years, always standing behind me. A lot of guys have been with other teams, but if we want to do Indy, we want to do it as a present group. Whatever happens, we deal with. We fix it. We do it together.

“I try not to micromanage. For me, it’s step back and let (Tim) Keene (team manager) run the show. With the technical background Andretti has, the whole thing is so very good. Let’s see where we land. This could be interesting.”

Harvey and Shank are rolling through the ups and downs of Indy. Photo: IndyCar

Interesting it was – albeit for the wrong reasons on the opening day of practice for Harvey. With the car encountering a steering issue, Harvey was shot into the Turn 2 wall exiting the warmup lane and suffered right front damage. That required a rebuild of the car after it was stripped down and then put back together, but the English driver has made methodical progress forward since that point, culminating with 124 laps run on Monday.

Bad as that day was, it’s still a damn sight better than the potential debut Shank could have had in IndyCar in 2012. Shank’s engine plight was made public as Honda and Chevrolet added extra teams saddled with Lotus engines that wanted to switch prior to Indy, which wasn’t in either manufacturer’s game plan. Yet it also left a bitter taste for Shank, who had gone out, purchased a Dallara DW12 chassis, but couldn’t get an engine to run it outside of the Lotus. Had he debuted with that engine, it’s quite possible Shank in IndyCar could have been one-and-done.

In the five years since, INDYCAR’s leadership structure has evolved and it’s likely that without Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, among others than neither Juncos nor Shank would be racing next weekend in the ‘500. Both owners took the time to thank Frye and INDYCAR as a result.

“To be honest one of the things that surprised me the most is how professional they are,” Juncos said. “Mark Miles, Jay Frye, everyone in INDYCAR, marketing, to the PR guys. Bill van de Sandt invited us to T&S and Race Control so I could have an idea! They pushed me to do this.

“I knew it was probably the right opportunity at the right time. But it was still a big, big task. Jay Frye gave me a bit of confidence and support that this is the right thing to do. I’m so pleased to have those guys. The support is massive, and for drivers to believe in our program.”

“It’s a deep exhale! What we went through, no one should have to go,” Shank explained. “There’s two people I have to thank: Jay Frye and Mark Sibla have championed us. They came and saw me after the 2017 Rolex and said, ‘If you want to come here, let’s work it out with a team since I don’t have a car.’ But they were very instrumental. They always answer their phones.”

Chaves has a chance with Harding. Photo: IndyCar

If Juncos and Shank have been known from their pedigree in other series, Harding’s arrival is more of a surprise because it comes largely out of left field. But that’s not a bad thing.

With a construction background by trade with the Harding Group, Harding had always been a fan of the Indianapolis 500. Yet after last year’s 100th running, he took a big leap of faith in tandem with team manager Larry Curry to turn that fandom into an actual program, and purchase two new Dallaras as a result, complete with Harding’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. fandom producing a stylized No. 88 Chevrolet. And for good measure, Al Unser Jr. is working with the team as a driver coach.

“I had gone away from racing, other than Indy-only things,” Curry told NBC Sports. “I worked for Mike. Mike asked me if I was gonna do last year’s 500. I told him, ‘But I work for you!’ ‘You need to go do it,’ he said. ‘You’ve been there so many years. You have to do it. I’ll give you off whatever time you need.’

“So I did, and the race is over, we’re up in the suite talking. He said, ‘What do you think about doing this? What do you think about us doing our own deal?’ I just said right away, ‘Mike, it’s very extensive.’ He replied, ‘I never asked that. I asked, would you do it for me.’ But you know how it is, there’s a lot of excitement in May… this’ll go away. Guess what, it didn’t!”

Harding backed that up nicely. “Larry worked for me for the last couple years, and he mentored Tony Stewart,” he said. “So I told him, ‘What do you think about starting a team this year?’ And he was all gung ho for it. We didn’t know if it’d really happen for it, but it came through.”

One of the things that’s additionally nice about all three of these entrants is their push to provide opportunities for recent Mazda Road to Indy graduates. Pigot, 23, completes a 15-year journey with Juncos that began in karting together. Saavedra, a seemingly eternal 26, has been in-and-out of IndyCar for parts of seven seasons; this is his seventh team he’s attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 with.

Harding runs Chaves, who edged Harvey, Shank’s driver, for the 2014 Indy Lights title on a tiebreaker.

All of the team owners are so thrilled with the upside and potential of their young stars.

Pigot and Juncos are reunited for Juncos’ Indy debut. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s crazy obviously!” Juncos laughed. “These things have only happened a few times in history. For me, 15 years ago, coming from Argentina, in karts and he’s 9 years old. Now we’re living this. Sometimes things happen in humanity, which luckily happened for us. Without losing the focus, enjoy this, because it’s a great story of the team, of Spencer, of both of us together. For whatever reason, it’s happening.”

Harvey and Shank are rolling through the ups and downs of Indy. Photo: IndyCar

“Having Jack, it’s part of the package. We’re all one kit together,” Shank said. “Jack, you’re on my side now. My guys are the same way. They’ll support him good and bad.”

“Mike Hull from Ganassi recommended Gabby Chaves to us, he’s the best one out there,” Harding said. “I set up an interview with Gabby and couldn’t believe how mature this 23-year-old man was. I think we made the right decision.”

Al Unser Jr. and Gabby Chaves. Photo: IndyCar

Naturally, debuting is one thing but future development and staying power is the ultimate goal here.

Juncos has long harbored ambitions of a full-time IndyCar program, Shank has now opened the doors to one in addition to his continued, dedicated sports car presence, and Harding already seems set to race at least twice more this year.

For this race, Chaves has qualified the best in 25th for Harding, with Harvey in 27th for Shank and Andretti, then the Juncos pair of Pigot (29th) and Saavedra (31st) a little further behind. Both of the Juncos cars had slow fourth laps in qualifying; Juncos has pushed through with a rebuild of Pigot’s primary car from Friday to Saturday, working through the night to get the car ready to go for Pigot to qualify.

With only eight full-time owners now, and with three of them in Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti fielding 12 full-time cars of 21 and 15 of 33 at Indy, spreading the car count among other teams is one of INDYCAR’s key goals for 2018 and beyond.

“I think it’s really key,” said Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company Hulman & Co. “I don’t think that’s an economic driver for us, but it’s very healthy to have more diversity in our owner group.

“We love Roger, we love Michael, we love Chip … and we love all the rest of our current paddock. But more owners being invested in the series is a healthier thing. It’s very good.

“Besides these three when you have Zak Brown talking about a couple cars, not just at the Indy 500 but INDYCAR, it’s a very exciting thing.”