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DiZinno: Reflecting on Month of May 2016, and 100th Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Exhale. It’s over.

The month of May 2016, a month which promised so much, delivered even more and produced a wide swath of memories, emotions, surprises and story lines, is now as finished as Alexander Rossi’s fuel tank of his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda.

The unpredictable month had its final round of twists and turns during the race itself but produced quite a number of takeaways of note:

WHAT A SAFE MONTH IT WAS

Last year, safety was the buzzword leading into the Indianapolis 500. Three devastating looking, airborne accidents dominated discussion in the run-up to qualifying. There was the awkward Mark Miles and Derrick Walker, hastily organized press conference.

Then, of course, there was James Hinchcliffe’s accident on the Monday, that has been talked about, written about and discussed ad nauseam in the 12 months since. How “Hinch” handled himself throughout the process of being asked the same question, “Hey, what do you think about almost dying?” approximately 789 times is nothing short of admirable.

This year, the words “transported to Methodist Hospital” were never uttered. Once.

And you can thank INDYCAR for that.

Karam's crash was big, but still safe. Photo: Getty Images
Karam’s crash was big, but still safe. Photo: Getty Images

While the timing of the safety enhancements for 2016 being announced wasn’t ideal – late November around Thanksgiving – the trio of the domed skids, the rear wing beam flaps and the nose tethers successfully completed their jobs.

Cars crashed without getting airborne, from both manufacturers. There were hard hits but in each case drivers got out, walked away and completed the requisite trip to the infield medical center, concerned more for their crews in needing to repair the primary or assemble a backup.

All the while, the “infamous” domed skids made the cars harder to drive and truly revealed the caliber of talent from each of the 33 drivers who started.

It’s easy to rip on INDYCAR when they’re wrong, but the competition and operations side of the equation merits a round of applause this year for ensuring we made it through May entirely unscathed.

RACE CONTROL? WHAT RACE CONTROL? 

Remember how much consternation there was at Long Beach over just the warning call for Simon Pagenaud exiting the pit lane and emerging ahead of Scott Dixon? Yeah, a long distant memory now.

The only time we heard Arie Luyendyk’s name this month was in reference to being a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion. Max Papis and Dan Davis? Didn’t hear them once.

INDYCAR Race Control has a thankless job and is often first in the line of fire for critique and criticism when a questionable call occurs. It’s only fair, then, to give them extended kudos for their work this month. There were plenty of penalties called in the race – but it’s hard to say any of them were controversial.

IMS, CROWD LIVES UP TO THE HYPE

Welcome to the Indy 500 Snake Pit. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Welcome to the Indy 500 Snake Pit. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Preparing for 350,000 people on race day was no small feat. Neither was preparing for 100,000-plus on Carb Day – the day when drunken debauchery takes center stage along with the respective concert on display (this year, it was Journey).

Alas, it seemed that the IMS staff did a pretty good job of getting the message out about getting there early, dealing with the crowds, and keeping the track safe and fun for all associated events. Even the “yellow shirts” weren’t as trigger-happy on their whistles and nicer than usual for most of the month.

The witnessing of the crowd on race morning was simply incredible. As others have written, it was more the fact the crowd got to their seats so early that stood out. At about 10 a.m. the stands were I’d say 70-75 percent full; usually they’re 50-60 percent, there or thereabouts at that time.

Other than intermittent Internet outages in the pressroom – not ideal, certainly, when your job relies on it – it was a month that ran largely smooth and cleanly without interruption.

To track president J. Douglas Boles and his entire staff, I say thank you.

THE FUTURE WON OUT OVER THE PAST

Munoz, Brabham and Hinch.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Munoz, Brabham and Hinchcliffe. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

In a race that looked forward as much as backwards – yes, there was plenty to commemorate the past of the 99 previous runnings of the Indianapolis 500 – it was a future-looking top-five finishing order.

Race winner Alexander Rossi is 24, and the first winner under 25 since Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000. He’s the first under 30 winner since Scott Dixon in 2008, then 27.

Then consider the rest of the top five: Carlos Munoz (24), Josef Newgarden (25), Tony Kanaan (41) and Charlie Kimball (31).

Polesitter James Hinchcliffe is 29. He finished seventh. JR Hildebrand, the hard-luck runner-up in 2011, finished sixth on Sunday. He’s still only 28.

In Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power, the remainder of the top 10 featured drivers still in their mid-to-late-30s, and Ryan Hunter-Reay was another of those who was unfortunate not to finish higher than he did. Each of these four still has several good years ahead of them.

Although this year’s field featured eight drivers north of 40 – Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kanaan, Townsend Bell, Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani and Buddy Lazier – the vibe of the month felt more concentrated around the next generation of IndyCar stars.

Looking toward the future, that’s a good thing.

DON’T HATE THE PLAYER, HATE THE GAME 

Rossi and crew pulled it off. Photo: Getty Images
Rossi and crew pulled it off. Photo: Getty Images

It’s fine to not be a fan of fuel mileage races. But don’t hate the result just because a driver and his team nailed the strategy, then nailed the execution.

There’s been quite a bit written already about Rossi’s final stint, how it started earlier thanks to two prior bad pit stops where, ironically, refueling issues dropping him into the low-20s on the running order.

Still, the drama of whether he’d make it home or not was electric. It was fascinating knowing he’d start the white flag lap on fumes after doing enough to have saved enough fuel, then have to use the clutch and coast that final lap.

“I was experimenting out there, and it was actually a little bit of a fluke that I figured out how to save the most,” Rossi admitted on Monday. “I had a big moment in Turn 2 and I had to bail out of the throttle quite a bit behind Scott, and then I came across the line and I was still behind Scott quite close, and the fuel number was above what I needed, and I was like, all right, not that I want to try and end up in the wall in Turn 2 every lap, but I figured out a technique that worked quite well.”

In a strange way, the fact that Rossi crossed the finish line so relatively slow was almost a perfect homage to the past 100 runnings.

He’d gone as fast as the present allows – 230-plus and change thanks to a trimmed out, fairly low downforce setting having set both the fastest race lap and fastest trap speed in Turn 2 – but also slow enough as cars in the past once did.

For those fans who weren’t around to see what a winner at 135 mph looks like back in the old days, now we did… except with a car capable of so much more.

SOME ADDITIONAL LEFTOVER THOUGHTS

Dixon was hard to find .  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Dixon was hard to find most of May. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
  • All respect to him, but thank goodness Simon Pagenaud had an off day for the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series championship chase. After his incredible 2-2-1-1-1 start and qualifying ahead of Scott Dixon, Pagenaud held an 83-point lead and threatened to put a stranglehold the title before June. Leaving afterwards, the gap is just 57 points, and with 10 races to go we will have a title fight.
  • A driver that rarely figured in the month on-track? Dixon (above). Rare for the Target “lightning bolt” to be anonymous – and starting 13th and finishing eighth for a driver and team used to winning is just that. But the biggest story of the month for the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet crew was its heroic 64-minute engine change to get him out for qualifying. If he wins the title by less than 20 points, remember that effort.
  • Starting 10th and finishing 12th doesn’t sound like much, until you realize it’s a one-off entry driven by a veteran who undoubtedly – even if he wouldn’t admit it – helped Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this month. This is why Oriol Servia, who drove the No. 77 Lucas Oil Special Honda to those results this month, is still employable. Servia told me about his SPM bow pre-race: “Listen, I’d love to take credit. But when I arrived on GP weekend and entered engineering meeting, I cannot lie, I was impressed with the talent. The quality of people Sam and Ric have put together is no joke. If anything I hope I pushed more. Yeah, somehow I’m still not getting tired of this BS! Both of trying to get a ride, and getting it last second, and making it work.”
  • Two quietly good runs in the race? Englishmen Max Chilton and Jack Hawksworth both bounced back from early month adversity (a crash and an engine failure) to go P22 to P15 and P31 to P16, respectively. For Chilton’s first ‘500 it was a perfectly respectable result and after Hawksworth’s second successive month of nightmares, a better ending than expected.
  • Matty Brabham and the Brett “Crusher” Murray-led PIRTEK Team Murray brought a festive Australian flair, and a good amount of fun, to the Brickyard all month. The 22-year-old Australian American finished in the same spot as his age in the No. 61 Chevrolet, following a clean month.
  • Stefan Wilson, in the No. 25 Driven2SaveLives-KVRT Chevrolet, also ran better than anticipated early but retired with gearbox issues. It was a month for both he and his CoForce team around him to be proud of.
  • It was rare and odd to see Ed Carpenter, the driver, a non-factor both all race and all month. Qualified 20th and retired early with mechanical issues.
  • 13 different drivers led laps on Sunday. For 12 of them, all but Helio Castroneves, it was their first laps they led this season.
  • The Mazda Road to Indy’s nine races this month featured more drama in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires than in either the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires or Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda ranks. Enter Dean Stoneman as the story of the month here, having won both the Freedom 100 and one of the two road course races for Andretti Autosport.
  • There wasn’t a wide swath of negative news. Watkins Glen got formally announced during the Indy GP weekend and INDYCAR’s lawsuit against Boston got released/dumped at arguably the best time, mid-week, before the final buildup.
  • There’s no rest for the weary, with car changeover happening early this week before teams head out to Detroit for the traditionally backbreaking doubleheader weekend on Belle Isle Park.

A FINAL THOUGHT 

Having not done the full month personally until this year, it’s amazing how draining it is. But it’s also exhilarating.

The hangover from the high of the event lingers for a couple days, but the memories created last a lifetime.

Ironically, it’s the quiet moments of peace and reflection – more than the noise of 33 cars and 350,000 of your closest, screaming friends – that make you appreciate this place most.

Indy race morning starts like this....  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Indy race morning starts like this…. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

You feel the soul of the place most on race morning, early, pre-5 a.m., out on the course before the gates open to the public and you walk on the pavement, a track where so much history has been written.

Then you get the four-to-five hour rush of emotions in the buildup to race start, from watching Monaco in the press room, to the final stroll through Gasoline Alley, to then heading back on the grid hours later, the crowd beginning to fill in, the anticipation intensifying.

And then it gets like this.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
And then it gets like this. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The final bit of quiet and prayer comes as all the Memorial Day tributes begin. The songs before the command. Taps. The flyover. That’s when it hits you what’s about to take place.

The race goes green.

Three hours that you’ve been building towards all month go by in a blur.

Shock hits as the checkered flag falls with a surprise winner crowned champion of the 100th running, but one who in just a handful of days has already begun to properly understand and embrace the magnitude of what he has accomplished.

And then, you leave the track… back in quiet reflection after the track has written its latest chapter.

And you reset the countdown clock for when you do it again, 12 months later.

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.

 

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

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.”