Alonso, Hunter-Reay, Rossi, Andretti, Sato, Harvey. Photo: IndyCar

Andretti Autosport’s six-pack of drivers set to tackle Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – The contrast was stark on the dais among all six Andretti Autosport drivers set to compete in this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

There were the four full-season Andretti drivers, plus rookie Jack Harvey in black, standard Andretti polos with the appropriate partner logos.

On the far right of the stage, or far left for the onlooking media, was Fernando Alonso – seemingly resplendent sitting in a white polo with his McLaren Honda Andretti colors, this year’s theoretical “white knight in shining armor” in among the other 32 cars in the race.

Seeing Alonso there on the same stage with these other five drivers, though, provided a good glimpse at the divide between Alonso and the rest of the field in visual form.

It was also a reminder that while Alonso is the worldwide star interloper in this year’s race, he enters into a team where the results achieved by the other four veterans should be more noteworthy than they are.

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi are the lone American champions of the Indianapolis 500 in the last 11 years, Hunter-Reay having snapped an eight-year drought since Sam Hornish Jr. edged Marco Andretti in 2006. And Rossi’s famous fuel strategy-inspired victory last year has become the latest chapter in this race’s lore.

Andretti himself? That eternal wait for victory number one here began when he came up so short as a rookie. He’s never been that close since.

Meanwhile Takuma Sato provided one of the race’s best moments in recent years as well, perhaps overlooked in the grand scheme of things. In 2012 he dove to Dario Franchitti’s inside into Turn 1, but with Franchitti’s smart and sneaky race craft having coaxed Sato into a mistake, the likable and talented Japanese driver’s “no attack, no chance” mentality bit him as he came up short.

Harvey – again fitting into the “overlooked” department – has a record that none of his other teammates can boast. He’s the only driver who can say he’s won on both the IMS road course and the IMS oval, having done both in the same year in the 2015 Indy Lights season.

The other five drivers have all raced on the IMS road course, and Sato scored his lone Formula 1 podium there in 2004, but none has won in non-‘500 races except for Andretti in 2005, in Indy Lights.

Hunter-Reay is Andretti’s most successful driver in IndyCar, the most successful active American driver in the series. He’s one of only four drivers in the field (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya) who have both an Indianapolis 500 victory and a full-season IndyCar title, which proves how hard it is to do both.

Yet the desire for win number two here at Indy, especially after coming up short last year, burns brightest.

Ryan Hunter-Reay remains in search of win two. Photo: IndyCar

“I think every year I come back here I want it more and more,” Hunter-Reay said. “That probably has something to do with the hard times I had earlier on here. It’s just one of those places that becomes more and more important to you the further you get in your career. You just realize how much it means.

“But I know it means that much to every other driver in the field, too. So everybody’s going to be fighting for it. Like Fernando said, we’re all working together. We have six cars now, so it’s a lot of data to pull from, a lot of opinions and perspectives to put into play. I think we all work very well as a team. We’ll be trying to use that as a strength.”

Rossi’s been asked a lot about winning last year and how it changed his life, so much so he needs to keep thinking of refreshing answers. Again though it’s the desire to go back-to-back that drives him.

“I think just the appreciation for this race and the desire to win it. Like Ryan talked about earlier, every year you come back, it’s greater. I think there was a point brought up in terms of once you’ve done it once, the desire to do it again is much increased,” he said.

“It’s an amazing experience that happens for the year afterwards. I had no idea it was as detailed and involved as it actually is.

“But it gives you that desire to do it again because you don’t really want to give it up. So definitely coming into this with the goal of trying to do it again. We’ll do everything we can to make that happen.”

Rossi is 1-for-1 at Indy, while Andretti’s been trying to break through since 2006. Photo: IndyCar

Andretti’s not come as close to winning as he did in 2006. It seems hard to believe this is already his 12th Indianapolis 500 and he’s only just turned 30 years old. While Andretti’s been solid in practice nearly every event this year, getting his car good in race trim has been a challenge. That remains his goal this month.

“I’m as pleased as I’ve been with the car right now in race trim. No complaints there,” he said. “Now it’s just about keeping it there, you know, which is very tricky at this place. Every day seems to throw you some sort of a curve ball. The better you react I think the better you’ll be in the end.”

Sato at speed. Photo: IndyCar

For Sato, it’s about having the opportunity to be part of a team that is at least double anything he’s ever been in before. Sato’s been in one, two and three-car teams at the Speedway – and come close to winning with all of them – and being part of a “six-pack” of entries is quite a chance.

“It’s been ‘almost’ success,” Sato laughed. “I know how the race gets competitive and tight towards the end of the race, which is pretty different. This year experience you never know. That’s good to know.

“Obviously coming to join the team, it’s a new experience for me again. I never have been around kind of like a group in the past, until really after the qualifying. It’s a whole new experience; trying to get more out of the car and learning how the team operates every single day.”

Alonso preps to go out. Photo: IndyCar

Lastly there’s the rookies, each of whom are here in wildly contrasting situations. Alonso’s story has been covered quite a bit while Harvey’s debut is one of the more intriguing ones. Both have new team principals presents – McLaren’s Zak Brown and Michael Shank in partnership with Andretti – and they have different goals.

One area worth asking Alonso about, beyond the on-track activity, was how he is experiencing the Indianapolis experience.

“I was expecting more activities off the track. Probably I will think differently when I arrive next Sunday!” Alonso said. “But right now, you know, it’s still more or less okay. Yeah, the biggest surprise is to see the fans out of the garage or even on the pit lane. That’s completely new thing for us, for me.

“But apart of that, you know, we are quite busy. Being two weeks, I think everything is spread a little bit, day after day. When we go to the Formula One events, it’s just Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so everything is compressed in four days. Here we have a very tight schedule, as well.”

Harvey’s endured a roller coaster week. Photo: IndyCar

As for Harvey, it’s been a roller coaster week thus far, but the past Indy Lights race winner is rolling with the challenges.

“I think more likely (Michael Shank’s) helping me realize my dream of running at the Indy 500,” he said. “Honestly the whole rookie experience at this point has gone about as far from what I’ve expected it to as possible. Honestly I ended up yesterday pretty good, way better than the timing sheet showed. Hopefully it’s just a platform to have a great month and keep building off that.”

For the team, ensuring the group runs maximize data gathering for the race has been key to success in past years, as explained by Andretti chief operating officer Rob Edwards.

“When you look at the whole event, it’s in two parts. There’s qualifying and with points, that’s important. But come race day it’s three hours in traffic, so the best way to set up to be successful is to learn as much about the cars as possible,” Edwards told NBC Sports.

“The ultimate advantage is controlling specific advantages to do that, and trying different things within those runs. As you say, historically, it’s been part of the Andretti approach. I think we’ll continue to do that. With six cars there’s more opportunity.”

And as for managing six cars, something only a handful of other teams (notably Team Scandia’s seven in 1996 and Dick Simon Racing’s five-plus in the past) have ever done?

Michael Andretti said he hasn’t had as many sleepless nights as one would assume given the whirlwind he’s had the last couple months.

“I sleep really well actually!” Andretti laughed. “We have such a great organization. It’s scary to be honest because between the Fernando thing with McLaren and bringing them in, then with Michael (Shank) and Jack, on paper it should be a nightmare but it’s scarily good. It’s been fun.

“Everyone on face of it acknowledges that it’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun work.”

Will that fun work pay off in Andretti Autosport’s fifth Indianapolis 500 win, after others in 2005, 2007, 2014 and 2016? Only time will tell.

Andretti and Rossi at speed. Photo: IndyCar

Entry names:

Takuma Sato, No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda
Marco Andretti, No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 DHL Honda
Fernando Alonso, No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti
Jack Harvey, No. 50 Michael Shank Racing w/Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, No. 98 NAPA AUTO PARTS / Curb Honda

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.”