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Quartet of new owners provide enthusiastic jolt to IndyCar

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Formal confirmations in the last week of both Michael Shank and Trevor Carlin’s programs brings the number of new Verizon IndyCar Series entrants up to four for the 2018 season. These follow Ricardo Juncos and Mike Harding’s announced plans in the last several months.

For a series that opened 2017 with just eight teams following KV Racing Technology shuttering, to have a 50 percent increase to kick the number up to 12 teams in not even a 12-month window is an astronomical sign of progress for the championship.

Only Carlin, of the quartet, will be making its IndyCar debut at next season’s opening round at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Each of the other three premiered at this year’s Indianapolis 500 with varying degrees of success, but the groundwork was laid there for further opportunities either in later 2017 or at a greater scale in 2018.

Yes, the car count may be similar with 22 cars expected full-time and a 23rd and/or 24th running occasionally. But the fact the cars are spread among a greater variety of teams speaks better for the series’ diversity and point of entry.

The fact these teams all come in when there’s a new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit coming, that could all but level the playing field save for the manufacturer difference between Chevrolet and Honda, is no coincidence either. Cost of entry isn’t cheap, of course, but it’s still a viable option for all of them – particularly with the common kit set to be used over the next three years.

“Obviously we’re very proud of this,” Jay Frye, INDYCAR’s President of Competition and Operations, told NBC Sports. “It’s been a long process the last year and a half. We’ve worked with some more than others. But the process is with the five-year plan. They’re part of it.

“Them all coming in speaks to their ownership and their leadership, which will create great sustainability.”

Frye hailed each of these four programs’ efforts and methodical building to get to this point. The cliff notes version for each new entrant is below:

  • Carlin: Trevor Carlin’s team has been a staple of the European junior formula, winning countless races and championships over decades and with a “who’s who” list of alumni that have made it to Formula 1 and IndyCar. Established Indy Lights program in 2015, won the title in 2016 and won the Freedom 100 in 2017.
  • Harding Racing: Mike Harding’s Harding Group has been a sponsor of the sport and took the bigger plunge this year with Gabby Chaves in a three-race program. Top-10 in Indianapolis 500 debut planted the seed for further great runs at Texas and Pocono, and hiring of Brian Barnhart from INDYCAR as new team president solidifies team’s intent to compete at the highest level.
  • Michael Shank Racing: Longtime driver-turned-owner Mike Shank had an Atlantic team, and has run his successful sports car operation for nearly two decades. False start in IndyCar occurred in 2012 with chassis purchase but no engine deal, but renewed opportunity arose in 2017 in tandem with Andretti Autosport at Indianapolis 500, before chance to build with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has occurred for multi-year deal starting in 2018.
  • Juncos Racing: From almost nothing, Ricardo Juncos came to America from Argentina and built up team into a Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires powerhouse, winning Pro Mazda and Indy Lights titles along the way before sweeping both titles in the same year in 2017 with Victor Franzoni (Pro Mazda) and Kyle Kaiser (Indy Lights). Made debut at Indianapolis 500 with two cars, and both finished.

“They’ve all done it the right way,” Frye explained. “Whether it’s Trevor, with the way he’s done his programs and now his graduation, Harding with some races to get integrated, Michael, with the way he operates his sports car programs, and getting his feet wet, and Ricardo the same way with his Mazda (Road to Indy) success, they’ve all participated. It’s a big step, but we couldn’t be more pleased and proud. It adds a lot of excitement.”

Carlin will have a mix of its Indy Lights and European personnel in addition to some recently acquired IndyCar veterans as part of its engineering staff and overall crew, continuing at its Delray Beach, Fla. U.S. base with a satellite home in Indianapolis part-time. The aspiration of making it to IndyCar has been something of a lifelong dream for Trevor Carlin, the Brit who now sees the British team flying the flag in North America with two Carlin alumni in Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball behind the wheel of the two Chevrolet-powered entries.

Gabby Chaves during practice at Pocono Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

Harding has ramped up its involvement by coming to Speedway, Ind., moving into what had been Ed Carpenter Racing’s shop on Main Street. The Barnhart acquisition brings him back together with Al Unser Jr., the team’s driving coach, after the two enjoyed a pair of Indianapolis 500 victories working together in 1992 (Galles Racing) and 1994 (Team Penske). The underrated and oft-overlooked Gabby Chaves, the 2014 Indy Lights champion, will spearhead this team’s effort behind-the-wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Rumors of a second car persist but haven’t fully developed as it sits.

While these two teams jump in for full-time efforts, both Shank and Juncos will go forward in a methodical part-time manner this year with the plan to build towards more in 2019 and beyond.

Jack Harvey during Indy 500 practice. Photo: IndyCar

Shank’s six-race effort will run in tandem with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in a technical partnership, with Jack Harvey in the team’s No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda. With Shank also still running his two-car Acura NSX GT3 program in IMSA out of his shop in Columbus, Ohio, the plan is to find six IndyCar race weekends that don’t conflict. With only Iowa and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in July conflicting and with Shank preferring to focus on a road and street course program in IndyCar outside of the Indianapolis 500, that won’t be a problem to ensure a conflict-free campaign (St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Indianapolis 500 have been announced).

Juncos Racing has debuted. Photo: IndyCar

Juncos Racing also runs multiple programs, with the team’s excellent MRTI program rolling into 2018. The trio of Carlos Cunha, Robert Megennis and Rinus VeeKay has been announced for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires with the new Tatuus PM-18 Mazda, one of them hoping to emulate last year’s champion Franzoni or past Pro Mazda champs for Juncos Spencer Pigot and Conor Daly – both of whom made it to IndyCar – in the same position. While its Indy Lights drivers haven’t been announced, Franzoni is due to don the Soul Red colors on a Juncos entry once Mazda announces it and Nico Dapero is all-but-set to continue for a sophomore year. Kaiser has a four-race IndyCar program, the month of May confirmed with two others to be announced, and the team working on further opportunities.

For those observers who have paid attention to these teams in other championships, the caliber of operations from all of them can’t be denied. With their preparation, persistence and acquisition of talent, they’ll be an intriguing part of the 2018 IndyCar season, and laying the groundwork for successful futures.

“They didn’t just say we’re here now; this has been building for the last year and a half, with where we as a series were going to go and what we’re going to do over ’18, ’19 and ’20,” Frye said. “As a former team principal and owner, knowing what a plan is gives them some comfort. And they’re part of the process – they have great ideas and they’ve accomplished a lot in other series where we can learn from them.

“All these groups are legitimate talented teams who want to play at a high level, and be here at the right time. They want to support and grow our program while growing theirs. They’re all a pleasure to deal with.

“Having four new teams, most with multiple entries, is really exciting for us. There hasn’t been that in IndyCar in some time. And that means for Dallara, there’s a lot of new cars and chassis being ordered.

“When you look at the overall platform, there are some good indicators. And as you’ve read from their quotes, it’s a lifetime process or achievement they wanted to do for a long time. The opportunity is there now to participate.”

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Barber

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Friday’s two practice sessions for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (there’s one final practice plus qualifying on Saturday):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “It’s great…home track for me. It wins the war between this place and Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) because it’s an hour closer, so I think that’s why I call it the home track. Unfortunately, we don’t race in Nashville anymore. But I’ve always loved Barber. It is a special place for me. It’s the place I got my first win with CFH (Racing) back in the day, and it’s a place I won my first race for Team Penske. It’s had a couple firsts for me, so it’s been good for that. Good memories. I love this racetrack. I think it’s one of the best that we get to drive at from sort of a style standpoint. It’s very technical, but it’s got a lot of flow to it. It feels kind of like a roller coaster to me is the best way to describe the style of it. I have a lot of fun here. I think it’s great. We’re going to try and have a good weekend. We had a pretty good start for the most part. We had some issues in the first session. Just kind of been dealing with a couple things that I think we got sorted out for the second session there, but we seem like we’ve got some speed. I think our other cars got some speed, as well. Simon (Pagenaud) looked like he suffered from maybe a similar problem, and I don’t think Will (Power) had a very good lap, so I think those guys will be right there with us. Team Penske I think is going to be strong tomorrow, I’m sure.

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re struggling with understeer in mid-corner, so we need more rotation in the car. If we can fix the mid-corner understeer, we’re going to have a fast car tomorrow. We’ll keep working on it, and hopefully we’ll have a great weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We learned a lot today. We tried to come test here a few weeks ago, but unfortunately Mother Nature had a different plan, so we didn’t get a lot of running in. We came into this weekend with a bit of an evolution from what we tested, still were a little bit off, and over lunch, the Arrow Electronics guys made a couple of great changes. It doesn’t look great on the time sheets because our fast lap was when that red flag came out, so they took it away from us. I think we’re decently inside the top 10, which is a big jump from this morning.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We lost water pressure somewhere in the Lucas Oil car, so we’re playing it safe. No water pressure means no water circulation to the engine, then it overheats and blows up. We’re taking the precautions to keep the engine alive, but unfortunately, we stopped after a couple of laps. It’s an hour free practice and we only did two competitive laps, so we’re just watching everyone else improve their cars and we aren’t able to right now. It’s pretty disappointing.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’re in the ballpark at the front, which is a good start for the No. 9 PNC Bank team. The Penske cars are up front and I think that’s a result of them doing some additional testing here. We kind of expected that to start. We did a qualifying run and the car was just too loose for some reason. And then we were fighting understeer this morning, so we’ve seen both sides of it. Now it’s up to us to get it right for qualifying tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a difficult end to the day for us. I think after starting well this morning, we struggled in the afternoon. It could have been the heat that affected us, I’m not really sure. Tonight, we’ll have to look at the data and what we learned from the NTT DATA car, talk to Scott (Dixon) and look toward tomorrow. I’m optimistic because we have a good base setup and we just need a little bit more work to get it right.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think once again the temperature of the track really makes it tough in these cars. It was very nice this morning and was easy to get lap times. And then all of a sudden this afternoon, even on reds (Firestone alternate tires), it’s very difficult to get the car right. We’re going to have to go back and have a good think about it.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It’s a difficult day. We’re struggling a lot. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Today was OK. I didn’t think that we were great there in the second practice, but if you’re off a little bit, it can make a five-, six-, seven-spot difference. It’s going to be really tight (on the time sheets) there tomorrow, so we’ve got to work on it and get it a little better.” (About whether qualifying performance is even more important if rain falls during the race:) “Qualifying will be important, but I think if it’s rainy, I think you will be able to make moves and you will see a lot of guys make mistakes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): “I am not quite sure what to think about the whole day. We are not super happy with the car, but in the meantime, it is decently fast. We made some gains and at least the car is doing one thing, so that’s the good thing. The SealMaster Honda No. 18 is in the ballpark. It seems like all we are doing right now is preparing for qualifying because it is definitely going to rain on Sunday. We are going to have to think very hard on what we are going to do in those conditions. We just have to keep working and see what we get tomorrow.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “We didn’t have a great morning aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car as we struggled a bit with the balance, but the second practice session was a lot better. We ended up P12, but had the potential for a lot more. When we went out on the Firestone red (alternate) tires near the end of the session, a red flag came out and that didn’t help us. I think we definitely could have been in the top 10, maybe even the top five. Overall, it’s encouraging heading into practice and qualifying tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “This morning was really good and we made some good progress. For this afternoon’s session, we changed a couple of things to see if they helped. We’re keeping the tradition, though, of not getting a lap time on reds (Firestone alternate tires), between traffic and red flags and yellows. We are farther down than I think we should be. We should be quite a bit quicker, probably seven or eight tenths faster than what we were. We’re not a million miles away. We just need a few more small improvements to get me a bit more comfortable with the car.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “That was a really good session. It’s nice to end up at the front here at Barber. It’s one of my favorite tracks, I really enjoy it. The session was good right from the get-go on black (Firestone primary) tires. We were quite fast, then when we put the reds (Firestone alternate tires) on, the car just gained more grip. Sometimes when you put them on, it can really change the balance, but this time it felt really good. We were able to get a little more out of the car in pretty much every corner. I’m very happy with the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy so far, hopefully we can keep it up there.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “The car is really fast. It was a really good session to start. But unfortunately, we had a bit of a spin on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) trying a little too hard, I guess. That’s what you have to do before qualifying. You have to find the limits, but I’m very happy with the Menards car. I think we’ll be in great shape tomorrow.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “So far, it’s just been really nice to have experience at this track, which makes it a little easier coming in. We’ve been trying a lot of things today and I think we were a little stronger in the morning than this afternoon. We have a bit to go back and look at, but compared to where I was here last year, it’s night and day difference. I’m just happy to have the opportunity that we do, and we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “This morning was definitely a struggle for all of us. I think the No. 27 car was the most outside of the window, but we made a lot of improvements over lunch. We have something to be positive about going into this evening and looking forward to tomorrow. I think we need to take one or two steps in a similar direction, but if we can do that, I think the Kerauno car will be good enough for the Firestone Fast Six.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I think we made steady progress through the day. We started out with the rear of the car way too exposed, too loose through most corners. We needed to bring it more into the window, which I think we did in the final session, considering we didn’t get a full run on new red tires due to a red flag. I think the DHL car has some good pace in it, so hopefully we can make the next step tomorrow.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “The second session was better. I think we made some good progress from the first one. The first session was a little bit of finding the right direction to go in and it seems we found one. Still, we have a little work to be done Saturday. Having said that, there was quite a few yellows and red flags that interrupted the session. I know everyone is in the same boat, but our best lap was like a rerun and we were never able to do a long run, so it’s a little gray on how we will be for Sunday (in the race). We lost some downforce compared to last year and the tires have quite a good drop-off, or degradation, so after you use them the first or second timed lap, the tires are losing a lot of grip. It’s not a huge amount, we’re talking about a small amount, but it’s enough to make a difference. We are trying a different kind of philosophy in terms of the mechanical setup, trying to match the balance and grip level of where we were last year, so that’s why everyone is trying different things. Some people struggle, some people find a happy place.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I think that the practice went well in the beginning. We did find some improvement, so it went better and better. Then we put the red tires on and I tried to push hard and maybe a little too much. I then lost the car, it went straight into the wall. It was a little bit too late with my hands, taking them off the steering wheel, so my left hand hurts a little bit.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Tough day for us today. We had a mechanical issue towards the end of Practice 2, so it cut our time on track short. I know the Harding Racing guys are working hard to make sure everything will be good to go tomorrow for Practice 3 and qualifying. We’ll keep at it tonight to be ready to push tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “The Kerauno car was decent today, and coming out of Friday in the top 10 is a good place to start the weekend. We have a few things we want to work on overnight that I think will help the car be even better, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Hoping to make it into the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow and challenge for the pole.”