The 2017 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season has been feast or famine for some drivers expected to be championship favorites.
Colton Herta has two wins and one additional podium, but has also recorded five finishes of tenth or worse. Aaron Telitz, too, is a race winner this year and has four additional finishes of fifth or better to his name, but his season has also been blighted by three finishes of 11th or worse.
Matheus Leist (15th and 11th), Nico Jamin (13th and 14th), and Zachary Claman De Melo (14th, 11th, and 10th) are also race winners who have suffered poor finishes at various times this year.
This highlights a remarkable aspect of Kyle Kaiser’s 2017 campaign. The Juncos Racing driver, in his third Indy Lights season, has finished every lap of the season so far, scored a victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course (Race 2), finished on the podium five additional times, and has a worst finish of ninth. In fact, his season results run as follows: 6-4-2-2-3-1-9-3-2.
The remarkable run of consistency has propelled Kaiser to the lead of the Indy Lights championship as the series heads to Iowa Speedway next weekend.
However, one should not mistake Kaiser’s consistency for conservative driving. As he explained after Road America, running conservatively could leave him vulnerable to other competitors, so he remains as aggressive as he can be.
“I don’t want to put myself at risk by not being defensive or not being aggressive. I’m trying to drive the way I normally drive and hope everybody else respects the racing room,” Kaiser asserted.
Multiple factors have converged to see Kaiser leap to the fore, but the engineering side of the team may be the biggest. Kaiser currently works with Peter Dempsey, a former competitor in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires and current Indy Lights engineer at Juncos Racing, and the relationship between the two has been a productive one.
“I like Peter a lot,” Kaiser said of Dempsey’s influence. “He worked with me in Pro Mazda, so we had a really good relationship. He’s been super helpful.”
The leadership of Juncos Technical Director Ernesto Gonella has also been a big influence. And while his style is a little unorthodox, as Kaiser explained, it’s highly effective.
“He just goes by feel. Every morning, he goes ‘What does the air feel like?’ He’s really cool, I love the way he works. He totally relates to the driver, which makes it a lot easier.”
The next race at Iowa Speedway presents a unique challenge for Indy Lights as the lone short oval on the calendar, and Kaiser has personal experience with the difficulties of driving on short ovals. “I had a little accident there last year in practice, and that really was a wake-up call. You got to respect these short ovals.”
However, given that his first Indy Lights win came on a short oval (Phoenix Raceway, 2016), Kaiser is confident his run of success will continue. “I like the short ovals. I got my first win at Phoenix, so I think we’ll have a good setup and hopefully we’ll be up front again.”
Kaiser heads to Iowa Speedway with a 27-point lead over Matheus Leist in the championship standings.
A trio of new teams (Harding Racing, Juncos Racing, and Michael Shank Racing, in a joint effort with Andretti Autosport) debuted at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Expectations for such outfits are usually humble and rarely do outsiders, or even insiders, predict such efforts to run up front.
And yet, at the checkered flag, one of those teams emerged in ninth place, a top-10 finish in its IndyCar debut.
Harding Racing’s No. 88 Chevrolet, in the hands of Gabby Chaves, had never run a race before, let alone an IndyCar race, and let alone an Indianapolis 500. However, they survived the carnage and chaos that defined the day to finish in the top-10, dramatically exceeding expectations.
Chaves was competing in his third “500,” two years after winning rookie-of-the-year honors with a 16th place for Bryan Herta Autosport. He labeled this race as mission: accomplished.
“I think we did our job. We took the race one lap at a time. We let the track and the conditions come to us and we dialed in the No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet car every stop,” Chaves said. “We had a heck of a stint there. I think we were one of the only cars being able to make moves out there and got into a solid top ten for our first go as a team.”
Fellow debutante Juncos Racing, too, excelled in their own right. While their runs to 15th (Sebastian Saavedra) and 18th (Spencer Pigot) were unspectacular, the reality is that both cars made it to the finish, with Saavedra finishing on the lead lap, a noteworthy performance for a team making its first IndyCar start.
Saavedra, like Chaves, said the team accomplished everything it wanted to. “We accomplished the mission we started less than two months ago,” he asserted. “To finish this first Indy 500 with both cars intact is a victory of its own. I’m very proud of the whole organization for putting in such a professional effort. It was rough out there. We were not as competitive as we wanted, but hey, that’s something that is expected your first time out.”
Teammate Spencer Pigot endured a more difficult race in his No. 11 Chevrolet, which the team scrambled to repair ahead of qualifying after a practice crash. As Pigot described, something was still off with the car (he was nearly lapped at the end of the opening stint) and he and the team were fighting it the entire day.
“I think there’s still something I’m missing or something’s gone away with the car since the (practice) crash. It never really felt right and it was just very difficult to drive, but we fought through a tough day. We didn’t give up. The guys kept working hard and I can’t thank them enough for the recovery and for putting this all together,” Pigot detailed.
Michael Shank Racing, the third team making its Verizon IndyCar Series debut, endured the most challenging race of the three new teams. For them, it was a race that concluded a difficult month riddled with problems, which began with a foreboding and bizarre steering failure that resulted in wall contact during opening day practice for driver Jack Harvey.
Harvey and Michael Shank’s No. 50 Honda team were enjoying a solid race until Conor Daly’s lap 65 crash in Turn 3. Harvey hit debris from the accident and spun into the inside wall between Turns 3 and 4. It ended a difficult month for a driver and team who truly made a herculean effort to field an entry.
“It’s a super disappointing day because we worked so hard to get here so to have the day end like this is heartbreaking,” Harvey lamented afterward. “Everyone is trying to slow down so quickly and trying to then dodge the debris. I was slowing down and trying to avoid everything so I don’t know what else I could have done at that point.”
Still, Harvey was enthusiastic to simply have a chance to compete. “This was still the best experience I’ve ever had,” he asserted. “The Indianapolis 500 represents so much in the state of Indiana and to the racing world, but it just didn’t go the right way for us today.”
Of those three, Harding Racing is the only one scheduled to run more IndyCar races this year. They will return for the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10 and the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway on August 20.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
INDIANAPOLIS – Rain is expected to hit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway later today, which would push qualifying back during the day schedule or into tomorrow.
Practice is underway for two groups this morning, with a guaranteed 20 minutes of run time confirmed for each group. Because the session was on a slight hold to start, that pushed the scheduled times back a bit.
All cars are then eligible to participate from 9 to 9:30 a.m. After that, it goes into qualifying, scheduled from 11 a.m. to 5:50 p.m.
In layman’s terms, the easiest way to explain qualifying is that from the qualifying draw, it goes in order from there by primary cars (very few teams will qualify a backup car) and then it will shift into whether teams go into a line to make a second attempt. So although Sebastian Saavedra’s No. 17T AFS Chevrolet for Juncos Racing has the first draw, second-drawn Pippa Mann in the No. 63 Dale Coyne Racing Honda would be the first primary car to make an attempt.
The Fast Nine is meant to be set on the first day of qualifying. Speeds from today don’t count for anything, except who makes the Fast Nine and who will slot in in spots 10-33 thereafter, as speeds are wiped out.
However, if rain arrives as expected, INDYCAR will provide updates on the qualifying status as they become available.
The qualifying draw is linked below, followed by the infographic that explains how qualifying works.
In other notes from around the paddock yesterday and this morning:
A.J. Foyt Racing team director George Klotz confirmed to NBC Sports that Zach Veach’s No. 40 Indy Women in Tech Championship presented by Guggenheim Chevrolet will not be ready to run until Sunday morning. Repairs were coming together on the car after Veach’s accident in the final 20 minutes of Friday’s running, but with weather coming today and a tight window to shake the rebuilt car down this morning, the decision was taken to run Sunday next at the earliest.
As for Juncos Racing, team officials and the crew members worked through the night to repair the No. 11 Oceanfront Recovery Chevrolet for Spencer Pigot after his accident. Although Pigot also wasn’t out this morning, it proved a tireless bit of work and meshing by the Ricardo Juncos-led operation to get the car close to being assembled and back ready to go, ahead of the team’s Verizon IndyCar Series race debut.
In a weird note, Pigot and Veach were teammates for Ed Carpenter Racing at Barber three races ago, but now had incidents for other non-Carpenter teams on the same day. With Josef Newgarden having an incident on Thursday for Team Penske, the ex-ECR incident roster is long at the moment, while ECR has fortunately – to this point – avoided a repeat of its heavy crash run in practice in 2015.
On Friday, the 51st annual Louis Schwitzer Award has been presented to engineers Don Burgoon, James Borner, Darin Cate, Paul Rankin and Mark Wagner from PFC Brakes for the PFC carbon disc brake system. While PFC’s brakes were a story line at the season-opening St. Petersburg race weekend, the overall consistency and improved performance has shown through in the races since – a credit to the work done by the team led by PFC Director of Motorsports Darrick Dong, who was in attendance on Friday as well.
INDIANAPOLIS – Practice has resumed following a two-hour, 36-minute rain delay on “Fast Friday” for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Unfortunately for Spencer Pigot, his return to the track suffered an early ending.
The driver of the No. 11 Oceanfront Recovery Chevrolet for Juncos Racing lost control exiting Turn 2 and tattooed the wall sideways on exit. He then glided along the wall with significant damage to the nosecone, rear wheel guards and right side.
Pigot said he was unsure of what happened but was OK, as he was checked, released and cleared to drive.
“I’m not really sure. In Turn 2, hasn’t been an issue for us all week, before I knew it I was backwards. I’m fine,” Pigot said.
“The cars are pretty safe. Not that bad of a hit. I don’t think actual chassis is damaged. I think that’s a good sign. We’ll put new parts back on and be back out tomorrow.
“Earlier this afternoon the car felt very solid. We were trying to get more speed out this afternoon. Now we won’t get a chance to do that. You never want to be in this situation. We were comfortable earlier on today. If we put it back together.
“No unfortunately not. I took a bigger (hit) last year. Hopefully this is the last one for a while.”