Alberico’s next step arrives, with Carlin, Rising Star in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

A Dubai-based Brit, a Puerto Rican and a Californian walk into an English pub.

OK, so it’s not a pub but it is an English team now competing in the U.S. (Carlin), but the setup for the joke is that the trio of Ed Jones, Felix Serralles and Neil Alberico sounds like an eclectic combination on paper.

Once the new Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season starts, they’ll be a powerful trio.

While Jones and Serralles head into their sophomore seasons, Alberico makes his long-awaited and deserved step up into Indy Lights, the final rung on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder.

It comes after a five-year odyssey dating back to 2011, the first of two years when Alberico won the Team USA Scholarship (he also won in 2013). It launched him into the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship in 2012 and prepared him for his eventual rise up the ladder.

Quite honestly, the luck or timing hasn’t been there for him. Alberico is arguably the most talented driver to have not won any MRTI title the last few years, having come up on the short end of USF2000 (2013) and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires (2015) titles in recent years. He won four Pro Mazda and six USF2000 races in those two years, and also won the 2013 Cooper Tires WinterFest title in USF2000.

Nonetheless, Alberico has soldiered on, thanks to Rising Star Racing’s support and a longtime friendship with Geoff Fickling, Carlin’s ace engineer.

Alberico, 23, who’s recently moved from Los Gatos to San Clemente, California, finally had the stars align with Fickling after a long courtship to drive for Carlin in Indy Lights this season.

“Since Geoff Fickling and I have been good friends for several years, between racing in America and with his being in California and a supporter of the Team USA Scholarship, he’s had his eye on me,” Alberico told NBC Sports.

“He’s moved around; at Pelfrey, he tried to get me there. Then he was at Belardi and I said, ‘Well, I’ll still be in Pro Mazda.’ So it’s been several years in the making.

“Last year, he landed at Carlin, and immediately introduced me to the team. I’d met Colin Hale (Carlin’s team manager) at Barber and they were curious. It all depended on money and if I won (the title), great, but it would take some work. Once the season was over, more serious conversation would happen.”

The culmination of this step up into Indy Lights comes after two years each in USF2000 and Pro Mazda, a similar path as taken by Spencer Pigot, Alberico’s countryman, Rising Star Racing teammate and fellow past Team USA Scholarship winner.

The Rising Star Racing component – the business initiative led by Art Wilmes to assemble partnerships to help further American drivers careers (more on this in a separate post) – was crucial to Alberico making that next step into Indy Lights, where budgets generally are just over $1 million for a full season.

“To be honest, we didn’t have the money (on our own) to do the full budget,” Alberico explained. “Doug Mockett agreed to fund a test day, and that got the ball rolling.

“Then there’s Rising Star Racing sponsors like PennGrade – their announcement helped make a bigger presence in IndyCar and throughout the sport – so that helps Spencer and I both.

“Both Rising Star Racing and Carlin have gone above and beyond to meet our needs and our situation we’re in.”

Alberico has had two tests, for a total of three test days thus far. The aforementioned first test was a private single-day test to get acclimated with the car, before the second test, a series test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in late January.

Inevitably, the new Dallara IL-15 Mazda took some slight getting used to but wasn’t that big of an adjustment.

“It’s a different driving style to get the most out of the Cooper Tires. There’s a smaller window to run a mega lap in Indy Lights,” Alberico said.

“The brake pressure, the bigger tire and more downforce all exist. You have to make sure you figure that out and be confident with it.

“There’s stages of learning before working on the finer details. Braking is one of them. It’s twice the horsepower compared to Pro Mazda. You have to be a little more gentle on throttle application. Stick to the fundamentals, and see what all the pieces are.”

Alberico noted how impressed he is not just with his teammates, but the Trevor Carlin-led organization.

“I don’t put any pressure on myself in terms of winning; that will come with time,” he said. “I have a really strong team with a good lineup, both veterans and both race winners. Arguably, we’ll have the best data. I think that’s a pretty good scenario versus a one-car team or having another rookie as a teammate. I’ll have some catching up to do, but I don’t expect to be off pace.

“Carlin; it’s really impressive what their resources are. I wouldn’t have signed if I didn’t believe in them. They have an incredible reputation.

“The general reason behind is that, they have a formula system built for success and for winning. That’s why it’s successful. Think of it as a business. It works because of the system to the product. It’ll do well. I think Carlin has that.”

Even though it’s a new team and a new series for him, Alberico still enters with an earlier deal than he did this time last year, when he started his second season with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing in Pro Mazda.

“Yeah it was tough last year to be honest. I knew the Capes and getting in, it was pretty fluid and seamless. But it couldn’t have been more than two weeks before St. Pete race we finalized the deal,” he said.

“Then the Capes rebuilt the car, we did Roebling Road and did a shakedown. That was my first time in a Pro Mazda car, just a week before St. Pete, since the last race the year before. It was months out of the car.

“This year’s different, and refreshing. You know you’ll get some oval test days. It’s early February. It’s a way better situation this year, and hopefully that helps out.”