MONTEREY, Calif. – The Verizon IndyCar Series is in need of new teams on its grid, and the two most likely newest teams to enter on a full-time basis, Carlin and Juncos Racing, are in agreement they’d rather build it the right way methodically for 2018 rather than attempt to rush into 2017.
While not impossible, it’s doubtful either two of the leading Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires teams will step up on a full-time basis next season, although neither ruled out any “toe in the water” effort ahead of any potential step up.
Trevor Carlin has plenty of drivers who’ve come through his team in Europe who are now in IndyCar and courtesy of his team’s impressive and first-class arrival into Indy Lights in 2015, it’d be nice to see the Carlin name join the IndyCar grid with the same level of anticipation.
Although the potential exists to run in 2017, a full-time Carlin bow seems likelier in 2018.
As Carlin explained, the planning and talking process takes a few years, and it may not be an immediate step up even though the rumors continue to percolate.
“We keep working on it,” Carlin told NBC Sports. “We’ve tried lots of different approaches, with investors, with sponsors, with a partnership with another team.
“So we’re looking at maybe six different options. If one of them came off, that would be the next couple of months, then we’ll do it next year. But if they don’t we’ll keep working on it on the firm belief that when the time is right, that things happen.
“It’s a bit like with Lights, I talked about it for quite a long time wanting to come to America. It was probably five years from the first time I mentioned it to us doing it. It’s just the chain of events, and it will be the same with IndyCar.”
Who could Carlin potentially have in IndyCar, if the team were to step up down the road?
“There’s quite a few [alumni],” he said. “They know us. I would imagine those guys [Aleshin, Sato, Kimball, among others] would probably be beyond our reach initially.
“There’s Ed and Felix, they’d be contenders for us. If we got a full sponsor or something, then why wouldn’t I look further afield to people like da Costa and Vergne and people like that? New faces to the championship. Obviously Aleshin did it with us.”
Carlin is targeting another pair of three-car efforts in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires in 2017, with three cars expected to continue in Indy Lights and three the likely number for the new Carlin Benik team in Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.
For Ricardo Juncos, who fields both a two-car Indy Lights program and three-car Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires program this year, the impending opening of its new shop in Speedway, Ind. – moving from Brownsburg – takes foremost precedence.
“Most likely, yes [to 2018],” Juncos told NBC Sports. “A big rule change is coming up for IndyCar [in 2018].
“Next year I don’t think technically, realistically we can do it. We’re moving to the new shop. We need to solidify the Indy Lights team. That’s too new. Yes, we won the championship last year and we’re still in it this year but we need to get better at many things, and we will.
“So next year we’ll focus on that, and the new shop will allow us to do things different and better. We need to optimize that first, and maybe ’18 will be better to do something.”
Juncos’ more immediate team targets are solidifying an expected two and possible three-car Indy Lights program for 2017, but he’s unsure at the moment whether his Pro Mazda team – which he’s operated since 2009 – will be back next year.
(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)
Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality
It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.
“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.
“Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew, personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”
During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.
The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.
The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.
“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”
So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).
Starting with Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).
“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”
Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.
James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”
Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.
“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.
“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”
James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.
“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”
“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”
Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.
“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.
“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”
Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She initially was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing — but also its competitive fire.
“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving,” Grisham said. “It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.
“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”