Considering its pedigree as one of the top teams in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, and discussed by many as a potential Verizon IndyCar Series entrant down the road, it was surprising that Juncos Racing more or less was not in realistic championship contention most of the 2016 season between its Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires programs.
Indeed, Ricardo Juncos’ Pro Mazda program – which debuted in 2009 and nearly won the championship from the off before Peter Dempsey, now one of that program’s race engineers, got speared by Joel Miller at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – almost went through its first winless season in the category, before Nicolas Dapero broke through this weekend to keep the streak alive.
The quartet of Garett Grist, Will Owen and rookies Dapero and Jake Parsons had flashes of success but rarely toppled both Team Pelfrey and Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, and Grist’s midseason departure from the team after the month of May left them down an experienced veteran in one of the four cars.
In a similar scenario, the Indy Lights program lost its most experienced driver as well, in the form of Spencer Pigot. The talented 22-year-old American captured both Pro Mazda and Indy Lights titles back-to-back for Juncos in 2014 and 2015 and properly advanced into the Verizon IndyCar Series this year.
Kyle Kaiser had a good second season in the championship and dominated at a couple events, including this weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where he secured his second win of the season.
Meanwhile Zachary Claman De Melo made the rather significant climb from karting into Indy Lights and spent the year learning and making his fair share of mistakes.
In spite of any challenges, Juncos has a lot going for him, and his team. The Argentine who came to the U.S. with hardly any money back in the day is finishing completion of his team’s new $3 million, 41,000-square-foot facility situated at the corner of Gilman Street and Allison Way in Speedway, with groundbreaking having occurred in mid-January. The new shop, which will mark the team’s relocation from Brownsburg, Ind., is scheduled to open in mid-October.
“Yes, it’s still on target. It’s like mid-October, I think October 15,” Juncos told NBC Sports. “There’s another month to go. We’re fine tuning the little things and we should be ready to move late October.”
And the Indy Lights team did still win races in a year when the competition level increased. Kaiser’s wins kept Juncos in the win column along with other teams including Belardi Auto Racing, Carlin, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian and Andretti Autosport – only Team Pelfrey failed to win among the full-time teams in a field that featured as many as 16 cars.
Juncos reflected on the 2016 campaign, one that was tough but ended well with both Kaiser and Dapero scoring wins this weekend, and with the new shop opening in slightly over a month.
“Yeah, it’s been difficult. It’s been a little bit harder this year than last,” Juncos said. “There’s been more good quantity and quality of drivers. For us, it’s been pretty similar. We’ve done some development. You see how many winners and drivers in the championship there’s been.”
Juncos said both Indy Lights drivers he’s had this year have been solid.
“Kyle last season may have been a bit early to jump to Indy Lights. But having Kyle alongside Spencer was good, and you can see how much better he’s been this year with that experience.
“With Zach, it’s hard. He has no experience, coming from go-karts. He has speed that he’s shown in the championship but when there’s mistakes… that’s where he’s paying the price.”
Claman De Melo could return for a second season as part of a two-car or potentially three-car Indy Lights lineup next season.
The Pro Mazda season was tougher. Dapero won at Mazda Raceway and his three podiums this weekend gave him five for the year. Owen grabbed eight podiums, Grist had three before he left, and Parsons added two more.
Juncos hailed Dapero’s improvement over the course of the season.
“Nico Dapero coming from go-karts did a very good job,” Juncos said. “He was fast in Mid-Ohio and he’s been good here. He doesn’t fully know how to maximize qualifying yet… depending on how he uses the tires and faces a little bit of pressure in races. But that will come with time.
“I wish we could restart the championship this weekend! But it sort of took us the whole championship to learn how we worked as a group and how the new kids drove the car.”
For 2017, Juncos wants the Indy Lights team to get better and that, coupled with the shop move, may put a potential IndyCar program on the backburner.
At the same point, Juncos has taken a sense of pride with the success Pigot and Conor Daly have had in IndyCar this year.
“I’m happy. We try to focus on what we do every day, but yeah as you said, Conor Daly and Spencer Pigot are doing well and having come through our team at one point… and going back, we had Spencer in go-karts,” he said.
“Yes, we are where we are today and we never expected it like this, but we have to keep going and get better.”