Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Juncos Racing enters IndyCar with a glittering MRTI resume

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For years, the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires has long been considered a training ground for drivers, and some crew members, to prepare and develop before moving into the Verizon IndyCar Series.

It hasn’t, yet, seen a full team that began in the Road to Indy step up into IndyCar. But when Juncos Racing announced its intentions to build a new 40,000-square foot shop in Speedway, Ind., called the Juncos Technical Center, it was always part of the longer-term plan that an IndyCar team would eventually be part of the program. It has now arrived with an entry into the 101st Indianapolis 500 in 2017.

Ricardo Juncos’ team last major step from Pro Mazda into Indy Lights in 2015 produced better results than even he had imagined, as Spencer Pigot won the championship in the team’s first year.

“We got a good opportunity when we won the Pro Mazda championship with Spencer,” Juncos told reporters on a teleconference Wednesday.” The original idea before ’14 was try to fight for that championship. If we were able to win it, that we have a good chance to put together an Indy Lights team, which we did.

“But to be honest, we just showed up in 2015 taking a very difficult championship with a top-class worldwide teams with ex-Formula 1 drivers in the series (Max Chilton, and later Nelson Piquet Jr. at Carlin). It was very difficult. Our first initial thinking was, Let’s do our best, we were joking if we could win a race, that would be great. We ended up winning six races and a championship. Of course, that give us a lot of confidence.

“The continuation of the team was exactly what we was kind of did before in the Pro Mazda. Obviously that, like you said, one is coming from go-kart before then, then Pro Mazda, and Indy Lights was a lot of questions. Winning the championship give us a lot of confidence going forward.

“So I’m seeing this Indy car more as a same thing, as a continuation of what we done. We just going to keep doing what we normally do.”

Juncos will continue in Indy Lights this year with at least two cars (Kyle Kaiser, Nico Dapero), but has no immediate plans to return to Pro Mazda having sold off his equipment there. The USF2000 championship, meanwhile, introduces a new Tatuus USF-17 chassis this year which can be adapted for Pro Mazda use (Tatuus PM-18) starting in 2018, with a few part changeovers.

“To be honest, we actually are not going to run the Pro Mazda this year. Unfortunately after being eight years with four cars, we cannot do it. We going to focus obviously on Indy Lights, Indy car now, and some other stuff,” he said.

“Going into ’18, we’ll see. The problem is that as much as I want to have, is not that easy to just keep building teams. I want to do things right and control the things, which sometimes is difficult.”

So who is Juncos Racing and what have they accomplished in the Mazda Road to Indy? It’d be easier to work backwards and note the alumni of drivers who’ve delivered success for the team:

2016: Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires (Kyle Kaiser, Zachary Claman De Melo) and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires (Garett Grist, Will Owen, Nico Dapero, Jake Parsons). Kaiser won twice and finished third in the Indy Lights standings, while Dapero scored his maiden win in Pro Mazda at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca season finale.

2015: Indy Lights (Spencer Pigot, Kaiser) and Pro Mazda (Owen, Grist, Timothe Buret, Jose Gutierrez). Pigot won the championship in the team’s step back up to Indy Lights with six race wins, in three weekend sweeps. Grist (twice) and Buret (once) won in Pro Mazda and Grist finished third in points.

2014: Pro Mazda (Gutierrez, Kaiser, Pigot, Julia Ballario). Pigot won the title with six wins, having survived an insane weekend battling Scott Hargrove for the title at Sonoma. Kaiser and Gutierrez won the two races that weekend and finished sixth and seventh in points.

2013: Pro Mazda (Gutierrez, Ballario, Scott Anderson, Diego Ferreira). Ferreira won the season opener and finished second in points, with Anderson fifth. Andretti’s Matt Brabham dominated the season.

2012: Star Mazda (Ferreira, Connor De Phillippi, Bruno Palli, Martin Scuncio). De Phillippi won twice, Scuncio once as De Phillippi came fourth in points in a deep field. He’s now gone onto success in sports car racing with Porsche and more recently Audi. The team also made its Indy Lights debut with Chase Austin, JV Horto and Bruno Palli in selected races.

2011: Star Mazda (Horto, Scuncio, Tatiana Calderon, Gustavo Menezes, Richard Heistand). Horto led the way there with a win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and fourth in points. Calderon and Menezes have eventually gone onto success in Europe, Menezes in particular given his run in LMP2 with the Signatech Alpine team last year where he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the class championship.

2010: Star Mazda (Scuncio, Calderon, Conor Daly, Sean Bursytn, Rusty Mitchell, Hayden Duerson). Juncos’ most successful year prior to 2014 saw Daly win seven of 13 races, en route to the championship by 79 points over Anders Krohn, who’s since developed his own post-driving career in both broadcasting and driver and business development at CoForce.

2009: Star Mazda (Daly, Peter Dempsey). In Juncos’ first year in Star Mazda, Dempsey won five races and Daly one, but Dempsey endured a tough loss for the championship in the final race after being taken out by competitor Joel Miller. This opened the door for Adam Christodoulou to snatch that year’s Star Mazda title.

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

NHRA: How this weekend’s championship battles shape up

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After nine months and 23 races, the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season all comes down to this: one race for the championship.

This weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, California will crown champions in a number of classes, most notably the four professional ranks of Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

This weekend’s race is one of only two – the other is the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day Weekend – that offers drivers 1.5 times as many points as they earn in the season’s other 22 races.

To give you a better idea of how valuable those extra points are, here’s how they break down for all four classes: Winner (150 points), runner-up (120 points), third-round loser (90), second-round loser (60) and first-round loser (30 points).

Drivers also earn qualifying points: 10 for first, 9 for second, 8 for third, 7 for fourth, 6 for fifth and sixth, 5 for seventh and eighth, 4 for ninth through 12th and 3 for 13th through 16th.

In addition, every driver that qualifies earns 15 points each. Plus, performance bonus points are awarded for each qualifying session for: low elapsed time of each session (4 points), second-quickest (3 points), third-quickest (2 points) and fourth-quickest (1 point).

Here’s a quick breakdown of what – and more importantly, who – to watch for in those four pro categories:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence is going for his second consecutive championship. But the route to this year’s title has not been nearly as easy as it was last year, when Torrence became the first driver in NHRA history to sweep all six races of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Steve Torrence (Photo: NHRA)

Torrence has still had a very strong season, but his championship hopes are anything but secure. He leads 2017 champion Brittany Force, who has come on strong late in the season, by a mere 16 points coming into this weekend.

And don’t count out third-ranked Doug Kalitta, who at 55 points behind Torrence is less than two rounds of points away from taking the top spot if Torrence is upset. Kalitta is seeking his first career Top Fuel championship.

Mathematically at 86 points behind, even fourth-ranked Billy Torrence – Steve’s father – is still in contention, although it would take a complete first- or second-round meltdown in Sunday’s four final rounds of eliminations by his son, Force and Kalitta for dear old dad to rally to win the championship.

Still, that’s the beauty of NHRA racing: anything can happen.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight is aiming for his third championship but has some of the best in the class all still within striking distance heading into this weekend.

Robert Hight (Photo: NHRA)

Hight, who is president of John Force Racing when he isn’t hurtling down a drag strip in his AAA Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro, leads a pair of Don Schumacher Racing drivers, Jack Beckman (46 points behind Hight) and Matt Hagan (-56).

And don’t rule out 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, who is 72 points behind his teammate. Force needs to win the race, as well as have Hight, Beckman and Hagan all lose in the first two rounds, to potentially earn his 17th championship.

Still in it mathematically is Bob Tasca III, but at 104 points behind Hight, he would likely have to be No. 1 qualifier, set both ends of the speed and elapsed time national records, and have the four drivers in front of him all be eliminated in the first or second rounds.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders has a very healthy lead in her quest for a third Pro Stock championship.

Erica Enders (Photo: NHRA)

Enders leads teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. by 92 points heading into this weekend.

Three other drivers are mathematically still in the running, but if Enders gets past the second round, they’ll be eliminated unless they potentially go on to victory.

Those three drivers – who are separated by just five points – are 2017 champion Bo Butner (113 points behind Enders), Jason Line (-116) and Matt Hartford (-118).

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: About the only way Andrew Hines fails to clinch his sixth career PSM championship is if he fails to qualify for Sunday’s finals, is kidnapped by one of his rivals or simply doesn’t show up.

Andrew Hines (Photo: NHRA)

Fat chance of any of those things happening.

Hines has a commanding 115-point lead over 2016 champion Jerry Savoie.

Right behind is three-time champ Eddie Krawiec (-116 points), leads last year’s PSM champion, Matt Smith, by 117 points and has a 124-point edge over Karen Stoffer.

Follow @JerryBonkowski