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.”