Franzoni and Juncos. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Juncos Racing’s title double caps surreal year for team

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A year ago, Ricardo Juncos and his Juncos Racing team entered the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with far more questions and uncertainty about its future than it did at this year’s season finale at Watkins Glen International.

Twice a champion in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires ranks, Juncos was staring down the barrel of its first winless season in the series, and was all set to end its program and sell off its equipment following a challenging, disappointing campaign.

Additionally the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires program had fell from title contention after Spencer Pigot brought home the 2015 championship. Kyle Kaiser had won his first couple races in the series but still made a few too many mistakes to have a realistic shot at capturing the crown. He debated whether he’d move into IndyCar and the team’s second driver, Zachary Claman De Melo, opted to leave after one year and move to Carlin for 2017.

For good measure, the team had its state of the art, 41,000-square foot new shop in downtown Speedway, Ind. it was all set to move into – all while not knowing what the state of its MRTI efforts for 2017 would be, and what the scale of its potential Verizon IndyCar Series program could be.

Although the shop’s grand opening occurred in early December to coincide with the Performance Racing Industry trade show, all that was settled on the driver front was Kaiser and Nicolas Dapero in Indy Lights. Meetings began between Juncos and INDYCAR, particularly Jay Frye and Mark Sibla, to see the team begin its entry into the primary series and fulfill his dream.

PRO MAZDA’S LAST-MINUTE RUN

All the while, Pro Mazda was only there as a back-burner option with the equipment sold and no plans to run… until the week before the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla.

That’s when after a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway where Victor Franzoni and gentleman driver and automotive dealer Jeff Green out of Peoria, Ill. helped launch a story that will go down in open-wheel ladder history lore.

Jeff Green was the unsung hero of the Pro Mazda season. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Franzoni, the 21-year-old Brazilian, had planned for another year of Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda competition with ArmsUp Motorsports, where he overachieved for the Sheboygan Falls, Wis.-based team in 2016, before the Pro Mazda opportunity arose thanks in large part to Green’s support.

“We were in a tough situation looking at February and March when we decided three days before St. Pete to do Pro Mazda,” Juncos told NBC Sports. “Actually I was thinking, how can I avoid firing my guys? They have families and you’re always thinking about it.

“We actually tried to do GTS in Pirelli World Challenge (with Maseratis)… and we put out some news about it. But we didn’t do it and it didn’t happen.

“We had the IndyCar program coming but we didn’t know how to use my guys. I used the Pro Mazda guys for IndyCar. And we were able to do that without losing concentration on both our Indy Lights and Pro Mazda championships.”

Franzoni elaborated on how late in the game this all came together, but he was used to it given his previous three years in the Mazda Road to Indy.

“I had a big sponsor, then two terrible years in Europe, then I lost that. The Mazda Road to Indy was my only option, and my only place for hope,” Franzoni told NBC Sports. “In Europe, they don’t care for the drivers. They only care for the money. You pay; it’s done!

“But I’ve had help every year here. Afterburner was big help, M1 Racing was a big help, then ArmsUp was a huge help. But then Juncos gave me an amazing year.”

Green, Franzoni and Martin in St. Pete. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Franzoni and Green’s relationship grew at the outset of the year as Green acquired the equipment, advancing into the series from vintage racing, and saw the potential and effervescent smile from Franzoni to keep him going. And considering some of Franzoni’s teammates in Europe, in Formula Renault, a quote that followed next said a lot.

“For sure he’s the best teammate I’ve had… and I’ve had Daniil Kvyat and Ocon before!” Franzoni laughed. “I’ve had a lot of big names as teammates. But he was the best one for sure. He helped me a lot this year. Without him, the team wouldn’t have come back for the series.”

MONTH OF MAY PUSHES BOTH DRIVERS TO POINTS LEADS

The months ahead were crucial for Juncos Racing’s push towards its massive success in both series while also preparing for its landmark moment after 15 years in North America – making its debut in the Indianapolis 500.

Franzoni banked a pair of runner-up finishes in St. Petersburg behind Anthony Martin, but it was a weekend sweep at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that asserted himself as a true title contender. It followed on the team’s successful Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test where Franzoni and Juncos, working together for the first time, set a track record.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Additionally, Kaiser, the 21-year-old out of Santa Clara, Calif., had ironed out the mistakes that had plagued his first two seasons in the series and opened the year with great consistency. Finishes of sixth, fourth, second, second and third before his first win of the year on the IMS road course propelled him into the points lead in mid-May.

“I’ve always had huge confidence in the team. I have a ton of faith in their ability,” Kaiser told NBC Sports in May. “We’re never satisfied. The first two years, we struggled a lot here. We said we’d figure it out. This year, we were pretty quick the whole weekend. I love their drive and passion to get better, wherever we are. This will be a huge month for the team.

Kaiser elected not to run the Indy 500 this year as well with Juncos, instead focusing solely on Indy Lights – a move that ultimately paid dividends.

“You gather it up and remember the objective – it’s to win the Indy Lights championship. I wanted to, but it didn’t all line up, so it’s not the right time,” he said.

Franzoni added on the same weekend, “We tested, which was super important. We don’t have anymore tests planned. So it’ll be difficult here to the end of season. This was my second race with Juncos Racing. We need this for the championship.”

Despite the “any more tests” line, Green and Franzoni completed a one-day test at Watkins Glen later in the year, which paid huge dividends down the road.

Juncos Racing has debuted. Photo: IndyCar

Meanwhile, Juncos Racing completed the Indy 500 with both cars, Pigot coming home 18th after fighting an ill-handling car and Sebastian Saavedra overachieving for a solid 15th. With the former KVSH Racing equipment, this result was a culmination of Juncos’ dream, not fully secured until the checkered flag flew.

“The Indy 500 when we finished the race was everything,” Juncos said. “Starting was good, as I saw the ‘500 several times from outside. But inside, it’s very different. We were making history for my own country. But there’s so much tension. We had to finish and when the checkered flag flew, that was a relief. I will remember it forever.”

SUMMER TITLE BATTLES PUSH BOTH DRIVERS TO BRINK

Martin (8) and Franzoni (23) had an intense battle today. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Franzoni had Martin to deal with and the weekends at Road America and Mid-Ohio brought significant tension between the two of them at times.

Franzoni politely as possible accused Martin of blocking him at Road America, halting a potential last-to-first charge and ending a hard-luck second. Meanwhile, Martin felt aggrieved at Mid-Ohio when trying to lap Green, but instead thinking Green had spun on purpose to allow Franzoni through to the lead – as it was Green was actually trying to let both of the leaders through unscathed but just lost the rear end.

Kyle Kaiser with Peter Dempsey after victory in Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Kaiser hadn’t solidified his stamp on the title until Toronto, as he had pressure from any of Nico Jamin, Colton Herta, Santiago Urrutia, Matheus Leist, Zachary Claman De Melo or Aaron Telitz – but none of them having had a consistent enough run to quite supplant it. Either through unreliability or mistakes, each of those other six drivers fell out of the picture, and Kaiser’s weekend sweep north of the border all but assured his title.

All the while, Juncos – at the helm – never lost focus of either program with sole attention back on the MRTI after the Indy 500 bow.

“That guy knows how to handle pressure!” Kaiser told NBC Sports at Watkins Glen. “He can be everywhere and take care of so much stuff to be a great team owner. Any stress he may have had in the Pro Mazda program, I haven’t had to worry about any of that in the Indy Lights program all year. It’s been great. He does a good job at separating the two.”

Franzoni, meanwhile, described how tough Martin pushed him over this summer stretch of races.

“Anthony was the best and worst guy to fight for championship,” he reflected. “As a driver he’s exactly like me, which is the problem! He’s so aggressive and fast. No mistakes. He’s good at setup. Fast all the time. It’s like competing with myself. It’s difficult. Any other driver would be easier for both of us to beat.”

THE GATEWAY TO TITLE SUCCESS

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The final oval for Indy Lights and the lone one for Pro Mazda – the 1.25-mile Gateway Motorsports Park – proved the ultimate test for both programs in their title pursuit, and it left Juncos concerned after a tough Mid-Ohio weekend. Kaiser’s pair of 12th-place finishes brought the field back to him while Franzoni trailed Martin and was behind on pace during the weekend.

“The lowest point this year was probably right before Gateway,” Juncos admitted. “We thought we couldn’t do it. We managed to do both. The formation of IndyCar team was a lot of stress, but I knew it was going to happen. These titles, we didn’t.”

What followed in both races was both huge gambles and huge tour de forces from Kaiser and Franzoni that all but assured them the titles heading to Watkins Glen.

Juncos made a radical setup change to trim out – Franzoni admitted post-race he went ahead with it despite zero confidence – and promptly passed Martin for the lead, and the win, on the outside of Turns 1 and 2. That netted him the title lead in Pro Mazda.

“Gateway showed how confident he was in the whole combination of the team, with the way we work and express our thinking,” Juncos said of Franzoni. “When you believe in yourself and the team and the setup, the driver will get it and it’s a combination. If there’s not the trust, you lose a bit.

“We didn’t have an option. When you don’t have an option, and I know myself, you just have to make it happen.”

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Kaiser, then, delivered a statement, bounce back drive after Mid-Ohio. Fourth place came after a couple great passes, surviving incorrect tire pressure, a few near misses and a deep exhale. With a 31-point lead leaving, Kaiser needed only to start at Watkins Glen to clinch the title.

“Gateway was definitely the closing weekend. That weekend really sealed this,” Kaiser said. “We knew anything could happen here and we’d be fine. We just had to start the race. We executed, and we did what we needed to do. I wanted to get on the podium but knowing where I was, being fourth with three laps to go, I just had to bring it home.

“That restart, I almost put it in the wall but I didn’t – I saved it! That was a season-saving catch, for sure.”

SEALING THE DEAL IN STYLE AT THE GLEN

Before Watkins Glen, Juncos Racing had made two other pieces of news. The team announced a purchase of three Tatuus PM-18 cars for the 2018 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires season. Additionally, it announced it’d be collecting donations for trucks of supplies to then drive from Indianapolis to Texas for Hurricane Harvey relief.

On track, Kaiser’s final race was simply about surviving – seventh wasn’t the ultimate result but knowing his race was in the rain and the importance of bringing the car in one piece, it was fine for him to cap off four years of growth with the team, the last three in Indy Lights.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

But Franzoni’s weekend, first passing Martin for the lead on the outside in Saturday’s race, then crushing it in the wet on Sunday, was the stuff of legend that will be looked back on so fondly.

The dream for all three parties – Juncos, Kaiser and Franzoni – has been achieved, with Juncos becoming the first team to win two MRTI titles in the same year.

Kaiser and Juncos celebrate title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

For Juncos, these titles come after taking on a year with significant financial risk – and coming out the other side with everything achieved. He hailed every member of his team, and family, as family. As it stands now, he plans for an IndyCar program of at least three and up to five races next year, with or without Kaiser alongside.

For Kaiser, his title propels him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, which was an unlikely thought for those who saw him at the start of his MRTI career but shows how well the ladder works.

For Franzoni, it means he has his next season confirmed more than a week before the new year, and after a year of being a go-kart mechanic, sharing rooms, coming with his family and assisting the BN Racing team throughout its campaign, he now has his best shot at IndyCar. He expects to stay with Juncos Racing in Indy Lights next season, although that won’t be formally confirmed until Mazda Motorsports posts its scholarship driver release after December.

“Ricardo’s not only a team owner but he’s really a good mechanic and engineer. It’s a family,” Franzoni said. “Everyone, the engineers, mechanics… they all came from when they arrived in U.S. and started in go-karts. We have the same history, but in different ways. They started so small in go-karts, and made a great team; I started without money, also in go-karts. Now we’re together in Indy Lights. It’s the same kind of career. It’s why he believes in me and helps me.”

Juncos added, “It’s the best weekend ever so far. We’ve won championships in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights before, but both this year in the same year we did the Indy 500, it’s been amazing.

“We gambled big time. We knew it. Sometimes if I think more, I wouldn’t do it! Many things in my life I do without thinking. It was a huge risk. I talked to my wife, we said let’s do it, and here we are – we’re champions.”

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500