Quartet of new owners provide enthusiastic jolt to IndyCar

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Formal confirmations in the last week of both Michael Shank and Trevor Carlin’s programs brings the number of new Verizon IndyCar Series entrants up to four for the 2018 season. These follow Ricardo Juncos and Mike Harding’s announced plans in the last several months.

For a series that opened 2017 with just eight teams following KV Racing Technology shuttering, to have a 50 percent increase to kick the number up to 12 teams in not even a 12-month window is an astronomical sign of progress for the championship.

Only Carlin, of the quartet, will be making its IndyCar debut at next season’s opening round at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Each of the other three premiered at this year’s Indianapolis 500 with varying degrees of success, but the groundwork was laid there for further opportunities either in later 2017 or at a greater scale in 2018.

Yes, the car count may be similar with 22 cars expected full-time and a 23rd and/or 24th running occasionally. But the fact the cars are spread among a greater variety of teams speaks better for the series’ diversity and point of entry.

The fact these teams all come in when there’s a new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit coming, that could all but level the playing field save for the manufacturer difference between Chevrolet and Honda, is no coincidence either. Cost of entry isn’t cheap, of course, but it’s still a viable option for all of them – particularly with the common kit set to be used over the next three years.

“Obviously we’re very proud of this,” Jay Frye, INDYCAR’s President of Competition and Operations, told NBC Sports. “It’s been a long process the last year and a half. We’ve worked with some more than others. But the process is with the five-year plan. They’re part of it.

“Them all coming in speaks to their ownership and their leadership, which will create great sustainability.”

Frye hailed each of these four programs’ efforts and methodical building to get to this point. The cliff notes version for each new entrant is below:

  • Carlin: Trevor Carlin’s team has been a staple of the European junior formula, winning countless races and championships over decades and with a “who’s who” list of alumni that have made it to Formula 1 and IndyCar. Established Indy Lights program in 2015, won the title in 2016 and won the Freedom 100 in 2017.
  • Harding Racing: Mike Harding’s Harding Group has been a sponsor of the sport and took the bigger plunge this year with Gabby Chaves in a three-race program. Top-10 in Indianapolis 500 debut planted the seed for further great runs at Texas and Pocono, and hiring of Brian Barnhart from INDYCAR as new team president solidifies team’s intent to compete at the highest level.
  • Michael Shank Racing: Longtime driver-turned-owner Mike Shank had an Atlantic team, and has run his successful sports car operation for nearly two decades. False start in IndyCar occurred in 2012 with chassis purchase but no engine deal, but renewed opportunity arose in 2017 in tandem with Andretti Autosport at Indianapolis 500, before chance to build with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has occurred for multi-year deal starting in 2018.
  • Juncos Racing: From almost nothing, Ricardo Juncos came to America from Argentina and built up team into a Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires powerhouse, winning Pro Mazda and Indy Lights titles along the way before sweeping both titles in the same year in 2017 with Victor Franzoni (Pro Mazda) and Kyle Kaiser (Indy Lights). Made debut at Indianapolis 500 with two cars, and both finished.

“They’ve all done it the right way,” Frye explained. “Whether it’s Trevor, with the way he’s done his programs and now his graduation, Harding with some races to get integrated, Michael, with the way he operates his sports car programs, and getting his feet wet, and Ricardo the same way with his Mazda (Road to Indy) success, they’ve all participated. It’s a big step, but we couldn’t be more pleased and proud. It adds a lot of excitement.”

Carlin will have a mix of its Indy Lights and European personnel in addition to some recently acquired IndyCar veterans as part of its engineering staff and overall crew, continuing at its Delray Beach, Fla. U.S. base with a satellite home in Indianapolis part-time. The aspiration of making it to IndyCar has been something of a lifelong dream for Trevor Carlin, the Brit who now sees the British team flying the flag in North America with two Carlin alumni in Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball behind the wheel of the two Chevrolet-powered entries.

Gabby Chaves during practice at Pocono Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

Harding has ramped up its involvement by coming to Speedway, Ind., moving into what had been Ed Carpenter Racing’s shop on Main Street. The Barnhart acquisition brings him back together with Al Unser Jr., the team’s driving coach, after the two enjoyed a pair of Indianapolis 500 victories working together in 1992 (Galles Racing) and 1994 (Team Penske). The underrated and oft-overlooked Gabby Chaves, the 2014 Indy Lights champion, will spearhead this team’s effort behind-the-wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Rumors of a second car persist but haven’t fully developed as it sits.

While these two teams jump in for full-time efforts, both Shank and Juncos will go forward in a methodical part-time manner this year with the plan to build towards more in 2019 and beyond.

Jack Harvey during Indy 500 practice. Photo: IndyCar

Shank’s six-race effort will run in tandem with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in a technical partnership, with Jack Harvey in the team’s No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda. With Shank also still running his two-car Acura NSX GT3 program in IMSA out of his shop in Columbus, Ohio, the plan is to find six IndyCar race weekends that don’t conflict. With only Iowa and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in July conflicting and with Shank preferring to focus on a road and street course program in IndyCar outside of the Indianapolis 500, that won’t be a problem to ensure a conflict-free campaign (St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Indianapolis 500 have been announced).

Juncos Racing has debuted. Photo: IndyCar

Juncos Racing also runs multiple programs, with the team’s excellent MRTI program rolling into 2018. The trio of Carlos Cunha, Robert Megennis and Rinus VeeKay has been announced for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires with the new Tatuus PM-18 Mazda, one of them hoping to emulate last year’s champion Franzoni or past Pro Mazda champs for Juncos Spencer Pigot and Conor Daly – both of whom made it to IndyCar – in the same position. While its Indy Lights drivers haven’t been announced, Franzoni is due to don the Soul Red colors on a Juncos entry once Mazda announces it and Nico Dapero is all-but-set to continue for a sophomore year. Kaiser has a four-race IndyCar program, the month of May confirmed with two others to be announced, and the team working on further opportunities.

For those observers who have paid attention to these teams in other championships, the caliber of operations from all of them can’t be denied. With their preparation, persistence and acquisition of talent, they’ll be an intriguing part of the 2018 IndyCar season, and laying the groundwork for successful futures.

“They didn’t just say we’re here now; this has been building for the last year and a half, with where we as a series were going to go and what we’re going to do over ’18, ’19 and ’20,” Frye said. “As a former team principal and owner, knowing what a plan is gives them some comfort. And they’re part of the process – they have great ideas and they’ve accomplished a lot in other series where we can learn from them.

“All these groups are legitimate talented teams who want to play at a high level, and be here at the right time. They want to support and grow our program while growing theirs. They’re all a pleasure to deal with.

“Having four new teams, most with multiple entries, is really exciting for us. There hasn’t been that in IndyCar in some time. And that means for Dallara, there’s a lot of new cars and chassis being ordered.

“When you look at the overall platform, there are some good indicators. And as you’ve read from their quotes, it’s a lifetime process or achievement they wanted to do for a long time. The opportunity is there now to participate.”

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”