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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.”

NHRA Denver: John Force one away from 150 career wins; Pritchett, Anderson, Arana Jr. also win

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John Force may be 69 years old, but Sunday he proved he is still a major force to reckon with in NHRA Funny Car competition.

The winningest driver in NHRA history, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion won his 149th national event Sunday, capturing the Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado (suburban Denver).

Force (4.075 seconds at 315.42 mph) defeated 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps (4.067 seconds at 308.71 mph) in the final round to earn his first win in over a year.

Force has now won at least one race in each of the last 31 seasons and qualifies for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“The fire is back in me, I’m fighting,” Force said. “I got tired of hearing me snivel to myself. My wife doesn’t even want to talk to me. … I don’t know why I won this race but I have a lot more fight in my belly.”

Admittedly, before Sunday, he has struggled for much of the last year since his last win.

“I found myself with all the crashes and everything that happened probably at the lowest point in my career,” Force said. “It has been worse than when I crashed in 2007 (in the worst wreck of his career).

“I have been fighting to get back. I never let on to anyone but it showed that I just looked like a mess. I am fighting to get back. I had four crashes (this season) and after my last one I had John Bandimere (owner of Bandimere Speedway) call me and say, ‘We have to talk.’ I said ‘I know you love God and I know where you want to go.’ He told me to listen to him and he set me straight.

“I didn’t know if I would ever get back in position to win a race. Bandimere told me I could and I won’t stand here and preach the Gospel but he said when I get to Denver I will be fixed. He didn’t say I was going to win but that I would be fixed. He told me to go out there and show me who John Force is.”

It was Force’s eighth win (and first there since 2016) and 13th final round appearance at Denver in his career, making him the winningest Funny Car driver ever at Bandimere Speedway.

Force defeated daughter and No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force in the semifinals to set up the deciding run vs. Capps. Prior to defeating Courtney, Force beat Matt Hagan and Cruz Pedregon in the first two rounds of eliminations earlier in the day.

“I had to beat a lot of great racers today, Hagan, Cruz, Capps, I love them all,” Force said.

Here are more tidbits about Force’s day, which leaves him one win away from 150 career wins:

  • Force now has 1,303 round wins in his career. He has beaten 137 different drivers en route to that mark.
  • 376 of those round wins came against 15 world champions including two-time champ Matt Hagan, against whom he improved his record to 21-17 with today’s first round victory.
  • Force claimed 152 round wins at the expense of the Pedregon brothers: Cruz, Tony and Frank.
  • He has beaten fathers and sons (Jim and Mike Dunn, Paul and Mike Smith, Tim and Dan Wilkerson) and brothers (Cruz, Tony and Frank Pedregon along with Ron and Jon Capps)
  • He has beaten Cruz Pedregon 70 times, more often than any other driver
  • He earned 21 round wins against daughters Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force and 22 against Robert Hight, his protégé and the father of granddaughter Autumn Hight.
  • He has won rounds on 27 different tracks in 18 states and Canada
  • He has won 128 rounds in three different events at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the most at any single track
  • He has won 76 rounds in the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, the most in any single event
NHRA Denver winners, from left: Hector Arana Jr., Greg Anderson, John Force, Leah Pritchett. Photo courtesy NHRA.

Other winners in the first of the NHRA’s annual three-race “Western Swing” (Denver; Sonoma, California; and Seattle) included Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel, Greg Anderson won his first race of the season in Pro Stock and Hector Arana Jr. earned his first Pro Stock Motorcycle win since 2015.

The race was the 14th of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.831 seconds at 316.45 mph) earned her second win of 2018 and seventh of her career. She was No. 1 qualifier for the event (also for the second race in a row and 10th No. 1 of her career) and defeated Doug Kalitta (3.852 seconds at 319.82 mph) for the win.

Prior to facing Kalitta, Pritchett defeated Terry Totten, Scott Palmer and Clay Millican in the first three rounds.

“Our crew has really impressed, attitude of gratitude, as high as the altitude here,” Pritchett said. “They chipped away at it and didn’t let themselves get down earlier this year when we were in a slump and they didn’t let me get myself down in a slump either. I always have my confidence in them and they have their confidence in me and this weekend we pulled it all together.”

In Pro Stock, Anderson earned his first win of the season, his third at Bandimere and 91st triumph of his career.

Anderson (6.943 seconds at 196.53 mph) defeated Summit Racing Equipment teammate Jason Line (6.947 seconds at 196.19 mph). Also, the victory put Anderson back atop the Pro Stock points standings.

“We have had a heck of a battle this year, we have had great running cars but we have made mistakes on Sunday and haven’t been able to close the deal,” Anderson said. “The class is so tough right now, it is so hard to win. The bottom line is we haven’t put forth our best effort on Sunday, we haven’t lost giving it our best shot and today we did.”

Anderson defeated Joey Grose, Vincent Nobile, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. to advance to the finals showdown with Line.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Arana Jr. earned his first win since St. Louis in 2015 and his 12th career NHRA triumph.

In his first final round of the season, Arana (7.170 seconds at 185.89 mph), who earlier this year became the first rider to crack the 200 mph barrier, won easily when 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie fouled at the starting line.

“We have had a fast bike all the time, just been working on consistency and then when the bike was good I was making little errors,” Arana Jr. said. “Dedication, hard work, and practicing to bring it all together. Finally got over some hurdles over here and now we should be back on track.”

The Western Swing continues July 27-29 with the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Clay Millican; 4. Blake Alexander; 5. Scott Palmer; 6. Steve Torrence; 7. Jim Maroney; 8. Richie Crampton; 9. Tony Schumacher; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Greg Carrillo; 12. Terry Totten; 13. Bill Litton; 14. Brittany Force; 15. Mike Salinas; 16. Terry McMillen.

FUNNY CAR: 1. John Force; 2. Ron Capps; 3. Robert Hight; 4. Courtney Force; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Tim Wilkerson; 8. Jack Beckman; 9. J.R. Todd; 10. Jonnie Lindberg; 11. Matt Hagan; 12. Jeff Diehl; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Shawn Langdon; 16. Todd Simpson.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jason Line; 3. Chris McGaha; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Alex Laughlin; 8. Tanner Gray; 9. Bo Butner; 10. Drew Skillman; 11. Matt Hartford; 12. Fernando Cuadra; 13. Erica Enders; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Joey Grose; 16. Will Hatcher.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Hector Arana Jr.; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. Andrew Hines; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Scotty Pollacheck; 6. LE Tonglet; 7. Steve Johnson; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Angie Smith; 11. Jim Underdahl; 12. Angelle Sampey; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Joey Gladstone; 15. Cory Reed; 16. Eddie Krawiec.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Leah Pritchett, 3.831 seconds, 316.45 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 3.852 seconds, 319.82 mph.

FUNNY CAR: John Force, Chevy Camaro, 4.075, 315.42 def. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.067, 308.71.

PRO STOCK: Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.943, 196.53 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.947, 196.19.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 7.170, 185.89 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Scott Palmer, 3.894, 317.34 def. Antron Brown, 4.047, 300.13; Blake Alexander, 3.863, 320.81 def. Mike Salinas, 5.827, 118.72; Leah Pritchett, 3.857, 322.81 def. Terry Totten, 4.156, 276.18; Jim Maroney, 4.267, 264.96 def. Brittany Force, 5.524, 129.54; Steve Torrence, 3.899, 325.06 def. Bill Litton, 5.216, 121.99; Clay Millican, 3.824, 327.59 def. Greg Carrillo, 4.088, 309.98; Richie Crampton, 3.870, 317.19 def. Terry McMillen, 6.020, 120.89; Doug Kalitta, 3.849, 320.43 def. Tony Schumacher, 3.852, 321.12; QUARTERFINALS — Alexander, 3.847, 322.58 def. Torrence, 3.903, 321.12; Pritchett, 3.806, 321.96 def. Palmer, 3.890, 317.34; Millican, 3.887, 295.85 def. Crampton, 5.045, 158.99; Kalitta, 3.897, 302.08 def. Maroney, 4.227, 249.53; SEMIFINALS — Kalitta, 3.872, 311.63 def. Alexander, 3.857, 320.20; Pritchett, 3.826, 312.93 def. Millican, 3.826, 320.36; FINAL — Pritchett, 3.831, 316.45 def. Kalitta, 3.852, 319.82.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 4.103, 293.15 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.186, 311.92; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.089, 315.78 def. Jeff Diehl, Camry, Foul – Red Light; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.089, 285.65 def. Terry Haddock, Toyota Solara, 4.834, 193.54; Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.689, 182.21 def. Todd Simpson, Charger, Broke – No Show; John Force, Camaro, 4.158, 285.77 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.279, 265.69; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.094, 308.28 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.998, 167.99; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.101, 312.93 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.133, 311.27; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.057, 315.64 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 5.128, 165.01; QUARTERFINALS — J. Force, 4.139, 313.44 def. Pedregon, 4.137, 252.61; Hight, 4.052, 318.09 def. Johnson Jr., 4.117, 313.58; Capps, 4.082, 309.70 def. Beckman, 4.528, 214.25; C. Force, 4.121, 306.88 def. Wilkerson, 4.268, 272.12; SEMIFINALS — J. Force, 4.048, 318.62 def. C. Force, 4.453, 206.29; Capps, 4.052, 313.88 def. Hight, 4.035, 314.31; FINAL — J. Force, 4.075, 315.42 def. Capps, 4.067, 308.71.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.970, 196.27 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 7.098, 195.68; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.974, 196.79 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.968, 196.99; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.991, 196.04 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.969, 196.93; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.983, 196.42 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.975, 195.96 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 7.178, 190.14; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.975, 196.13 def. Will Hatcher, Dart, 15.790, 58.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.968, 196.67 def. Joey Grose, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.969, 197.02 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 7.017, 195.85; QUARTERFINALS — Coughlin, 6.994, 195.87 def. Gray, 6.996, 196.27; McGaha, 6.975, 196.44 def. Kramer, 6.959, 196.96; Line, 6.983, 197.16 def. Laughlin, 6.994, 195.90; Anderson, 6.985, 197.02 def. Nobile, 6.986, 196.24; SEMIFINALS — Anderson, 6.945, 196.27 def. Coughlin, 6.994, 195.79; Line, 6.958, 196.87 def. McGaha, 6.965, 195.79; FINAL — Anderson, 6.943, 196.53 def. Line, 6.947, 196.19.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 7.290, 182.26 def. Cory Reed, Buell, 7.412, 180.60; Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 7.229, 181.11 def. Angie Smith, Buell, 7.276, 181.86; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 7.265, 182.75 def. Hector Arana, Buell, 7.252, 184.85; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 7.212, 184.55 def. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 7.296, 184.32; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 7.199, 186.25 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 7.364, 180.40; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 7.142, 188.75 def. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 7.349, 181.50; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 7.345, 180.36 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 7.982, 125.40; Matt Smith, 7.194, 186.00 def. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.279, 182.48; QUARTERFINALS — Stoffer, 7.347, 181.20 def. Johnson, 7.427, 180.19; Hines, 7.219, 186.18 def. Pollacheck, Foul – Red Light; Savoie, 7.274, 183.82 def. M. Smith, Broke; Arana Jr, 7.159, 188.46 def. Tonglet, 7.312, 184.37; SEMIFINALS — Savoie, 7.284, 183.19 def. Stoffer, 7.329, 181.25; Arana Jr, 7.163, 188.15 def. Hines, 7.215, 185.31; FINAL — Arana Jr, 7.170, 185.89 def. Savoie, Foul – Red Light.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,132; 2. Clay Millican, 959; 3. Leah Pritchett, 949; 4. Tony Schumacher, 930; 5. Doug Kalitta, 893; 6. Antron Brown, 750; 7. Terry McMillen, 696; 8. Brittany Force, 658; 9. Richie Crampton, 576; 10. Scott Palmer, 544.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,156; 2. Matt Hagan, 946; 3. Ron Capps, 930; 4. Robert Hight, 911; 5. Jack Beckman, 906; 6. J.R. Todd, 832; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 746; 8. John Force, 735; 9. Shawn Langdon, 647; 10. Bob Tasca III, 596.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 1,044; 2. Tanner Gray, 976; 3. Erica Enders, 969; 4. Vincent Nobile, 947; 5. Chris McGaha, 875; 6. Drew Skillman, 842; 7. Jeg Coughlin, 838; 8. Bo Butner, 782; 9. Jason Line, 778; 10. Deric Kramer, 725.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 591; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 564; 3. Hector Arana Jr, 501; 4. LE Tonglet, 493; 5. Jerry Savoie, 481; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 417; 7. Matt Smith, 411; 8. Angie Smith, 304; 9. (tie) Hector Arana, 289; Angelle Sampey, 289.

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