INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Kaiser, Juncos beat the odds with dramatic effort to make the Indianapolis 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – From the moment practice began for the 103rdIndianapolis 500, team owner Ricardo Juncos knew the odds were stacked against him.

The longtime Road to Indy Ladder Series team owner who had hopes of becoming a full-time team in the NTT IndyCar Series one day saw his sponsorship hopes for this year’s 500 evaporate. For many teams’ owners, that would be the end of the road for an Indy 500 effort because without sponsorship, there is no money to run the car.

Juncos, however, was determined. He had a car nicknamed the “White Rabbit” because it had zero decals on it.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

With 2017 Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser back for his second attempt at the Indy 500, the White Rabbit was building up to speed before jumping into the wrong foxhole.

Kaiser crashed the White Rabbit in Turn 3 on Fast Friday. The impact sent the car into a turn on its side before the floor extensions that INDYCAR officials have mandated for the current Dallara chassis, along with two large holes in the floor that serve as air deflectors, brought the car back on its wheels.

The “White Rabbit” was dead and Juncos had to put together a spare car. Parts were brought into the Gasoline Alley garages in the back of a pickup truck as the team began a 48-hour saga to rebuild the car and try to get into the 33-car starting lineup.

The team took the car it had run in the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of the Americas and repaired it in time to hit the track late in Saturday’s qualifications, just to get a balance for the setup. Kaiser was not fast enough to crack the top 30 that were locked into the Indy 500 starting lineup and would have to make it through the “Last Row Shootout.”

By design, they chose not to participate in the Sunday morning practice session. Instead, they kept working on the car with some crewmembers working as long as 48 hours.

Of the six drivers that had to fight for the final three positions, Kaiser and Juncos were given little hope of making the race. The others included a full-time NTT IndyCar Series star in James Hinchcliffe, who crashed in Saturday’s qualifications but had a car fast enough to make it, a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team with two drivers – Carlin with Max Chilton and Patricio O’Ward, a fast 24-year-old in Sage Karam.

And then there was this McLaren outfit from England with a two-time Formula One World Champion by the name of Fernando Alonso.

It couldn’t have been scripted any more dramatically.

With Alonso on the “Bubble” and Kaiser the last of the six drivers in the “Last Row Shootout” to make an attempt, the spirit of the “White Rabbit” hopped, skipped and jumped its way into the field with a four-lap average of 227.372 mph.

Kaiser and Juncos were in, Alonso and McLaren were out.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris JonesThe fans that came out on a rainy cool day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway roared with delight.

Ricardo Juncos breathed a sigh of relief.

“We didn’t practice Sunday morning because the car was not ready,” Juncos said.

“We went everybody home to sleep at 4 a.m. or we were going to make mistakes. The rain delay helped us because it gave us more time to work on the car. We found other things that made us go fast.

“Even before this qualifying, for us, this was a victory to be here today. I have won already, regardless of what happens from here.”

Juncos will continue to search for sponsors and believes now that he is in the race, he hopes to find some funding. His goal is to run more IndyCar Series races the rest of the season.

“Our guys are so tired, we don’t even have the energy to think,” Juncos admitted to NBC Sports.com. “The ‘White Rabbit’ was fast because it was our Speedway car, but we were able to take this car and work on it to get it into the race.

“Now, we are in the race and we have to keep moving forward.”

 

Kaiser is a 23-year-old from Santa Clara, California. He has a deep understanding of what his accomplishment in “Crossroads of America” means.

“Only Indianapolis will give you these kinds of emotions,” Kaiser told NBC Sports.com “This has been the hardest couple of days of my life trying to keep my head straight and go about business. It took not just me, but the whole team trying to keep that mentality.

“I had one goal in mind; go out there and do another qual like we’ve done,” Kaiser said. “We did it three times Saturday and I wanted to do the same time we did. Even though we didn’t have the speed yesterday, we went out to make sure we had the perfect balance.

“We rolled out with the perfect balance.

“We are starting last in the field, but we are in the field. It shows how tough it is just to get into this race. We went for it. We gave it all we had and that is all we had.”

Liz Van Oostenburg PhotoKaiser’s girlfriend is Liz Van Oostenburg, who works for Harding Steinbrenner Racing in public relations. Sunday was her birthday and she told her boyfriend what she wanted.

“It’s the best birthday present she could have ordered,” Kaiser admitted. “She told me, ‘Just get in the race today.’ I said, ‘I’ll do my best.’”

And he did.

NHRA: Funny Car driver J.R. Todd looks to snap slump, make history at U.S. Nationals

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In addition to being the most gratifying achievement of his NHRA drag racing career, winning the 2018 NHRA Funny Car championship was also the hardest thing J.R. Todd has ever done.

That is, until he tried to defend the title in 2019 – which has now become the hardest thing Todd has done behind the wheel.

After winning a career-best six wins en route to his title last season, Todd has had a rough campaign in the first 17 races of the current season, having earned just one win (Las Vegas) and two runner-up finishes.

In addition, he’s failed to make it out of the first round six times, and was stopped in the quarter-finals eight other times.

And as he prepares for next week’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis – the biggest race of the season – the 37-year-old Todd is mired in a difficult slump. Since losing to Ron Capps in the final round at Richmond, Todd has dropped from second to eighth in the Funny Car standings, unable to get past the second round of the nine subsequent events.

That’s why Todd is hoping for a major turnaround at the U.S. Nationals, the final qualifying race for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

J.R. Todd (Photo: NHRA).

A massive 416 points (the equivalent of more than three wins points-wise) out of first place, Todd needs to start a big comeback if he hopes to do well in the playoffs, and the U.S. Nationals is the perfect place for him to do so. Todd comes into this year’s race having won the last two Funny Car crowns at Indy in 2017 and 2018.

If he can make it three in a row, Todd will make NHRA history. To date, only two drivers – Top Fuel greats “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Tony Schumacher – have won three in a row at Indianapolis. But no Funny Car driver has ever done so, not John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme or anyone else.

“That’s some pretty elite company right there with Big Daddy and Tony Schumacher,” Todd told NBC Sports. “Really you try not to think about things like that and just focus on the mission at hand – and that’s to win the race.

“When you do that, then you can enjoy all the accolades that come with it. I have the two trophies that I can look at every day – and it’s an awesome reminder of what we’ve done. It was a dream of mine as a kid to go there and race in the U.S. Nationals as a professional someday and to have won it is still kind of a surreal feeling.”

Todd, who lives in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana, wants to be the first Funny Car driver to pull off that achievement — and at his home track, to boot.

“It’s the biggest race of the year and the one that everyone wants to win,” Todd said. “To go back there and win there three years in a row would be pretty special.

“For me, it’s the race I grew up going to as a kid. I have a lot of family and friends that go there. I live five minutes from the track, so it means everything to me.”

In a sense, his situation this season is kind of deja vu for Todd. Last season, he won two races earlier in the season (Las Vegas and Houston), then went into a slump much like the one he’s currently in.

But starting with last September’s win at Indianapolis, Todd went on to win four of the final seven races of the season — including three in the playoffs — to motor on to the championship.

What makes Todd’s success at Indy all the more unique is that while he’s a long-time drag racer, he only switched to Funny Car prior to the 2017 season. That means in just two seasons, the former Top Fuel pilot has not only twice won the sport’s biggest race, but also the championship.

The team Todd races for, Kalitta Motorsports, has a history of starting to hit its stride just before the playoffs begin in Funny Car. From 2014 through 2018, the organization has won 13 Funny Car races beginning with the second-to-last regular season race at Brainerd, Minnesota through the six playoff races. That’s 13 of 40 races, roughly 33% of the races that NHRA has won.

In addition to Todd’s two U.S. Nationals wins, Team Kalitta also won the Funny Car event in 2014 with now-retired driver Alexis DeJoria.

I knew coming over to drive the DHL Toyota Camry that we would have some good opportunities to win races,” Todd said. “For whatever reason, it seems like we pick up a lot of momentum at that time of year. We’re hoping we can keep that trend going this year.”

In a sense, the U.S. Nationals – the 18th and final regular season race of the overall 24-race NHRA schedule – are to the NHRA what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR or the Indianapolis 500 is to IndyCar.

“It sets the tone for the next six races,” Todd said of the playoffs. “The U.S. Nationals are a marathon. It’s the one race where everyone brings out their best stuff because it’s so important.  So much of that preparation then carries over into the Countdown.

“If you ask drivers that haven’t won Indy before, I think they’d trade pretty much any win for that one.”

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