Team Next Level Racing guides riders up life’s ladder

Next Level Racing
Team Next Level Racing, Instagram

ANAHEIM, California – A lot goes into the naming of things and in four words, Team Next Level Racing reveals who they are.

It is a tenet of many religions, both ancient and modern, that to give something a name if part of its creation and the order of words is important. Made up of 10 riders spread across all rungs in the Monster Energy Supercross Series, this organization is a team with all that word implies. Team Next Level Racing provides logistical support and coaching, but most importantly, it is a team in the collegial sense of the word.

Teams provide surrogate families for athletes who are often forced to spend months away from those who bore and reared them.

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“[Next Level Racing] is a team, but more than a team,” Chris Fagala, Team Principal for Next Level Racing, told NBC Sports. “It’s a mentoring program for young people. Mentorship has many different facets. We were all young once, and I know at least I had older people in my life that poured into me and helped me along my path. I still remember it to this day, the commitment that they made.

“Sometimes it was just that they brought me into their family and let me see how adults do life and how families are real. It’s not awesome all the time. Sometimes they just invited me into their lives. And sometimes they actually taught me a skill or a trade or a financial concept or a spiritual concept.”

Over the course of the discussion about what Team Next Level Racing is, Fagala described his team in multiple ways: in part a race organization, a mentorship program and an on-ramp.

It might be most accurately described as an incubator for life.

Next level refers to not only the next step on the ladder, whether it is moving from Supercross Futures into the 250 class and then 450s – but Fagala is much more interested in making certain his riders take the next step in their lives. This faith-based, family-oriented team is dedicated to making young men into men of substance.

“It’s definitely a race team,” Fagala said. “We like racing, but we love the racers. We named our team Next Level Racing because we want to help these kids get to the next level in many different areas of their life, including their riding.”

Racing is equally important. It is the core of motorsports, but success in a sport that has only one winner among many dozens of competitors is not always judged by who stands at the top of the podium.

In 2022 one of their most productive riders, Kevin Moranz, made nine Main events of the 17 that made up the Supercross schedule – no small feat for a privateer.

A Product of Love

There is a line in one of Jason Isbell’s songs, “If it Takes a Lifetime”, that goes: “Man is a product of all the people that he ever loved.”

Without mentorship at an early age, Fagala would be a different man and Team Next Level Racing might not exist.

Fagala identified the need for mentorship at an early age. Several mentors he connected with through the church he attended in college impressed the importance of a few words of encouragement here and there. Fagala credits the principals they taught for much of his success in business, that includes a successful mechanical engineering company and real estate holdings.

Before each race, team principal Kris Fagala leads Team Next Level in a prayer for safety and success. Team Next Level Racing, Instagram

“Every Saturday morning before the races get started, we gather up as a group and I pray for all the guys – and I just pray that they would be confident, have a good day of racing, and that they would have safety and speed on the track,” said Fagala. “And then in the afternoon I usually try to give them about a 10- to 15-minute talk of just encouragement to help build some confidence. I usually will weave a spiritual principle into that.

“But if they have no interest [in the spiritual aspect of the team], that is totally fine. It doesn’t offend me, bother me. And we don’t look for kids to be on our team that are spiritual or that are Christians or anything like that. We’re a faith-based team, but there is absolutely no requirements for the kids to, to have any part of that if they’re not interested.”

A strong message does not need a strong orator, but it does need a voice and that is reflected at the track and in their social media presence.

“It’s a buffet; they can take from that what they want,” Fagala said. “They can listen to the coaching side of it and totally ignore the other side if they want. If a kid wants to know how to start a business or how to become wealthy, but could care less about how to have a successful relationship with a partner, that’s fine. They’re free to take what they want from what I have to share and leave what they don’t. There’s no requirements on them whatsoever.”

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Team Next Level Racing is unique in the paddock in multiple ways.

It is setup as a licensed non-profit ministry. The team provides coaching and logistical support to get the bikes to all 17 rounds of Supercross. Team Next Level Racing has sponsorship that helps defray the cost, but the privateer riders also bring their own and that is primarily how they earn. To be successful, they have to treat their career as a business.

“No one on our team gets paid,” Fagala said. “No one makes any money. My wife and I are definitely not in this to make money. In fact, it loses money every year. But that’s our contribution to what we’re doing. So I think we’re probably the only team in the paddock that is not there to break even or turn a profit.

“We are also way more concerned about the growth and development of these young men than their results. So we are not a results-oriented team at all. … If they have a bad day, I just give them a hug and go, ‘Man, sorry you had a bad day, let’s learn something from it and have a better day tomorrow or next weekend.’ But none of our sponsors or the people that donate to our team have any requirements about how well the guys did.

“And I think the third way that we’re very different is the next level part of the name of our team. I want to see the kids go to the next level in lots of different areas, but one is in their racing and part of going to the next level is doing better. And when they do better, they’re going to get picked up, hopefully by a team that can pay them, because we’re not paying them, and hopefully they can go to a bigger team than we are.

The Journey is not the Destination

Team Next Level Racing is not results-oriented, but the results are there.

In addition to the nine Mains earned by Moranz, two of Fagala’s 2022 riders, Freddie Noren and John Short, made it directly into the Main through their heats last year.

“Last year we had a couple of guys on our team that were top 12 with Freddie Noren, John Short and Kevin Moranz. Those kids are good. They’re making the 450 Mains and they’re in the top 15. Some of our kids are doing really well. Two of those guys, Freddie and John, got the opportunity to go to a team that could pay them this year.

And we’ve got a couple of kids this year I think will start making their first 250 Mains.”

Noren scored three results in the low teens in the 450 class in 2022. Short had one top-10 and four other results in the low teens in 250s.

Moranz is still with the team, and his marketing prowess and the infrastructure provided the Team Next Level Racing may well keep him in the fold for quite some time.

But this team is about developing talent and Fagala has his eye on two new additions to the roster.

“The kids that I really have my eye on are Colby Copp in the 250s – I think he is ready to start making main events; he hasn’t made one yet,” Fagala said. “And then Hunter Schlosser. He is ready to start making 250 Main events. He’s made a couple in the past, but he hasn’t been consistent. I, I expect him to be more consistent this season.”

These two riders, along with their eight teammates, will get their first opportunity to get to the next level on Saturday, January 7 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California when the first round of the 2023 SuperMotocross season gets underway.

IndyCar Preseason, Day 2: Helio Castroneves addresses racing future, says 2023 is ‘huge’


PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Entering what could be the final season of his NTT IndyCar Series career, there is one race that Helio Castroneves of course has circled as key to the future.

And it surely could cinch his plans with another record-breaking win.

“It’s obviously the big one – it’s Indianapolis 500,” the four-time Indy 500 winner said during preseason media interviews last week. “That’s the one that we feel that we have the same car. We have all our bets onto that. However, I’m not going to give up on the other ones, either. I feel that we have as much of a chance as anybody in some places that I feel comfortable. Finishing in the top 12 (in points) would be a great goal.

“However, we want to be able to have a podium. We want to be able to show what we can get, and we can.”

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Castroneves signed a one-year deal to return to Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 06 Dallara-Honda after finishing 18th in the 2022 standings, a career worst for the Brazilian over a full year in IndyCar. Castroneves managed a season-best seventh in the Indy 500 (recovering from a crash in testing) and only two other top 10s in 17 starts.

It marked the first time since Castroneves entered the CART ChampCar Series in 1998 that he failed to finishi on the podium during a full-time season (he competed part time in 2018-20 while running full time in IMSA).

Though he dodged questions about how critical results would be to keeping his seat beyond 2023, Castroneves concedes it’s a “huge” season for him. MSR has reshuffled the lineup with new “data people” and a new engineer for Castroneves, who will turn 48 in May. Though MSR already was facing challenges last season in adding a second full-time car along with Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, the expectations are high for a swift turnaround.

Helio Castroneves at The Thermal Club test (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment).

“Everyone understands when you’re going through, even if it’s one year, people think it’s a long time, but hey, we’re talking about teams that’s been together for a long, long time, years of experience and communication and everybody is in sync,” said Castroneves, who made six starts (including his fourth Indy 500 win) for MSR in 2021.

“Even though for us we did 2021, all those people were part-timers, and we have to start all over again. That was the first time that we had two cars in the team. There was a lot of dynamics changing. Now we are continuing to move forward. It’s important for us to be part of this process, be patient. Yeah, I can’t wait when things start to connect so we can show at the racetrack.”

Beyond coming off a dismal year and racing into his late 40s against drivers who are more than 20 years his junior, the stakes also are high for Castroneves because there’s a high-profile and obvious candidate to supplant him in 2024.

Tom Blomqvist, who teamed with Castroneves to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona for the second consecutive season, has drawn high praise for his championship-level performance in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s premier prototype category. He also has a keen interest in racing IndyCar and tested for MSR last October.

It’s led to some speculation that MSR could broker a trade between its IndyCar and IMSA teams that could swap Blomqvist for Castroneves next year.

AUTO: JAN 29 IMSA Rolex 24 Daytona
Helio Castroneves celebrates after being part of the overall winning team in the Rolex 24 at Daytona for the third consecutive year (David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

“First of all, it’s too early to say,” Castroneves said. “Second, I don’t want anything more than great things for this team. This team is incredible. They already stamped that they’re not just a small team. They stamped that they’re an incredible team. That things amazing (are) about to happen in the future.

“Tom, come on, the kid is a superstar. He’s really quick. He’s doing an amazing job. Last year he did a great job; this year continued doing it. Let’s see. Everything happens and falls natural. But as of right now, it’s too early in the season to predict and think what’s going to happen. Our goal is to have a phenomenal result with MSR so that we can show what this team is capable.”

Castroneves already has resurrected his IndyCar career once (it seemed he was done as a full-time driver after 2017 until his Brickyard triumph), and the “Dancing With The Stars” winner seems ageless, so it’s hard to bet against him or his will to keep driving – especially after three consecutive Rolex 24 victories.

“Do you think I’m thinking retiring right now?” Castroneves said while cracking a smile. “There is no … there isn’t a thought of that. It has to feel natural. I can’t force myself. I can’t put a number or date that I can say this is it. As of right now, I am enjoying very much what I’m doing. I’m about to start a great season with IndyCar, and my mind is only thinking about that. I’m just going to continue working and get that result that I really want, that I know I’m capable and I know what the team is capable. Whatever happens in the future remains to be seen.”

In the short-term, he is taking a positive outlook that he and Pagenaud can improve on MSR’s struggles with tire wear last season. Though his speeds were average in preseason testing at The Thermal Club (Castroneves was 18th fastest on the second day), Castroneves believes the alliance with Andretti Autosport will bear more results in 2023.

2023 Gold Meets Golden 10th Anniversary Year Event - Arrivals
After last week’s preseason test at The Thermal Club, Helio Castroneves attended the 2023 Gold Meets Golden 10th Anniversary Year Event at Virginia Robinson Gardens in Beverly Hills, California (Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic).

“You’re always looking for improvement,” he said. “The good news is we finished 18th last year in the championship. That’s not a place that we want to be. However, we feel there was some areas that we felt we could have better results, but racing is unpredictable, as always. But we’re only looking forward, and we feel we’re going to have a much better season. The expectation is obviously always to do well, but also we understand the possibility of things not going according to the plan.

“But I feel the plan is that. It takes some time to collect some of the informations that we want, our alliances with Andretti Autosport also is still very strong. They also know that they need to improve. It’s not only in our organization. We still keep pushing each other so that we can have a better result like we had or that Andretti had in the past. They have their own engineers, their own resources, they translate it to us, and we’re looking forward to having a much better season, and let’s hope for the best.”

A roundup of other nuggets from the second day of IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities Feb. 1 at the Palm Springs Convention Center:

With Team Penske having announced a sponsor extension with Verizon, the future seems secure for defending series champion Will Power (who had signed a long-term extension in 2021) after a tumultuous offseason for the No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet driver. Power fractured ribs in a go-karting crash (but was able to heal quickly) and also had to withdraw from his Rolex 24 debut last month after his wife, Liz, was hospitalized.

Will Power confirmed she was back home and “much better than (mid-January), but I think we’ll know for sure in five weeks whether her blood stays sterile. She’s improved significantly from (being) in pretty bad shape.”

The elimination of double points for the Indy 500 could change the calculus of this season’s championship race, but Josef Newgarden already had designs on a major alteration. The two-time series champion, who has finished runner-up in three consecutive seasons, said his 2023 goal is to end IndyCar’s 17-year streak of determining the champion in the season finale.

“It gnaws at me for sure,” the Team Penske star, who had a series-high five wins to Power’s one in 2022, said of his recent misses to add a third title. “It’s annoying, there’s no doubt. How could you not be frustrated by it? I try and take the frustration and just put it into motivation. How are we going to build a bigger (points) gap where that’s not even possible? I don’t even want to be messing with it at the end of the year. In an ideal world, if we get to the end of a season where we don’t have to mess with the gap, if we can just get that out of the way, that would be ideal. That’s where my mindset is at, how do we get to that place where it’s not even on the table. It’s just done.

“I’m not arrogant enough to believe that that’s easy. It seems near impossible these days to do that. I think that’s valid. It’s very difficult to do that. I understand that. But I still want to find a way where we can get to a place where we don’t have to mess with it. I do not think that will be easy whatsoever, but we need to figure out how to do that. I am so positive, when we get a year where we get good timing paired with great speed and decisions, it will be a great year. It will be really great. Much better than what we had last year.”

The announcement of Conor Daly attempting to make his Daytona 500 debut (along with other Cup races for TMT) had been foreshadowed last week by the Ed Carpenter Racing driver. Unlike Castroneves, who had mulled racing Daytona with the same team, Daly said he can’t be selective about his opportunities. “I chatted with a young man by the name of Helio Castroneves earlier, and I think for him an opportunity like that could probably come about really anytime,” Daly said. “But for me, I don’t know if an opportunity like that would come again. I have done a lot in my life by (saying) ‘You know what, if there is a chance to do it, might as well do it.’ So who knows what might happen. But if there is a chance, I feel like I can’t not do it, or not try to do it at least.”

Daly finished 34th at the Roval in his Cup debut last year with the team and also has starts in the Xfinity and truck series. “The Cup car isn’t as physical to drive, but it’s still hot and still gets the heart going,” he said. “So, yeah, it was a great experience to be able to do. Not the smoothest experience, I will say, but really cool to get to do that and be a part of the NASCAR Cup Series and hopefully obviously shine some light on the IndyCar Series as well. I think we deserve more attention than we have got in the past. I hope we continue to get more in the future. Obviously people still want to do these races in this series that we’re a part of. Kyle Larson is coming to do the Indy 500. Everyone wants to see that.”

Though Jimmie Johnson has admitted he “never found the knife’s edge” during his two-year stint in IndyCar, Scott Dixon said he’ll be missed as a teammate. “I think anybody that knows Jimmie well, he’s a great person,” Dixon said. “He’s a fun guy to hang out with. I think what he brought to the team, whether it was on the sponsor side to his competitiveness and competition side and info, not just information but kind of his history of being so successful I think really helped with the team.

“For me it was probably more so on just the friendship side of hanging out with him. I think that was in Nashville where he was kind of talking about maybe not coming back, but I was like, ‘Come on, man, you’ve got to make sure you can get the deal together and come back.’ Obviously we can see that he’s moved on to different pastures, and a lot of exciting stuff for him that’s coming up.”

Dixon still believes Johnson could return for the Indy 500 but probably not until next year with NASCAR and Le Mans on his plate for 2023. “Maybe he’s already punted until next year, I don’t know,” Dixon said. “But he wants to do (the Indy 500 again). It’s just timing. It’s very difficult, and especially with the Garage 56 entry and all that kind of stuff, there’s a lot going on, especially around that period of time.”