A Team on the Rise

We have a lot of time to dissect from the season-opening IndyCar race at St. Petersburg, since we still have two and a half weeks until Race Two at Texas Motor Speedway. It will probably be more scrutinized than any non-Indianapolis 500 race in quite a while. When you only have a one-race sample size to analyze for four weeks – that’s what happens.

Everyone came away talking about the battle for the lead that ended up with Romain Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin in the tire-barriers, or Pato O’Ward’s plenum fire. Not many people are talking about one of the brighter stories to come out of St. Petersburg – Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Argentina’s Ricardo Juncos built a stellar resume in the various feeder series that make up the former Road to Indy. However, he found success hard to come by in the NTT IndyCar Series. About the only thing his team had to brag about in the IndyCar was that their driver, Kyle Kaiser, bumped Formula One champion Fernando Alonso from the 2019 Indianapolis 500. It was an unlikely outcome. Kaiser had destroyed their car in practice, but the team thrashed enough parts from other teams to squeeze into the field, while pushing Alonso out just before the gun sounded. It was the last real drama we’ve seen from Bump Day.

Kyle Kaiser did not race on to stardom then next week in the Indianapolis 500. He finished a forgettable thirty-first and he and Juncos Racing were never heard from for the next two and a half years. Actually, Kaiser has still not been heard from in IndyCar circles, since May of 2019. Personally, I have no idea what he is up to.

Ricardo Juncos, however, has been very busy since then. He stepped back, analyzed the differences in racing in the Road to Indy support series and the IndyCar Series. What he determined was that by himself, he was way undercapitalized to be competitive in the top series – no mater how talented he was at running a race team.

The story of Ricardo Juncos is very similar to Trevor Carlin. Both were very successful at winning in the junior series, but found it tough going when they jumped up to the top series. The difference is Juncos figured out how to succeed, where Carlin packed it in and left IndyCar for good.

Juncos found healthcare entrepreneur Brad Hollinger, who also had an involvement with the Williams Formula One team for several years before they were sold in 2021. Juncos and Hollinger joined forces in 2021 to re-launch the IndyCar team that Juncos had been trying to get off the ground since 2017. After a hiatus that lasted from May 2019 until September of 2021; the team was re-branded Juncos Hollinger Racing (JHR) and returned to run the last three races of the 2021 season with little known Callum Ilott as the driver.

Those last three races went about like everyone thought, with a best finish of only twenty-second at Laguna Seca. I can remember thinking that this was the same old Juncos, with another unknown driver that would fade away as quickly as the others the team had employed since 2017. I figured Ilott would fade into obscurity just like other Juncos drivers like Kaiser, René Bender and Alfonso Celis, Jr. (Road America and Portland in 2018).

When Juncos Hollinger announced they would run the full 2022 season with Ilott returning to the cockpit, I immediately assumed they would be a perennial backmarker. As usual, I was wrong.

The first four races didn’t show much if you just looked at the box score. But Ilott was a factor in most of those races before either getting caught up in someone else’s mistake, suffering a mechanical malfunction or being the victim of a botched pit stop. Those paying attention noticed Ilott was showing flashes of brilliance and he was opening a lot of eyes.

At the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, it all started coming together – as the little known British driver and the smallest team in the paddock finished eighth.

Now it’s not like they started reeling off a series of wins. For the rest of the season, there was only one more Top-Ten finish – a ninth at Portland, one of the few tracks he was seeing for a second time. But there were no disasters either. Most of the 2022 season saw Ilott and JHR finish most races just out of the Top-Ten. The team expected to be a constant backmarker was suddenly finding themselves a solid mid-pack team – far exceeding most expectations for their first full season as Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Looking at the final race of the season at Laguna Seca – the box score shows that Ilott finished twenty-sixth, dead-last. What it does not show is that Ilott qualified on the front-row, alongside pole-winner and ultimate series champion Will Power. It also doesn’t show that Ilott suffered a mechanical issue on Lap 37. The final championship standings show that Ilott finished twentieth, but they don’t show that there were several races like that season-finale that kept the first-year driver pushed down in the standings.

For 2023, JHR announced they would be expanding to a two-car team. I thought this was a mistake, as I felt they had not fully gotten a handle on running one car just yet. Although Ilott had proven to be quick, there were a lot of points they left on the table with mechanical gremlins and poor pit stops. I thought they needed one more year to iron out those problems, before expanding to two cars. I felt like the second car would detract from the primary car of Ilott and the entire team would suffer a regression in 2023.

Once again, I was wrong as usual. Juncos tabbed his fellow countryman Augustin Canapino – a thirty-three year-old driver that had experienced success in a variety of series, but had never driven an open-wheel car. Ever. Most feared that he would make a laughing stock out of himself at the open-test at The Thermal Club, but he acquitted himself nicely by outpacing six or seven cars in each session. I believe I said something very astute like “…things will come crashing down to earth for Canapino when things get real in St. Petersburg”.

Well, things got real in St. Petersburg. He qualified twenty-first in a twenty-seven car field. He managed to avoid the Lap One melee and steadily moved up and finished a more than respectable twelfth.

Did I mention that Callum Ilott finished fifth, after starting twenty-second? Both Juncos cars started on Row Eleven, one finished fifth and the other twelfth. Not bad for a team that I predicted would regress in 2023.

One race does not make a season. There are sixteen races to go this season, including the Month of May and five oval races for one driver without a ton of oval experience, and another with none. But things sure have gotten off to a nice start for JHR. There are a lot of more established teams on the grid that would have loved leaving St. Petersburg with results in hand like JHR came away with.

Money doesn’t mean everything. Dale Coyne has a reputation of doing the most with the least. The deep pockets of Roger Penske have not helped in the last three Indianapolis 500s. Zak Brown has been throwing money at his Arrow McLaren team since they came on board in 2019, but the highest it has placed that team in the championship was third in 2021. Last year, money could buy them nothing higher than seventh.

But try telling those teams that struggle for sponsorship dollars that money doesn’t mean everything. For three years. Ricardo Juncos did his best to be competitive in IndyCar. He quickly realized that without a significant influx of cash, his team was destined to run at the back in every race.

In those days from 2017-19, anyone who knows nothing about IndyCar could wander the paddock and tell that the Juncos cars were underfunded. The entire operation had a bare-bones feel about it. Last year, I noticed on my trips through the paddock that this was no longer the case. The entire presentation of Juncos Hollinger Racing had the same feel as one of the top three or four teams in the paddock – it was all done on a first rate level. Without the influx of cash from Brad Hollinger, I don’t think this would have been possible. So, money doesn’t mean everything – but it sure is hard to be successful in racing without it.

For 2023, I think that the best the two JHR drivers can hope for are for Augustin Canapino to get a couple of Top-Tens and for Callum Ilott to reach the podium a couple of times. A race win is probably not entirely out of the question for Ilott, but to list that as an expectation is probably a little unfair for this season.

But make no mistake, that front row start in last year’s season finale was no fluke for Ilott, nor was his fifth place finish at St. Petersburg a week or so ago. JHR is an up and coming team that is on the rise. Ricardo Juncos has always known what he is doing. Now he has the funds to implement what he has always known he needed to do.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “A Team on the Rise”

  1. Jack in Virginia Says:

    Good article, George. This kind of information is what I love about this site.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Carlin was always a curious case to me. Yes, the way they generally built the team around Max Chilton + ride buyer was always going to limit their success, but it was still strange to me how they never improved (Going from 6 top ten results in their first season to 4, 4, and finally 1 in subsequent seasons) and ultimately never found enough funding once the Chiltons got bored… despite being able to do both in many other series. Maybe basing the team in Florida hurt their ability to get top-level crew members.

    Juncos’ slow and steady route to building a two car team seems to be really paying off in ways that Carlin’s big leap into the series never did. Brad Hollinger is a critical element of that, allowing the team to scout drivers rather than solicit checks, but it also speaks to Ricardo Juncos’ patience and perseverance.

    Kyle Kaiser has a bit of a reputation among Indycar fans as one of the weaker recent Lights/NeXT champions. I don’t think that is wholly unfounded, but he did beat 4 drivers in his championship season who have gotten far more chances in Indycar than he did (Herta, Leist, Claman DeMelo, Kellett). I would have liked to have seen more of him, but it does not seem he was a huge missed opportunity for the series.

  3. I wish for the best for J. H. R.

  4. I absolutely love this team. I will be rooting for them to do well at every race.

  5. Ilott came second in F2 in 2020 so his predigree is good and he is/was a member of the FDA. I was amazed Juncos landed him at the time and very pleased for both parties. They now have a much bigger budget which is visible in the paddock. Let’s hope they can cause an upset.

  6. Kaiser appears to be out of racing. He got his bachelor’s degree in finance and is now a financial analyst in Indianapolis.

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