The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires has been the standard bearer when it comes to successfully developing driving talent and progressing it up the open-wheel ladder until eventually landing in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
The three levels of the stepladder, formally gathered under the MRTI umbrella and sanctioned by INDYCAR since 2010, have helped produce no fewer than 15 current Verizon IndyCar Series drivers. Among them are six former Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champions – Scott Dixon, JR Hildebrand, Ed Jones, Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden and Spencer Pigot – not to mention other talents the likes of Helio Castroneves, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz.
The newest addition to the “stepladder to success” story comes in the form of a team, Juncos Racing. A winner of seven MRTI championships and 41 races since joining the development ladder in 2009, the team announced Tuesday that it would take the next step by entering this year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
The announcement was welcome news for Jay Frye, INDYCAR’s president of competition and operations, who sees Juncos Racing as a team capable of “getting it done.” Frye joined Juncos Racing founder Ricardo Juncos on a media teleconference Wednesday to discuss the topic.
“We certainly have been watching them the last couple years,” Frye said of the team. “They were certainly one of the teams that we thought had the ability or the capability of doing this.”
Juncos acquired Indy car chassis and equipment from KV Racing Technology to make the Indy 500 bid. Both Frye and Juncos credited KV co-owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser for their cooperation and support.
“If you look at (Juncos Racing’s) history – seven championships, 41 wins, 45 poles – they certainly know how to get it done,” Frye continued. “I think it was very cool they had an opportunity and Ricardo jumped on it here recently, which is great, because the legacy of the KV Racing Technology team is continuing, which is important. One of our goals is to get new owners and new young teams to come into the Verizon IndyCar Series.”
Frye took notice of how Juncos’ story is similar to his own. Frye started MB2 Motorsports in NASCAR in 1996, serving as CEO and general manager. Juncos ran a small open-wheel team in his native Argentina, but was forced to start over when he immigrated to the United States in 2002. What began here as a karting team that included Pigot among its young drivers grew into a powerhouse Mazda Road to Indy outfit earning driver and team championships in Indy Lights and the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires.
“It's pretty cool,” Frye said. “What Ricardo talks about to me is very exciting. In 1996, we started a team from scratch. I was 30 years old. There's a lot of really neat things from a personal perspective hearing him talk. Again, from a personal perspective, I understand where he is and what he's doing. It's quite an exciting time. Again, we're certainly glad he's here.”
Frye added that INDYCAR will assist in helping minimize the learning curve for Juncos’ transition to Verizon IndyCar Series competition on the biggest stage of all.
“We certainly want to be an asset and a tool to help in any way we can,” said Frye. “There's a lot of things that are going to happen. Any way we can help to expedite the learning curve, we're glad to do that.
“A lot of it is processes and procedures: how does this work, how does that work. It’s things like he mentioned that he has never done before because there's certain ways we do things, again just procedurally. We've been talking a lot and we want to make sure they're as up to speed on everything expectation-wise as they can be.”
Juncos emphasized that the team will continue its efforts in developing talent in the Mazda Road to Indy.
“It’s important because it’s what we've been doing for many years,” said Juncos. “We have this driver development program inside the team. All the drivers compete with us, which is very intense. We are getting better at that program over the years.
“In order to have the program and development, we need the series; we need the Pro Mazda, USF2000 and Indy Lights. I'm always in favor of that. I think having the Indy car team is going to be a plus for our other teams, Indy Lights, for example, which is one step before. For the current Indy Lights drivers (Nicolas Dapero and Kyle Kaiser), they are so excited about the Indy car because that's the future for them. So I think it's a plus in that sense.”
Seeing drivers like Pigot and Conor Daly, both of whom won championships for Juncos before graduating to the Verizon IndyCar Series, is a motivating reason why the team’s founder wants to continue his involvement in the ladder series.
“I like myself to develop these drivers,” Juncos said. “I feel really, really happy when I see Conor Daly, Spencer Pigot, some drivers in Europe now, they've been with us at one point. We help them somehow in a way.
“I love that part.”