This past weekend at Milwaukee, Sam Schmidt Motorsports secured its 50th win – a record in the Firestone Indy Lights Series dating to its latest iteration that relaunched in 2002. With ex-racer Schmidt the standard-bearer in IndyCar's “triple-A” series on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, it can be difficult for new teams to break in, and then break out from a results standpoint.
But after three years in Star Mazda, Ricardo Juncos (LEFT, headset) has entered the arena with his Juncos Racing squad. The team's been one of the best in the next rung on the ladder below Indy Lights since its inception in 2009, with one championship (2010, Conor Daly), one near one (2009, Peter Dempsey) and several other race wins assembled in its tenure.
For 2012, Juncos purchased the assets of the former Davey Hamilton Racing Lights squad, while continuing to field a multi-car Star Mazda effort. The Lights team has been through a trying start with JV Horto (ABOVE), a Star Mazda graduate, and two-time 2011 starter Chase Austin, while the success in Star Mazda has continued with Connor De Phillippi (ModSpace backing) and teammates Martin Scuncio and rookies Diego Ferreira and Bruno Palli.
“After three years, this was a good chance to move up,” Juncos says. “We realized the Lights program could happen at the same time, and we had a good package. It's hard to say if it was the right move yet, but we like the series, and it was the right time.”
There didn't need to be a huge infrastructure increase because of the staff required for the multi-car Mazda platform. At the same time, the goal of running two Lights cars for the full season ended before the season began. Peter Dempsey (at right, BELOW, conferring with Horto), who had nearly delivered Juncos the Star Mazda title in the team's first season of 2009, had tested and was in line for one of the seats but couldn't procure the necessary budget. Horto has run sporadic events to start the year, with Austin stepping in in a second car at Indianapolis, and for Horto this weekend at Iowa.
“We had the confirmation of doing a whole championship at the beginning of the year, and we had looked to move to Lights after Peter was close to winning the 2009 championship,” Juncos says. “But we wanted to win there first, so we waited to move for a couple years. It was important to have at least one year to figure it out and try to perform. We're learning that this year and looking for two full-time cars next year.”
Horto's season has included two seventh place results in three starts. It may not sound like much, but in a field that's top heavy with three genuine win contenders and three others who largely occupy the next three positions, it's not been a bad start.
“JV's learning, but I think he was really good with the ovals, with no issues,” Juncos explains. “The Lights car, the windows are smaller for a mistake. You can make a mistake in Star Mazda but still be in the window. In Lights, with the technical aspect, everything has to be perfect. The drivers have to be perfect to get the car right on the road course. Then they think they're at the limit.”
For Juncos' Star Mazda squad, the chance to add series veteran De Phillippi (LEFT) – who's still only 19 but in his third year – was a long-awaited dream for the team that won the 2010 title with Daly. While it happened late, it was still a great opportunity for both parties.
“I always thought Connor was really good, and we were so close to having him in 2010,” Juncos admits. “It finally happened for this year. I have known him for so many years, and known his targets. We always pushed for him, and things happen for a reason. It's good to have him at this time with so much more experience. He came back to be fighting for the championship, no question.”
While Daly's 2010 title win was somewhat of a romp, the 2012 Star Mazda field is very much packed with De Phillippi's series experience up against his three teammates, Andretti Autosport's sophomores Sage Karam and Zach Veach, the Team Pelfrey trio that includes two-time winner Jack Hawksworth, USF2000 champ Petri Suvanto and series sophomore Gustavo Menezes, and a quartet of capable pilots at JDC Motorsports (Gabby Chaves, Juan Piedrahita, Stefan Rzadzinski, Ashley Freiberg).
“The thing about 2010, is that we were ahead on the technical aspects. But today it's more competitive, and we still have to work harder,” Juncos says. “The rules and technical package is the same. It's difficult to make it work, but having Connor, he's a fantastic driver, and a great person too, so we're hopeful of making a good combination.”
Scuncio has done best of the three others, with top-six results in the first five races of the year including a win at Barber Motorsports Park's second round. Ferreira, one of the two “Team Viso Venezuela” supported rookies, has top-10s in each of the first five as well; Palli has struggled but is learning the ropes.
With the Star Mazda success in the bank and the Lights debut season to build on, the best opportunity for Juncos' next step forward is when Indy Lights premieres its new car for 2014. Starting at what will then be a level playing field can only help.
“For us as a new team, of course it would be better if it happened now,” Juncos says. “We still have a lot to learn, as this current car's been around so long. In 2014, it will be new for everybody, and I'm hoping for that day to come fast because that will be our opportunity. But that's why I moved up this year, it's a big learning curve. For me as a team owner, I'm learning a lot today and needing to learn more to see the whole picture and background of IndyCar racing.”
Fellow team owners have largely extended an open hand to a new entrant, but naturally, Juncos isn't in the business of making friends with his competitors – not when eventually in Lights, he's looking to beat them.
“In conversations with others, it's always good to listen, but it's not good in motor racing to follow anyone – you'd be behind them,” he admits. “And that's how we are in having our own way of doing things. If we don't win races and championships, I don't like it. First we need to win, and that's been my whole life in racing.”