Ricardo Juncos expected promising results to come in 2023, but not right out of the gate at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding.
After all, the co-owner of Juncos Hollinger Racing (JHR) underwent a busy offseason that included a rebrand and expansion to two full-time entries with sophomore Callum Ilott joined by Agustín Canapino, a multiple touring car champion in Argentina with no open-wheel experience.
Ilott started 22nd in the No. 77 Chevrolet and carefully navigated the unrelenting chaos that was seemingly constant for all 100 laps around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit. In the end, the Englishman made up a staggering 17 spots to cross the finish line fifth, a career-best for both him and Juncos Hollinger Racing.
“It is amazing,” Juncos said. “Obviously, a great feeling. I can't believe it. I don't think I'm going to realize what we just did because coming from one car to two cars is really difficult, and to do it the right way.
“We also put on an exhibition in Argentina, which was very complicated for everybody. The rebranding, everything, it was, it was a very hard preseason for us. The goal today was trying to not make mistakes, but I never expected after qualifying to finish the way we finished. We had an issue (in qualifying), we don't know exactly know what, tire pressures or something on the second set of tires with Callum that put him on the 22nd place. I think he had the potential to be in the Fast Six, for sure the top 12.
“I'm very impressed, very impressed with what Callum did. He's showing the caliber of driver he is, and I think this is a great situation to be now because the motivation will go higher now for the rest. So, it's a good start because even starting from 22nd place, it was very challenging for him, and he did a great, great job.”
And despite a lack of experience, Canapino, making his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut in the team’s No. 78 Chevrolet, managed to finish on the lead lap in 12th after starting 21st.
“We always keep saying it is the anti-logic move, bringing someone with no experience in go-kart or open-wheel car and now INDYCAR,” Juncos said. “But we did the crazy thing and now he did a fantastic job. In the last six or seven laps of the race, he was on the pace with the leaders.
“I couldn't believe what he was doing trying to survive the race because obviously, physically it was very, very challenging for both, but for Augustin for sure more. And to finish like this, it's a great, great effort for the team. It's all about the effort of the group of people that I have. I can't thank them enough. For Brad (Hollinger), obviously what he's doing, the sponsors that believe in us, the drivers, the team members, every single one. I'm really, really happy.”
JHR and Ilott showed flashes of excellence last season, with numerous strong practice sessions throughout their initial campaign together, punctuated by two top-10 finishes and a Firestone Fast Six appearance that resulted in a second-place starting spot in the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
While the goals continue to be reset for the group, especially entering their second season together, Juncos was stunned to see this type of performance happen so quickly.
“Exactly, this is the good thing for the team because we didn't know what to expect,” Juncos said. “We were just trying to build the second team, which is double the people and try to make the system work. And the race was crazy, actually. The race was a lot of strategy, and we were thinking a lot.
“First time for myself, as well, to be on the radio with Agustin and be part of the strategy. I never did that before. It was very challenging for me, as well, and try to shift my mind as a team owner from everything else that I'm doing to the race mode. I think we did a good job. We have pretty much everybody new on the timing stand on Agustin's car with not much experience, to be honest. We did all we can.
“This is great. This is a good start. Great motivation. But I never expected, if you asked me (Sunday) morning, to expect this result.”