Photo: Shawn Gritzmacher/INDYCAR

Alfonso Celis Jr. ‘Growing Up’ in ‘Challenging’ Year Ahead of Portland GP

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Oregon — Off the track, Juncos Racing driver Alfonso Celis, Jr. of Mexico City is an avid soccer fan,  rooting for Real Madrid and Tigres UANL. On the track, though, he’s all business and looking to make a name in open wheel racing as he’s set to make his second career Verizon IndyCar Series start at Portland International Raceway Sunday.

However, the former Force India test driver has seen himself waiting on the sidelines, eager to run as many races possible. The task has proven to be difficult as it’s his third major race weekend all season, and first since making his  debut in North America’s premier open wheel tour at Road America in late June, where he finished a lap down in 20th.

Celis said he would’ve liked to participate in pre-season testing, but with a small budget, seat time has been hard to come by. During the difficult times, he has remained optimistic that he’ll make a name in the sport.

“If I had the budget, I obviously would have done pre-season testing in INDYCAR,” Celis told Motorsports Tribune. “So we’ve been struggling with that matter and it’s been tough. I want to be quick, and I know I can be quick, but there’s a process unfortunately that I have to go through even though I don’t like it.

“Thursday and at Road America, I’m just trying to chase the time and bring the best I got. The opportunities are really limited this year. I want to be quick and show myself as well.”

Throughout Thursday’s testing sessions at the 12-turn, 1.964-mile road course, Celis was fighting his No. 32 Chevrolet in order to get the best lap time possible. He was 24th quickest out of the 25-car field in the opening session, clocking in a time of 60.1824 seconds. He was able to improve on his lap time during the second session, but he was the slowest with a time of 59.615 seconds, 1.2922 seconds slower the quickest man and points leader Scott Dixon.

The 22-year-old’s session was also cut short when he crashed in Turn 4, sustaining most of the damage on the left side.

Celis admitted the circuit is difficult, where grip is essential of obtaining a solid lap time as its also INDYCAR’s first trip to the Pacific Northwest in 11 years, which other drivers have said the track felt different than expected. As a result, he spent a lot of minutes finding a suitable setup to get around the road course.

“It’s pretty nice and fun, but on the other hand, it’s not forgiving in the sense that it’s really challenging,” said Celis.

“It’s a track where sometimes you don’t find the grip, especially for us at the beginning of the day. We were struggling quite a bit. We expected to have more grip, so we went with a more aggressive setup to the point we have grip.

“We were already fighting grip and struggling with it, so we were messing around with the car quite a lot. We tried some things which seemed to work. I put up a good lap time for that time and then I just kept pushing, and kept trying things.”

As a result of making several adjustments to his car, Celis felt he pushed it too hard which led to his Turn 4 crash.

“Unfortunately, I had a bit of a moment in Turn 4,” said Celis. “It was me pushing too hard with the things we were trying.”

Celis is one of three drivers (the others were Rene Binder and reigning Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser) that’s competed in the No. 32 Juncos Racing entry this season, and while he’s competed against Binder, part of the struggle is collecting data as it’s one of the only teams in the series that just runs a single-car operation, with rumors of running a second car next season.

Celis explained that one of his strongest points is understanding how his car should be developed and self-aware of the direction his car must end up.

“We had a bit of a chat earlier on and saw him Thursday, but not much to be honest,” he said. I think I’m a good car developer, so that’s why we tried many things. I know the direction of what it should feel like, and that’s part of the reason why I’m here and given this opportunity.

“It’s been pretty good, but it’s tough not driving much and not having anybody to compare the data because we’re a single-car team. It’s tougher than what it looks like for us. If I had driven a bit more, then you kind of know the basics, but when you don’t really know and trying to find time.

“On the same hand, trying stuff on the car, so it’s a lot of stuff to take into. You got to really be at the maximum of your level.”

While track time for Celis hasn’t been there, he’s found some takeaways that’ll help him going forward into his young racing career.

“It’s something I had never experimented before, the matter of driving so few laps throughout the year, I think the positives and takeaways is that it’s been a challenging year. In that regard, I think I’m growing up as a person more,” said Celis.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a three-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.