By Road to Indy
There is a great deal of symmetry between the histories of Juncos Racing team owner Ricardo Juncos and driver Victor Franzoni. Both came to the U.S. from South America with little more than the money in their respective pockets, and the passion and drive to make their racing dreams happen. In an all-or-nothing, pressure-packed scenario, the story of their 2017 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title run became one of the feel-good narratives of the year.
Juncos’ story is well-known: as a successful auto shop owner and part time race car driver, he emigrated from Argentina to America in 2002 with few contacts and no English. He built a race team from the ground up and a driver development program that has produced a who’s who of young racers that includes Conor Daly, Connor De Phillippi and Spencer Pigot.
Juncos first met Franzoni when the young Brazilian was the mechanic for a karting team competing against his son. Recognizing his ability both on and off the racetrack, Juncos had long hoped to have Franzoni on his team but was unable to connect the dots until last October, when Franzoni drove for Juncos Racing in the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That Franzoni went faster than the existing series track record did not surprise Juncos at all.
“When I first started racing back in Argentina,” said Juncos, “I was doing kind of the same thing as Victor is doing now: starting at the bottom as a mechanic and doing whatever it takes to make a living in racing and being in the car as much as possible. We’ve known Victor for years. I knew how good he was as a driver when I saw him race in karts, but it was difficult to make it happen for him to drive for us. When we finally did, we were very impressed. I realized he was even better than we thought – not just on the driver side, but on the technical aspects as well.”
The team was finally able put a deal together just days before the season opener, running Franzoni and sports car veteran Jeff Green. To say the team had a limited budget is an understatement. Franzoni brought what he could and supplemented the rest with “work for” deals: working as a coach for BN Racing and David Malukas, and as a mechanic for a karting team in exchange for tires, entry fees and a place to stay. For Juncos, it was a chance to keep the team intact and, for both, the chance to earn the budget that would allow them to progress together to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires – just one rung away from their shared dream of the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“The only goal was to win the championship. We had no options. We were both committed, but it was such a gamble. We didn’t focus on making money, we just wanted to keep the mechanics employed. These guys have been with us for years and they have families, but we were in a situation that we would have to let everyone go and not have a Pro Mazda team. But this was a way to keep everyone employed and give us a chance to win a championship. For Victor, it was win or nothing.”
Cape Motorsports’ Anthony Martin won the first two races at St. Petersburg, Fla., and Franzoni won both races at Indianapolis while the pair split Road America – by then, it was readily apparent that this would be a two-horse race. The pressure between Martin and Franzoni was enormous: with one winning and the other usually finishing second, there was absolutely no margin for error. One bad finish, and the entire season would be done.
“That made it a very difficult year, with so much pressure for the drivers and the teams. But we kept the pressure under control. I learn more every year on how to help the mindset, and I think that helps a lot. When you see someone else’s life experience, and see them perform on a high level, you can visualize doing it yourself. We worked a lot on the psychological level to keep it easier than it was, because the pressure was massive – and not just in regard to the results. Not only did we have no money to test, we had no money to repair the car. Victor knew that if he crashed, we couldn’t fix it. So he knew he couldn’t even crash a front wing, and that’s even more pressure. But Victor surprised me on so many levels this year. He is the real thing.”
Racing is about family for Ricardo Juncos, and while it is a business in many ways, it is a sport first and foremost. The passion that Franzoni exhibits every time he gets out of the race car is shared by the entire team – and that passion was necessary as Juncos reached the pinnacle of the sport this year with an entry into the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500.
“Everyone is here for the passion of motor racing, not just to get a paycheck. We are a racing team, not a racing business. That is key. The results are the priority before anything else, and every single person on my team is willing to do that. It’s difficult to measure, but we work as a family and that makes a difference.
“Running the Indy 500 added pressure for the whole team,” continued Juncos. “It’s a lot for any team, especially for a team running it for the first time. In addition to people we hired for the race, we used every single person from our Indy Lights and Pro Mazda teams. We tried to keep it separate as much as possible. There were people in common with all three teams, like myself, Jayson Marksberry, my COO, my wife Danielle, Abby Carter our PR person, and (technical director) Ernie Gonella, and they put in so many hours to do everything. It was very challenging but we kept everyone happy and kept our performance level up. We won a Pro Mazda race and an Indy Lights race in the month of May, so we didn’t miss a beat. But everyone worked so much.”
Martin took two of three races at Mid-Ohio for a four-point lead in the championship. But Franzoni won the three final races, on the oval at Gateway and both races at Watkins Glen. The word “pressure” comes up so often while describing the 2017 season, but Juncos still marvels at Franzoni’s ability to compartmentalize what he was dealing with (including three-quarters of the season in a drivers suit that was several sizes too small), and the emotion that came with the championship moment was a career highlight for both.
“He was under so much pressure, but that all changed when the race started. His voice changed on the radio, he was under a different dimension. He was so calm and under control at Gateway. His concentration was so good and that really surprised me. At Watkins Glen, Victor was leading but Anthony was third and we knew that anything could happen. It could change in a second: something could happen to the car and it would be game over. Everything you had worked for and done all year could disappear in a moment. You’re just waiting for the race to finish and at that moment, we knew it all made sense, that everything we wanted had materialized and the emotion comes out.”
Juncos was also quick to include Green in the season kudos. Green finished with season-high tallies of fifth at Road America and Gateway, in only his first season on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires. At age 60, he was also a calming and steadying influence on Franzoni.
“Jeff did an amazing job all season helping win this championship. He is an amazing person and very passionate driver. We had a great year with him and also had a lot of fun. He has proven he is a talented driver as well, especially for his age.”
Franzoni has yet to announce his 2018 intentions, but obviously Juncos Racing is at the top of the list of teams he would want to drive for. He watched Spencer Pigot ride his Pro Mazda title in 2014 and Indy Lights championship in 2015 straight into a successful career in the Verizon IndyCar Series and the pair would dearly love a repeat. Naturally, it would place both right back into that pressure cooker.
“We have the same intention with Victor that we had with Spencer in 2014: he would win the Pro Mazda championship and stay with us in Indy Lights. That’s the idea with Victor, but we still have to make the program come together and work. This type of program will have the same situation as this year, win all or nothing. If we were to go on and win the Indy Lights championship, then we will see what doors that opens up for the future.”