BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Up until a few months ago, Agustin Canapino thought his entire racing career would be spent in his home country of Argentina.
That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, Canapino is one of the most successful drivers Argentina has ever produced, having won more than 100 races and a total of 15 championships in various domestic racing series.
Fate, though, had other plans. When Juncos Hollinger Racing founder and fellow countryman Ricardo Juncos arranged to have an NTT IndyCar Series exhibition in Buenos Aires last November, he tapped Canapino to handle the driving duties. Then, on Jan. 12, he announced that the 33-year-old Canapino would be joining his IndyCar team behind the wheel of the No. 78 JHR Chevrolet.
The IndyCar world was more than surprised at the announcement, though not as much as the driver was. But after three races, he’s more than shown his mettle, finishing 12th at the season opener at St. Pete and an impressive 11th at Texas – the first oval race of his career.
He heads into Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park 18th in the IndyCar points standings, just one point behind Marcus Armstrong in the Rookie of the Year race.
Canapino admits there is a part of himself that is still trying to catch up.
“It came really fast and was unexpected,” Canapino told Frontstretch. “It’s amazing. It’s tough and a big challenge, but at the same time I am happy to be here, and I’m trying to make the most of this opportunity.”
Canapino’s relationship with Ricardo Juncos goes back to 2019, when he joined Juncos Racing in its DPi car for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. There he helped his team to an eighth-place class finish, then competed again with Juncos in the 12 Hours of Sebring, where the Juncos effort finished 10th in class.
Fast forward to 2022. When the exhibition in Argentina also involved a test at Sebring, and when Canapino was quickly running laps and posting data comparable to other drivers Juncos had in mind for the seat, the team principal knew he had his driver.
“I (was interested) when we had the chance to see him in Daytona (in 2018), in the prototype,” Juncos said “When I saw him in the prototype I could see that difference he made and knew he would drive open wheel. Since then I have tried to find a way to do something with him, and four years later we finally got to put something together.
“It wasn’t a logical move at all, and it surprised a lot of people, but I did it and so far, it has been working really well.”
His experience at Daytona got Canapino thinking as well.
“It was only one race with a new team and series, but it was important,” he recalled. “It’s the reason I am here, because Ricardo saw what I can do with the car and work with a team.”
His new job set a lot of wheels in motion for Canapino: moving to a new country, getting settled in with a new team and an unfamiliar car, and, perhaps the biggest challenge of all – learning a new language.
Prior to the start of the year, Canapino didn’t know any English. But he started working with a teacher, watching movies and television, and working with an app on his phone. Canapino just focuses on learning something new every day, and he has made that attitude all-inclusive.
“When Ricardo called me in December, I decided I would do the best I could in every area in my life, my physical condition, my body, my nutrition, and with my English,” Canapino said. “I am totally focused with my job and learning all I can about IndyCar.”
Another thing Canapino had to learn was oval racing. And, like English, he went all-in. While at first he thought oval racing was “insane”, after just a couple of days of testing he was thrown into the mix with the best oval racers in the world at Texas Motor Speedway and held his own.
Next month, he heads to the biggest and fastest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500. Canapino got a taste of the Brickyard last week during the open test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and, like a lot of racers before him, has figured out what oval racing is all about.
“What you see an oval race, you think that it’s only turning left, it’s not difficult,” Canapino said. “Then you do it, and you think, oh s*** this is difficult.
“The big thing of running on an oval is running with a pack, learning the air, the draft, and how to run in close situations. You can’t make any mistakes. You need to test that limit and get close to it, but not go over. That’s hard, to find that balance.”
Canapino understands his goal for this season. While he hopes that his future has him contending for race wins and championships, he knows that right now it’s about learning and turning laps. While he wishes he could’ve tried IndyCar at a younger age, he also feels that his experience has been a big help, as it has given him the patience and perspective to navigate such unfamiliar waters.
There is a lot of season left, but Canapino has just one thing in mind: to come back in 2024. He wants to go from getting reps to really racing, and a second season would go a long way to proving what he’s got.
“Honestly my goal is to have the opportunity to have another year,” he said. “In just one year I can’t really show what I can do. It’s not only my first time in open wheel racing, it’s my first time for a lot of things, and my goal is to have the opportunity to go another year.”
Given what he’s shown so far, that’s a pretty good possibility.
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