SALINAS, Calif — Callum Ilott picked a good day to have a great day. The rookie driver qualified his No. 77 Dallara-Chevrolet on the front row for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).
“Yeah, what a run, what a day so far,” Ilott said. “Yeah, super happy with that, honestly. If I didn’t have lunch maybe I would have taken it away.
“Honestly, these guys working so hard throughout the year, we knew sometimes got the pace, but there’s so much more to this series than just having a good car. You’ve got to put it all together, and to do a day like this where you almost get it, almost get it, I think it’s great to finish off the season like this and take a front row.”
Ilott is coming on strong too. He scored his 2nd career top 10 finish 6 days ago in Portland with a 9th place result. However, strong pace at Laguna Seca isn’t nothing too shocking though in a sense.
He’s been at his best on natural road courses this season. He qualified 7th in the GMR Grand Prix back in May. He was 11th in Barber, 12th in Road America, 10th in Mid-Ohio and 14th in Portland.
Now he’s in the Fast Six for his first time of his career.
“Yeah, first Fast Six, so we’ll take that,” he notes. “It’s one step at a time. I’d love to win races if we have the pace to do it. I’m not going to ruin anyone’s race to do it. But it’s more about working away. I’d love to just finish the season with a top 5, top 3, take it as it comes.
“Hopefully I have a long career, and like this man, can have many podiums and wins, so there’s no point messing people around to try and save something with the last one. The team will be happy with that. If we’ve got the pace, I’m all for it, but it’s a long, long race.
“These races aren’t won in the first corner. They’re won with good strategy, good pit stops and a fast car. We’ll see. I’ll be calm and all of this, but if someone pushes me off I’ll get them soon.”
Ilott also says that this result just goes to show what they can do when seeing tracks a 2nd time too. Remember, he made his debut last year in Portland. He was 9th this time around. His 2nd career race in 2021 was here. He’s now on the front row.
“Yeah, it shows what we can do with what we have in a certain way. I mean, we started the season with two and a half sets of dampers and one of them is for ovals. We finished with, I think, three and a half, and they’re not much different to the first one. We just bought another version of the first set and adapted them a little bit.
“That’s what happens when you work with what you’ve got and you optimize it.
“Yeah, we’re not — our terms of development this year have been what we had to start with, and again, just fine-tuning it. Whether it’s me and the driving and the experience, we’ve just been chipping away and trying to do a good job with that, and yeah, it’s been tough, especially with no teammate to kind of have anything to use very well, learn from. To get to this stage and have a result like this, I think they’re all super chuffed, and yeah, amazing job.
“At the end of the day even if it’s just one lap at the end, it’s great to do it, finish it like this, and I think gives us so much more motivation in the off-season when they get some time to really digest everything and work on it.”
Even more exciting, the smallest team on the grid is up front with the juggernauts. Ilott will start alongside a Penske. A pair of Andretti cars will lineup behind him. A Ganassi car and McLaren entry are a row behind that.
Juncos Hollinger Racing is there with them. In 2nd. This comes a few days after they’ve announced the addition of a 2nd car for 2023.
That’s all part of the process though.
“To be able to announce this today and make this a reality is incredible,” said JHR Co-owner and Team Principal Ricardo Juncos. “We have stood by our words from the beginning that we would continue to grow and expand and that is what we are doing. For us expanding to a two-car team is very exciting to announce but was also our plan for the past year since we joined the NTT INDYCAR SERIES full time.”
“We wanted to start this year with one car, to start the protocols and procedures for the team,” continued Juncos. “Our philosophy that we work with is a little bit different than the standards, so we wanted to make sure we implanted our plan the right way by focusing on one car before we expanded. We are doing exactly as we planned and will continue with our two-car team for the foreseeable future starting in 2023. We are going to keep building this team the way Brad and I planned from the beginning, and to do what is the best in terms of development, technical, marketing, and everything else.”
Juncos said this past summer that the 2nd driver is going to be dictated by a mix of money and talent. It may have to be someone with a budget to help.
“We are evaluating options as well as sponsors going forward,” Juncos said of the 2nd car when announcing the Ilott news. “It’s a tough situation because we want to do it right. To do it right we need a certain budget. The budget needs to come from the sponsors and sometimes from the driver as well. We are evaluating options at the moment.
“As of today I don’t know. But the criteria will be kind of what we did last year when we choose Callum, kind of the same deal. We are going to apply the same kind of thinking behind so we can replicate what we did with Callum with the second driver.”
Juncos knows that they need this 2nd car. They own it. They just didn’t have the resources to put it on track. Now that they’ve accumulated the people to do so, it’s time.
The reason for this second car is simple – it’s badly needed. They feel like they’ve maximized their opportunity as a single car team. Throughout the season and being the only one car team among the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, the JHR 77 has qualified inside the top-12 five times, with a best qualifying run of seventh at both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and at the streets of Toronto. Ilott’s season best finish came at the Indianapolis Grand Prix in May where he finished 8th.
Juncos mentioned this past July that it was a massive disadvantage as the only single car team on the grid and to do so with a rookie. They wanted a 2nd car to help Ilott’s growth.
“It’s a huge disadvantage, but is what it is,” Juncos said then. “We knew from day one is our situation and we take it. Imagine for Callum being a rookie without knowing the tracks, we go to Toronto and we were P7, hundredths off P6, 2/10ths from P1. We were the only one with old reds. Technically we could be front row.
“Being the first time, we have nobody to compare. It’s very hard. We are hypothetically comparing to imagination.
“Having two cars is big advantage. But we know the different. But have to be right, right? Not just because you go to two cars. If it’s not right, it may be worst. That’s the key question here, how we’re going to do it.
“No question being only one-car team in the level of INDYCAR today, everybody can see is a little bit disadvantage. But, like I said, we knew from day one going to be like that so no complaints.”
Ilott had his thoughts on the 2nd car too.
“Yeah, I mean, for me, if I look back to Indy, I think to be honest with a teammate we probably could have avoided that crash,” he mentions. “I think there were a couple of factors where if we would have developed a bit more and had a bit more target towards some things to think about, could have helped me, helped the team to not put myself in that position really.
“There’s a lot that goes to it. There’s a lot of testing, options that you have to go through. Having a teammate not only gives you data as another driver, but you can try twice as much for the setup, see what’s wrong or right. Obviously most of the time on a test day you’re going through all the things that actually don’t work, you find one that works. That can happen twice as quickly.
“The ovals will probably teach me the most. If we have an experienced teammate who knows what they like from the car on that side. Hopefully I can learn a thing or two on the road and street circuits.”
At least they know they can make it work and are in search of that driver.
The announcement comes within a year of JHR being announced as a new team. Just over one year ago Ricardo Juncos partnered with Brad Hollinger to form Juncos Hollinger Racing. The two met during the 2017 Indianapolis 500 and formed a friendship over the next few years. Both Juncos and Hollinger saw an opportunity to combine their passion for motorsports which led to the formation and partnership of Juncos Hollinger Racing.
“We are very excited to be entering the next season with our second entry,” said Co-owner Brad Hollinger. “Ricardo, Callum, and the entire team have done an exceptional job this year, by exceeding the objectives we set for ourselves for the first full year of running in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Now, we are scheduled to expand the team which will give us a significant competitive boost for the 2023 campaign. Having a second car enables the team to meaningfully enhance our data analytics, as well as test varying track set-ups and race strategies. The advantages of a multiple car team are immense.”
“Callum is an exceptional young driver who has exceeded all expectations in only his first year of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. By pairing him with an accomplished teammate will serve to advance his performance even further. Our goal is straightforward, to be at the point of the arrow. Clearly, Ricardo has demonstrated his ability to assemble a winning team. This past weekend Juncos Hollinger Racing won the Indy Pro 2000 team championship for the sixth time, and the team has also won in the Indy Lights Series in the past as well. Our 2023 game plan is a great step forward towards our ultimate goal of winning NTT INDYCAR SERIES team and driver’s title.”
Ilott expects a strong sophomore season at the helm.
“Look, from the speed aspect, I’ve already set a good benchmark, and I hope to already be starting from that kind of position for next season,” he said this past summer.
“I think as a team, I’ve got to put a pressure of on these guys to build the background as much as possible and see how we can improve. Like I said, we’re a bit limited on options of what we got to test at the moment. We need time. We need development on that side. That only comes in the breaks.
“That’s where some more speed can come from. But also I reckon next year being a bit more comfortable, not having to learn the tracks, but take my time to develop the car in the sessions, that probably helps in the FP1s. I reckon we should start where we finish off at least.
“Yeah, I really hope we can be fighting at the top for podiums and wins. I think a podium is on the cards probably for the end of this year.”