Agustín Canapino became the first Argentinian driver to race at the Indy 500 since Raúl Riganti in 1940.
The Juncos Hollinger Racing driver switched from Argentinian Super TC2000 to IndyCar in 2023, partnering with Callum Ilott.
Despite an agonising crash with eight laps to go at Indianapolis, Canapino thoroughly enjoyed oval racing and was taken aback by his first experience at Texas Motor Speedway.
“I thought these guys are totally crazy. What I am doing here, man, honestly, it was insane, especially in Texas, because Texas is a super speedway oval, and the banking during the corners is insane.
“The G-forces, the speed, the wall. Oh, my God! It was a really, really extreme experience. But at the end of the day, I enjoy it because I think, of course, the risk and the extreme is too high, but I love that because I love the race, I love motorsport, and I love the speed.”
Canapino’s first Indy 500 experience was made even more special as he was the first Argentinian to race at the Brickyard in 83 years.
The number 78 car sported a striking white and blue livery to celebrate the Argentine men’s football team winning their third World Cup in 2022.
“Especially because I had the Argentinian car with the colours, with my flag, honouring the World Championship, in the Soccer World Cup. Everything was really special. It was a really, really special moment.”
Despite the added emotion of the 33-year-old being the first Argentinian to grace the Indy 500 for nearly a century, the JHR driver was ice-cool as the dirty air posed a challenge.
“But I was really focused, honestly, because it was a really demanding race. It’s a really demanding oval. It is really fast, really fast.
“You have to be really focused to do a good job because everything’s changed every moment. The wind, the tyres, the setup.
“You have to drive the car with the race setup, and the race setup is a different car. The dirty air is not the same going in front of the field, the back, or the middle.
“Every time you are learning everything, and you are working in every moment. It’s tough. It’s an art. I think the art, the oval races, is like an art.”
The driver of the number 78 car undertook a significant change in his life, switching from Argentina to the United States of America ahead of the 2023 season.
Canapino delved into the cultural differences between the two nations: “Everything, honestly, because life is different. Our culture here is different, especially about the social.
“Here in South America, especially in Argentina, we are sociable people. Here, everything is really like a chaos, honestly. In America, everything is structured. Of course, the language was a big challenge for me because I had never spoken English before this challenge.”
The 33-year-old started in IndyCar superbly; Canapino battled through the carnage of the opening round at St. Pete to finish 12th.
This was followed up by another impressive drive during his first oval race at Texas, passing former IndyCar champion Will Power on his way to P12.
The 15-time championship winner in Argentina said the opening two rounds of his IndyCar career gave him a shot in the arm despite suffering from the extreme physical challenge in Texas.
“Especially, honestly, St. Pete, the only thing I did was survive. Because I remember it was a crazy race. My goal was to finish the race.
“It doesn’t matter the position. My only goal was to finish the race, and I finished 12th because I survived and avoided every crash.
“But in Texas, it was different because in Texas, my car was fast, really, really fast. I overtook Callum; I overtook Will Power, I overtook Pagenaud, Castroneves.
“I was battling with Ericsson, and I couldn’t believe it. What is possible? But my car was really good. I started to feel really confident in the oval. I started to overtake people… really crazy for me, that situation.”
Canapino was battling to finish in the top 10 but struggled in the closing stages of the PPG 375 due to the physical strain of oval racing.
“I finished at 12th because in the last part of the race, I was exhausted and really dizzy, and I suffered a lot the previous part of the race, but I was in condition to battle for a much better result without a doubt.
“But I finished at 12th for my first time in an oval, my second race in an open-wheel car. Honestly, I remember that moment and can’t believe it.”
IndyCars are ultra-physical to drive with highly high downforce levels and a lack of power steering, making the Dallara IR18 challenging to drive.
The heaviness of the steering provides a different dynamic to other cars with slick tyres and wings, particularly during Indycar races, which can last longer than two hours.
Canapino admitted that the physical aspect of driving the car was a real challenge: “Definitely the physicality. Because in the car is probably the most definitely, it’s the most physical car in the world because you haven’t any assistance on your steering wheel.
“The tracks are crazy tracks, really bumpy tracks. The races are really long. The physicality is the most demanding for me, especially because I have never been seated in the open-wheel car.
“My muscles, for example, my shoulders, my neck, everything, have to learn how to work in the car.
“I think that the physical… The warm, for example, I am comfortable with the warm in the car because in the touring cars, especially here in the summer, in December, for example, here, Oh, my God!”
The Juncos Hollinger driver said he is used to racing in hot weather after his experience running in the summer in Argentina, but he still needs to improve his conditioning.
“The races are really, really warm. It’s not a problem for me. But yes, definitely, the G-forces and the physicality. I think this is the thing I need to continue my improvement. But definitely, these were the most difficult for me at the beginning.”
Canapino finished 21st in the championship and achieved a best result of 12th on three occasions.
The Argentinian suffered some setbacks, such as failing to finish at the Indy 500 and Portland, but said his rookie IndyCar season exceeded expectations.
“Honestly, much, much better than I expected, and I think everybody expected, honestly, because it was my first full-time season in the Open Wheel Car.
“IndyCar is a really, really demanding series for the driver because you have to drive into normal circuits, street circuits, and especially in the ovals.
“The ovals were my biggest challenge, of course. But honestly, I’m really happy. I’m really happy with my first season.
“I learned a lot of things, and I improved a lot to my physical condition because the physical condition was my biggest challenge because I did my entire life.
“My career in touring cars, and I need to improve a lot my muscles for this type of car. Of course, I lived a new life, learned to speak a new language, lived in Indy, lived in America, and raced against part of the best drivers in the world.”
The 33-year-old’s strong first year has been rewarded with a new contract and he spoke of the confidence that gives the IndyCar driver ahead of the new season.
“It’s very important because now I have the confidence, Okay, I can do that. This year, honestly, I was very scared because the car is really demanding.
“Everything was really new for me, and I was really scared at the beginning. I suffered a lot. It was a big sacrifice for me.
“But now, okay, I know what I have to do work to improve myself, for example, what I have to work about to improve my physicality, to understand better the tyres, the race, the strategy, the tracks is really important, the ovals.
“Now, okay, I can think about what I need to improve this situation, these things step by step, but I have confidence. I will be in St. Petersburg in the first race with totally different mind, and I want to have a better year, of course, with the situation.”
On the other side of the garage, Ilott drove the number 77 car during his second full IndyCar season. It was announced today that he will not drive for the team in 2024.
The British driver enjoyed a meteoric rise on the ladder towards Formula 1, racing against talents such as Mick Schumacher, Yuki Tsunoda and Lando Norris.
Ilott got to the fringes of the Formula 1 grid as Scuderia Ferrari’s test driver in 2021 and drove in two practice sessions for Alfa Romeo that year. However, he failed to land a full-time drive at the pinnacle of motorsport.
Canapino heaped praise on his teammate after their first season together: “I know a lot, Callum is one of the best drivers without doubt.
“I learned a lot from Callum, especially at the beginning, because, for example, in my first race, I lost five seconds on the out laps with cold tyres, and Callum did that part of the things really well. I learned a lot.
“He’s a really good driver. For me, it was a really good experience to share the team with him.”
The Juncos Hollinger driver had not raced on any of the 17 circuits on the calendar but performed admirably at the season finale at Laguna Seca, declaring it the best race of his rookie campaign.
He finished 14th on a chaotic day in California and ran in the top five for some of the race as an unfortunate touch with teammate Ilott damaged his front wing.
Canapino said: “Definitely the last in Laguna Seca because I did my better qualification. I qualified in 13th. In the race, my race pace was really, really good. During the whole race, I was at the beginning of P8, P7, and after that, P3.
“The pace was there. I did a P3 on the warm-up. Honestly, the Laguna Seca was my. I had the better car of the year and more confidence than ever.”
The Argentinian was hugely impressive throughout his rookie IndyCar campaign and outlined some areas of improvement ahead of his second season.
“Now, I want to improve this year. Of course, entering the leader circle is the base goal. I want to improve this year.
“Try to be in the top 15 more frequently, sometimes in the top 10. Why not someday like Laguna or Iowa? When I was really fast and when I was at the pace to battle with the top teams and the top guys, why not try to fight for a good result?
“But I want to have my feet on the ground. I want to go step by step and try to learn every day. But of course, I want to have better results next year.”
Photo credit: Penske Entertainment | James Black