Agustin Canapino

Argentina’s Agustin Canapino, the newest driver in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, has lived in the United States for a little more than a week, and he and his girlfriend, Josefina, saw snow for the first time last Wednesday.

His only experience with Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a short visit on a quiet, non-event afternoon, and he has only watched the NTT INDYCAR SERIES on television; he has never witnessed it in person. Also, the champion of Argentina’s top touring car class has never driven a full season in an open-wheel, open-cockpit category.

Amid that uninitiated backdrop is a home country of juiced motorsports fans who can’t wait to see one of their own competing at this level of global racing, especially driving for an Argentine team owner, Ricardo Juncos of Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Hence Canapino’s desire to pump the brakes on soaring expectations back home.

“I need to keep calm for the Argentine fanatics because they are very crazy (excited) right now – you can see it on my social media,” he said, laughing. “But I need to tell them this is my first year, and INDYCAR is very difficult. Juncos (Hollinger) is a great team, but it is a team that is growing (to two full-time cars this season).

“I need to keep calm and go step by step (as a driver), especially on the ovals, which are a big challenge for me. I have a lot to learn.”

Canapino will drive the No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet alongside second-year NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver Callum Ilott, a driver he barely knows heading to the open test this Thursday and Friday at The Thermal Club near Palm Springs, California.

Canapino is unique to the INDYCAR SERIES in many ways, not the least of which is the fact he is 33 years old. His father, Alberto, worked in Formula 3 in Europe as a mechanic, renowned in his craft as his father had been in various Argentine categories years prior. But it wasn’t a given that this generation of the family would work in the sport as his parents had separated when he was very young, and he lived with his mother in Arrecifes, a small town two hours from his father in Buenos Aires.

Alberto had taken his mechanic skills and become the owner of a touring car team in Argentina, but he didn’t know how rich his son’s interest in motorsports was until watching him, as a 15-year old, drive a simulator. He was impressed.

“He couldn’t believe it,” Canapino said. “He decided to give me a chance, and I never stopped.”

Success followed, eventually coming at the highest level in Argentina. They won 15 national championships together in various divisions, including Turismo Carretera, but they were always in cars with a roof. Agustin Canapino never raced a kart, a Formula Ford or in any of the formula categories that comprise the resumes of most NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers.

The sad part of Canapino’s ascension to this level is that neither his father nor his grandfather lived long enough to see it. Both died of complications related to COVID-19.

“That year was very, very sad and unhappy for me,” Canapino said. “All of my career and what I know about motorsports I learned from my dad. We worked together for a lot of years and won a lot of championships, and me being here in Indianapolis I am very sure he’s very proud because he always dreamed of working in the U.S., especially INDYCAR.

“For us, INDYCAR is very big. I fight alone for (the past) two years, but I feel his force, his presence. I am here for him. This was his most important dream, and he motivated me to be here.”

Aside from Ilott, Canapino said he knows 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Alex Palou from sim racing, but “only from a computer.” Canapino considers six-time series champion Scott Dixon “the most complete driver” in this sport, and he is eager to meet him next week at The Thermal Club. Otherwise, Canapino is coming in as green as his car and admits as much.

Canapino first drove for Juncos’ sports car team in the 2019 Rolex 24 At Daytona in a Cadillac prototype, and they were together in that season’s next race, the 12 Hours of Sebring. Since then, Canapino and Juncos have spent countless hours working together to assemble this NTT INDYCAR SERIES program, which Canapino hopes will be a partnership for years to come.

Proof of the excitement for the program came from the exhibition they staged in early October at the Circuit of Termas de Rio Hondo in Argentina. Canapino considers that event the biggest of his career so far.

“It’s true, it’s true,” he said. “It was amazing for Argentines because we are very far from here.

“It was one car, one driver and only (on track) for two moments on the day. But it was very huge, 70,000 people. Imagine if we have a race (there) one day!”

For now, the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge must suffice. Based on what Canapino has seen on television from afar, well, he’s trying to keep his anticipation in check.

“I’m excited, but I’m very focused,” he said. “It’s weird as there are two sides, and I’m having a lot of emotions in my body. But I must take this opportunity as it comes.”

And the prospects of competing in the Indianapolis 500 in May?

“I remember I thought, ‘Oh, my God, these guys are very crazy,’” he said, laughing at the quick look at the iconic oval in 2019. “Now I am another crazy guy.”

The 17-race NTT INDYCAR SERIES season begins March 3-5 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, which airs live at noon ET Sunday, March 5 on NBC.