Agustin Canapino

The first lap of last year’s season-ending NTT INDYCAR SERIES race saw five cars tangling in Turn 2. Rookie Agustin Canapino was not driving one of them.

Rather, Canapino used the misfortune of others to pick his way through the congestion, gaining nine positions from his 19th starting position. He wasn’t done, either, eventually climbing to third in the running order before a late-race incident forced him to settle for 14th place.

Still, it was progress, and the 34-year-old Argentine made it in heaps in 2023.

Canapino had never driven a single-seat formula car before last year, and yet he figured it out without overstepping the boundaries of this action-packed series. On average, the driver of the No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet gained 2.5 positions per race, an astonishing figure based on the experience of the other drivers in the series.

Only three drivers who competed in at least half the season moved forward as efficiently as Canapino. Their names: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon and Callum Ilott. Hunter-Reay and Dixon have combined to win seven NTT INDYCAR SERIES championships and two Indianapolis 500s presented by Gainbridge. Together they have started 678 series races, winning 74. Ilott was Canapino’s teammate.

Certainly, Canapino is no newcomer to high-speed competition – he won 15 national touring car championships in Argentina before arriving in the U.S. last year – but even he acknowledged how much he had to learn in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.

“I learned a lot about the car, the tires, the brakes, the way to manage races, the other (series) drivers, the rules,” he said. “I learned a lot – everything.”

That includes the language of the locals. Just 14 months ago, Canapino, who had only been to the U.S. one other time, was struggling to converse. It was as much pressure as anything he faced in the sport.

“A lot more than Indy 500 qualification,” he said, laughing.

But Canapino even handled earning a spot in the “500.” As the Month of May festivities began, most experts figured it would be Juncos Hollinger Racing, one of the smallest and least-experienced teams in the paddock, and particularly Canapino, fighting to avoid the bubble amid a 34-car entry list. Canapino and, for that matter, Ilott, never came close to it. Canapino qualified 27th, Ilott 28th.

Ilott drove to 12th at the end of the 500 miles, Canapino was 14th on Lap 193 – three positions ahead of Ilott – when he came upon a Turn 3 mess initiated by Pato O’Ward’s outside wall contact. The accordion effect led to Canapino’s right rear tire being punctured, rendering him helpless as the car rolled toward O’Ward’s disabled car. The impact shot the front of Canapino’s car high in the air. Still, the strong race to that point was progress, and Canapino hopes it carries over.

“I am really excited (for the upcoming season), especially by the way we finished last season because we were battling for a podium (at WeatherTech Laguna Seca) just before (contact),” he said. “We were fourth, and we were in a really good position to battle for the race.

“We did really good moments during the year. We achieved decent results for our first season in INDYCAR.”

Canapino noted not only was last year his first season in the series, Ricardo Juncos and Brad Hollinger were fielding two cars at every race for the first time. Ilott had his strong moments, too, leading five laps in the “500” and bookending the season with fifth-place finishes.

Ilott has since left the Indianapolis-based team, his spot taken by Formula One veteran Romain Grosjean. Canapino believes Grosjean’s experience can be a big advantage for everyone involved with JHR.

“I think we have a really good opportunity to learn from him and continue this progress,” said Canapino, who finished 14 of the 17 races last season. “We (will know) the limit. If we can’t move forward in the results, it’s for our fault.”

While Canapino made great progress in 2023, he knows more will be required this year as he no longer will get a newcomer’s pass. Finishing 21st in the point standings might not be good enough to maintain his place in the series.

“Of course, it’s only the beginning,” he said of last year’s improvement. “Now I have an idea what I have to do.”

The 17-race season begins March 10 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding. The race will air live at noon ET on NBC and Peacock.