Canapino to continue with Juncos-Hollinger for remainder of IndyCar season

Agustin Canapino will return to the No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevy at the next NTT IndyCar Series race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and complete the season in the car.

The decision comes after the Argentinian was removed from the No. 78 prior to last Friday's opening practice session at Road America in the wake of recent issues and replaced by rookie driver Nolan Siegel.

On the heels of the third social media incident in 14 months in which a small group of Canapino's fans sent death threats and other hateful messages to IndyCar competitors who clashed with their hero, the 34-year-old maintained an unflinching and largely unsympathetic stance towards the recipients, the latest being Arrow McLaren rookie Theo Pourchaire, who hit and then passed Canapino at the Detroit Grand Prix two weeks ago.

Arrow McLaren severed its business relationship with JHR in reaction to Canapino's dismissive online conduct towards the matter.

Asked to step away on Friday and consider different viewpoints in the clashes that have arisen since 2023, Canapino used the forced absence to better understand and embrace the cultural differences that exist in the U.S.

Born and raised in the town of Arrecifes to the northwest of Buenos Aires, Canapino spent his life racing in Argentina before embarking on a wildly ambitious straight-to-IndyCar move which is in, for him, a foreign country, where he competes for team owners Ricardo Juncos and Brad Hollinger.

The greatest progress Canapino made in his time away from racing came through accepting something he'd been steadfast in refusing: In the same way an American racing full-time in Argentina would be expected to adapt their cultural sensibilities to better align with the spirit and sensitivities of their host country, Canapino acknowledged he'd been holding firm to his Argentinian sensibilities in the U.S. and was unwilling to adapt.

Specifically, he hadn't allowed himself to accept the American viewpoints on the social media incidents, which in turn sparked a backlash from some IndyCar fans. As Juncos and later, Canapino, explained, such threats are commonplace among sports fans in Argentina and are widely ignored as nothing more than passionate outbursts where no actual harm — even if death is mentioned — is intended for the recipients. Nonetheless, with online death threats being taken seriously in the U.S., a divide started to build, which cast the team and driver in a negative light. Although Canapino was never expected to leave for a few days and come back as a completely different person, his time to reflect has made it clear to him that his actions and responses were problematic in the country where he’s chosen to pursue his career.

"I am much, much better. Now, I understand a lot of things, and for me, it’s a big progress after a difficult week," Canapino told RACER. "It's exactly what happened. I learned. We have completely different cultures. We have completely different languages. But I am racing in America. I understand now, and my fan base has to understand, I am racing in America.

"The good thing is the lessons. I learned a lot, and hopefully the people from my side of the world will learn this, too. This is a really good lesson for us. I am really happy, because this was a big lesson in life for me to try to understand and see the situation here. It was to understand the barrier of language, too. Sometimes we say something (in Spanish) and you end up saying precisely the opposite, when we are thinking (it's fine) in our minds.

"The thing that's important for me is we are different people, different cultures, but we totally need to stop with the abuse and hate on social media. This is an important message for me. For me, it was a good message of life and how I have to react in the (U.S.) community."

JHR team principal David O'Neill described the process they went through at Road America and the meetings earlier this week to determine how to move ahead.

"My decision, with Brad and Ricardo, was to make sure that we had the safety of Agustin in hand," O'Neill said. "We had the safety of the other competitors in hand, and we didn’t want to put anyone in a position where we had to go through this again. Like we explained to Agustin, you can throw a white towel into a boxing ring and there’s going to be no boxer that’s happy with it, but that’s what we did, and we had to take the consequences. And we have.

"What we’re trying to do is come out the other side, showing that we care for and we’re responsible for the safety of the other drivers on the track, and Augustin as well, and not damaging our team and our brand."

Internally, JHR planned to reconvene with Canapino early in the week at their shop in Speedway, Indiana, and assess where he was at in releasing the pent-up anger that emerged on Friday and being able to welcome in the new perspectives they were hoping to see.

The team discussed a Plan B with Siegel's family if Canapino wasn't in the right frame of mind, but his positive approach to the matter is why he's headed directly back to the No. 78 Chevy.

"There was never any attention from my side, Brad’s side, and Ricardo side, that this was ever going to be a long-term sidelining," O'Neill said. "It actually happened much quicker (than expected), because when we met again, Augustin came into the factory on Monday, we sat down, he was still obviously hurt from the whole situation. But with a good 24 or 48 hours of sleep under our belt, his face completely changed once we started discussing the cultural things.

"I’d taken this decision (to park him) because I’ve had previous experience with drivers in similar situations and I took a 40-year view on motor racing and the experience I had with the person I was seeing at that point in time, which was on Friday at the autograph session, watching him there. I went up and spoke to him. I heard Ricardo speaking to him. And all of a sudden, as we say in the UK, the penny dropped (and they pulled him from the car).

"On Monday, we managed to align and understand. And then it was an 'a-ha' moment from both sides, about the cultural differences that we now have to also play and do our part in society to move it forward. So that’s how it came about."

One area that caused a lot of problems dating back to the first attack on former teammate Callum Ilott in April of 2023 was an refusal by Canapino to believe any of the messages the Briton received were actual death threats. The same doubt was cast on Pourchaire by Canapino and some of his fans. In the Monday meeting with JHR's team leaders, an important difference in how statements are processed was revealed to O'Neill and the rest by Canapino.

Canapino confirmed the stance he took with Ilott and Pourchaire is yet another cultural contrast where he an attitude of "show, don't tell" is normal in Argentina. It's the polar opposite of what he's since learned about American culture, where Ilott's and Pourchaire's claims of receiving death threats via direct messages were accepted without the need to show public proof of those DMs.

Hammered for being disinclined to take what Ilott and Pourchaire said at face value, Canapino would like for fans to understand it wasn't done in an effort to be mean, but was driven by that "show, don't tell" mindset.

"It’s exactly that," Canapino confirmed. "So we have a completely different way to react. And unfortunately, I learned now, after all of this unexpected situation, this is different here, but it’s totally like this (for him). I think this is the more important situation here is because we are in American racing, of course, but we have international drivers with different type of fans and different type of cultures. So the good lesson for me is the way to react and the way to understand the situation. We need to still work together, trying to avoid this situation again. I am here in America, and I have to improve my way to see the situations happen here. We need to stop and avoid the abuse and hate on social media."

Although the NTT IndyCar Series has assisted JHR in the background with the three incidents, there are no known efforts to devise a multi-level response plan to enact when online threats and the like erupt. And while the teams in IndyCar do their best to beat each other on the track, one area that could bring them together to help each other would come in the formation of a digital media committee to offer insights and assistance when matters like the ones orbiting Canapino come to life.

"We as a team are trying to work out how we could be more united as a series, with the other teams, maybe starting up a group within the teams," O'Neill said. "We can’t control the problems, we all know that, but what we can do is steer it so racial abuse, anything that goes against someone or puts someone down in any way, shape or form, I am totally against and I’d like to do something about it."

An item Canapino is committing to changing is his online behavior — no longer liking mean posts about drivers when they are in conflict, and so on — after grasping how poorly it's been perceived in the U.S.

"Yeah, definitely, because, in my mind, I never want to do any bad (things)," he said. "So I never imagined I am doing something bad. If you see in my account, if you see the reaction, they are completely opposite. It was, of course, a mistake, and I'm sorry for that. It wasn’t my intention at all, but it was a big lesson from now."

There's a possibility a fourth attack or more could happen over the next 10 races, and at least across the first three, he and the team had a number of missteps in how the situations were handled. In closing the conversation, Canapino was asked if he'd deal with a new occurrence of threats and hostility aimed at a rival in a different and better way.

"Yeah, definitely," he said. "This is a big question. So because I can’t control everybody, we have to work together to try to understand how we fix that, how we can avoid the accounts of the aggressor doing this. We need to identify the haters and the bad persons trying to do damage, and if we can identify and we can penalize, we can do a better (as a) community. The most important thing of this unfortunate story, we need to learn to create a better community, because it’s the main goal for me."