There is a pipeline being developed from Mexico, and the path leads directly towards the NTT IndyCar Series.
Back in February, Andretti Autosport expanded south of the border and partnered with Michel Jourdain Jr. (pictured above) to compete in the Mexico-based Super Copa Championship.
Jourdain drove Indy cars for nine seasons during the CART era, winning two races and finishing third in the 2003 standings. He also made two appearances at the Indianapolis 500 in 1996 and 2012, which bookended stops in NASCAR, World Touring Cars and the World Rally Championship, in addition to his IndyCar career. At 45, he continues to compete, currently sitting third in the Touring Car division of Super Copa as the defending series champion.
However, for the team known as Andretti Jourdain Autosport, racing in Mexico appears to be just the start of the journey. In July, the partnership went a step further with Salvador de Alba Jr. logging over 200 miles in an Indy Lights test at Mid-Ohio.
Where de Alba fits into the equation is his relationship with Jourdain. The two have worked together and competed against each other since 2016, when the former had limited experience. Over the years, though, Jourdain admitted “he’s been kicking my ass pretty bad.”
Currently, the 21-year-old from Guadalajara leads the Super Copa points standings, while also sitting third in the NASCAR Mexico Series championship with a pair of victories.
“He has developed into a very, very fast and smart driver,” Jourdain tells RACER. “I believe he really deserves the opportunity, and he has the talent to make it into the big leagues. It’s not only talent or being professional that helps; there are many drivers with talent and would be willing to do everything to make it that never do. Sometimes they have the opportunity, but then that year the car breaks three times and they get beaten by a point in the championship and they won’t get this scholarship or whatever, or that year the team is not that good.
“There are some things that are under our control, some things that are not in our control. I know that he always works really hard with engineers and the simulator and all these things to try to be the best possible driver. He’s a good guy to work with. I believe that he can do it. It would be fantastic to be part of something good with him, and hopefully, open the path for more young kids in the future.”
In many ways, this partnership shares similarities to the one Andretti Autosport has with George Michael Steinbrenner IV, who came onboard in 2017 at the start of Colton Herta’s development in Indy Lights.
“Yeah, I think it’s similar,” says Rob Edwards, COO of Andretti Autosport. “One of the things that we do, as much as we’re a big team, is that we take each relationship as an individual relationship. I think Steinbrenner originally got involved through the relationship with Colton. We were involved with them in the Indy Lights program a couple of years and then obviously took Colton to IndyCar. Now, although they are still involved in IndyCar with James’s (Hinchcliffe) program, they came back this year to get involved with Devlin’s (DeFrancesco) program with the idea of seeing where we can go. That’s one of the attractions for George is to get that involvement to work with young drivers and work with partners to move them along.
“The relationship with Michel is sort of similar, but different. Obviously, great friendship between Michael (Andretti, CEO) and Michel back from when they were racing against each other. The thought was there’s a number of things that we can be part of with Michel’s program in Mexico, both on his Super Copa program and also in terms of developing a path for young Mexican drivers. Salvador is obviously the first part of that. It’s great to go from having conversations back a few months ago to wanting to do this program, to actually start with first steps in place. Yes, I think there’s the opportunity for Michel to co-brand and partner one of the Lights entries for Salvador next year. But I think the potential, similar to Steinbrenner’s program, is much more than that. I think the difference is there are opportunities for Andretti in Mexico through the partnership, as well as opportunities for Michel and his group in the States.”
The other unique part of this development is that the plan isn’t only for drivers to progress from Mexico and on a path to North America’s premier open-wheel championship.
“I would like to help the crew guys,” Jourdain says. “There are two guys at Dale Coyne Racing that are still there that came with me in 1998. It makes me so happy to see them still there. They have good jobs. Their quality of life improved so much from working in the IndyCar paddock, even though they would still be here working as mechanics in Mexico, their family quality of life is much better. It’s something that I would also love to do — to give crew guys an opportunity to go there and work together in all these changes that we can do with a team in the States.”
With the momentum building in this effort, it begs the question of whether the endgame is to have an Andretti Jourdain Autosport entry in IndyCar.
“Of course, it’s good to have a plan for 2022 and 2032, but first things first,” Jourdain says. “I do believe that Andretti Autosport is the right feeling for us. For me to start something by myself; to be able to go and compete with these guys, it would take so much money, effort and all that. … I would never do something like this by myself. The guys at Andretti, I’ve known some of them for 25 years. If at some point Andretti Jourdain Autosport has an IndyCar entry, it would be an amazing dream come true. But maybe there is no space, maybe we cannot find the money, but we are able to put Salvador and other kids and they will have one with Penske or one with McLaren, and that would also make me very happy and very, very proud.”
In the short term, the aim is to have de Alba at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test, which takes place on Oct. 30-31 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
“My suggestion, candidly, would be to focus on getting more testing in before they go racing,” Edwards says. “I think if you race too soon, then maybe the results don’t meet the expectation and suddenly the enthusiasm and the positive steps you’ve got for the program get set back a little bit. I think over the years we’ve got a fairly good template of where to start with a new driver and for him to be ready to go racing by the time the season kicks off. At the end of the day, it’s not just our decision, it’s their decision as well. We certainly wouldn’t be in a position to facilitate something like that, but certainly keen to get him into a car at the Chris Griffis test and start working towards 2022 then.”
While de Alba is in the midst of trying to capture two championships, he is in agreement with Edwards — and Jourdain — that more testing is needed before a full move to Road to Indy’s top rung.
“We have to move on and keep testing if we want to do a whole season or even a race,” de Alba says. “Before we do a race, we have to test one or two days more, at least. Michel and all the teams said that two days of testing is much better than one day, because at night you process everything, and the next day you’re much more confident. All plans are to focus and try to do our best with the sponsors here in Mexico, and try to continue with this project. And at the end of the day, the big goal is to have a season in Indy Lights.”
As it stands, IndyCar points leader Pato O’Ward is the only Mexican driver in the series. While Jourdain admits that O’Ward “could be around for the next 20 years,” there is still a need for a greater Mexican presence — of quality, not quantity — in the sport.
“I am willing to spend all this time helping (Andretti) and them doing something good for the drivers, so kids have that dream, and the possibility that if they are good and they work hard, they can be good,” Jourdain says. “Something that also is very frustrating in racing is that if you don’t have the money yourself, your family, it’s so hard, and it just takes so much energy and effort from young guys to have to worry about that. That’s something I really wish, that with time, we’re able to put together a program with Andretti Jourdain Autosport through Mexico, and to have people to trust us, and that whenever there is an opportunity we can give them a chance.”