Agustín Canapino carries hopes of Argentina into Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — It is hard to understand the immense popularity of Indianapolis 500 driver Agustín Canapino back home in Argentina until you consider this: Five years ago, while racing in one of his nation’s touring car series, he was voted the country's top athlete.

Not soccer superstar Lionel Messi or tennis great Juan Martin del Potro.

The 33-year-old pride of Arrecifes, an inland town of about 25,000 that also produced Formula One drivers Jose Frilan Gonzalez and Norberto Edgardo Fontana, has won more than 100 races and 15 titles in various domestic series. Canapino's name is often in the news, his social media following is massive and “Agustín” has become a trendy name for newborn babies.

“It's not like I'm Messi, of course. Soccer is the most important sport in my country,” Canapino told The Associated Press on a quiet Tuesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he was participating in some of the traditional rookie events such as ducking under a 2,000-pound dairy cow, grabbing ahold of an utter and taking a tug.

As fellow rookies RC Enerson and Sting Ray Robb found out, milking a cow is harder than it looks.

“But motorsports,” Canapino continued, “it is really, really important in Argentina. We have a lot of fans, and yes, I have a lot of fans, too. People have some tattoos with my name, and they name my name their children. It makes me very proud.”

Imagine how proud they would be if he wins the Indy 500 on Sunday.

It won't be an easy task. Canapino drives for one of the smallest teams, Juncos Hollinger Racing, which struggled to find speed last week. His teammate, Callum Ilott, even had to switch chassis the day before qualifying because he felt “unsafe” in the car, though both drivers posted quick enough times Saturday to avoid the stress of bump day.

Yet simply making the 33-car grid for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” constitutes a win.

Canapino thought his career would begin and end driving stock cars in Argentina, albeit with a foray into sports cars at the 24 Hours of Daytona. But late last year, Argentine team owner Ricardo Juncos arranged for an exhibition in Buenos Aires and called Canapino to see if he would be willing to handle the driving duties.

When Canapino took some laps at Autodromo de Buenos Aires in November, it was the first time an IndyCar had done so in Argentina since Al Unser won the Indy 300 at Rafaela Autodromo in 1971. Canapino later did laps at Circuit of Termas de Rio Hondo, and he was fast enough in the exhibition sessions that Juncos decided to give him a chance in a full-time ride.

Canapino didn't know a lick of English, but knew he'd need to be able to communicate with team engineers. So working with a tutor, watching movies and with the aid of an app on his phone, Canapino became fluent in about three months.

The learning curve has been just as quick inside the race car, which will carry the colors of Argentina's national soccer team on Sunday. Canapino was 12th in the season-opener at St. Petersburg and 12th again in his oval debut at Texas.

But there also have been some bumpy moments. At Long Beach, Ilott was exiting pit lane in front of Canapino, forcing Helio Castroneves to make an aggressive move around both of them. Castroneves and Canapino wound up colliding, and many of the Argentine's 115,000 followers on Twitter eviscerated his teammate for clogging the track and causing the wreck.

Canapino quickly issued a statement asking his fans to cease with the vitriol.

Their strident support makes sense, though, when for many back in Argentina there has been little to cheer besides last year's World Cup triumph. Political corruption has been rampant for generations, and the country is mired in such an economic crisis that last week, the Central Bank of Argentina raised its key interest rate to a staggering 97% to ward off inflation.

“We have a lot of people without a job," Canapino said. “People are hungry. The economy is a disaster. So it is really, really difficult to live there, unfortunately, because we have a really beautiful country. I'm happy for what I am doing here for them."

Canapino is only the fourth driver from Argentina to qualify for the Indy 500 and the first since Raúl Riganti crashed out of the 1940 race. Juan Manuel Fangio, the five-time Formula One champion widely considered Argentina’s greatest driver, arrived with great fanfare for the 1958 race, but pulled out before qualifying when his car could not get up to speed.

Canapino had no trouble with that. And for that, his fans back home could celebrate.

“I think the only thing — the least we can do — we can get some smiles from the people, because many people are still suffering a lot, especially now,” Canapino said. “We are in a decent position to start and it looks really good. My race car looks good. First, we need to finish. Our goal is to finish in the best position possible.”


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