‘We had to do something’: Agustin Canapino takes leave of absence from Juncos Hollinger

ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. -- Just 90 minutes from the start of opening practice Friday at Road America, Juncos Hollinger Racing officials pulled Agustin Canapino from his No. 78 Chevy for the weekend, deeming him not mentally fit to compete in the wake of a controversial week for the 34-year-old Argentine driver.

In a news release published 45 minutes before the start of Friday's lone on-track session, the team announced that Indy NXT title contender Nolan Siegel would man the No. 78 Chevy in place of Canapino, who would be taking a "leave of absence" for this weekend's IndyCar race.

Arrow McLaren has ended its strategic alliance with Juncos Hollinger Racing in the wake of the death threats Theo Pourchaire received after contact with Agustin Canapino in Detroit and Canapino's response to the situation.
Arrow McLaren has ended its strategic alliance with Juncos Hollinger Racing in the wake of the death threats Theo Pourchaire received after contact with Agustin Canapino in Detroit and Canapino's response to the situation.

"The growth of online abuse and harassment resulting from the events of this week have led to a very difficult experience for Agustin, the team and the entire IndyCar fan base, and the safety of Agustin and the rest of the competitors has to be considered first and foremost," JHR said in a statement Friday afternoon. "Abuse, hatred, and harassment in any form is a detriment to this sport, and we must prioritize the mental and physical wellbeing of both our drivers and our competition."

The decision to make the swap came on the heels of a growing online controversy involving Canapino and Arrow McLaren rookie Theo Pourchaire. Pourchaire slammed into the side of the JHR driver midway through Sunday's Detroit Grand Prix in the tricky Turn 3 hairpin, which sparked the bulk of the race's eight cautions. In response to the move, which race control penalized Pourchaire for, the 20-year-old Frenchman's social media inboxes quickly became flooded with hate-filled, harassing messages from Canapino fans -- several of which he and the team said rose to level of death threats.

More than a half-dozen releases and statements followed over the next four days between Arrow McLaren, JHR, IndyCar and Canapino himself. In the aftermath, Arrow McLaren terminated the teams' strategic alliance, Canapino denounced hate but called into question the veracity of Pourchaire’s and Arrow McLaren's claims and noted that he too deals with abuse and hate but has "learned to live with it."

By Friday midday, though, JHR team officials ultimately concluded that the totality of it all -- including a barrage of abuse sent Canapino's way following his statement Tuesday morning -- had been too heavy a burden for the 34-year-old Argentine to carry.

"It got worse and worse, the mental abuse," JHR team principal David O'Neill told IndyStar in an exclusive interview minutes after the conclusion of Friday's practice, noting that Canapino had been unable to easily peel himself away from his phone and the fallout of his statement. "In the job he has, it's very important to be 100% focused, and if you take your eye off the ball, or if there's anything sending you sideways or sending you astray, and you're not 100% focused … it just became more apparent that we had to help him do something about it."

JHR co-owner Brad Hollinger said in the team's release that the organization is "saddened by the events that led to this scenario."

"Online abuse is unacceptable, and we need to ensure that our drivers are prepared both mentally and physically when they get in the car," Hollinger's statement read.

At the moment, O'Neill said, JHR's plan is for Canapino to be back in the car for the team's next race weekend at Laguna Seca on June 21-23. It was unclear whether the full-time driver of the No. 78, currently in his second IndyCar season, would remain with the team at Road America this weekend at the time of publication.

"I gave him the choice. I said, 'You know we'd love you to be around, but I also understand if you want to head back home, and you can do that as well,'" O'Neill told IndyStar. "Currently, this is the plan just for this weekend, but like anything, we have to see what plays out."

How a crash turned into a full-blown off-track controversy

Last season, through no fault of his own, Canapino's now-ex-JHR teammate Callum Ilott drew the derision of the Argentine driver's fanbase following a pair of on-track run-ins between the two. The situation this month, however, seemed to have been handled swiftly and unequivocally, until Canapino's own use of social media turned the controversy on its head.

Insider: Agustin Canapino's response to hate-filled messages from fans is troubling

Monday night and into Tuesday morning, the JHR driver 'liked' several posts on X (the social media platform formerly known as Twitter) -- most written in Spanish -- that made light the threats made to Pourchaire. One 'like' Canapino doled out was to a post made by Latin American IndyCar broadcaster Martin Ponte, who quote-tweeted Pourchaire's post where the young French driver had noted he had received "so much hate and death threats" with "Callum Pourchaire".

Tuesday morning, JHR released its own statement, where it even more thoroughly condemned "abuse, hatred and harassment in any form" and said such behavior would not be tolerated within their racing community online.

"We are working with those affected to identify the individuals responsible, and any violators of this policy will be blocked from the (JHR) community," the follow-up statement read.

Despite team officials asking him to stay out of the fray and say nothing on the matter, Canapino released his own statement Tuesday morning within an hour of his team's that, l in some passages, struck a far different tone -- drawing the ire of his bosses.

In the statement, posted in English and Spanish, Canapino noted he was "against abuse and hate" and that "those who engage in such behavior are certainly not part of our community and are not welcome here." In his closing line, he pleaded with readers to "base our actions on respect above all,” saying that everyone is "free to express our emotions and feelings, but with respect and tolerance."

Sandwiched in between those calming sentiments was the insinuation that Pourchaire and Ilott hadn't, in fact, received any death threats, on the simple factor that Canapino himself had not seen them. He acknowledged, as did Argentine JHR co-owner Ricardo Juncos in the wake of last year's incidents with Ilott, that Argentine sporting culture is uber-passionate, but the driver was fed up with insinuations that that level of fandom had ever gone over-the-top in these instances.

"We Argentines are passionate and euphoric, but that doesn't mean we should be accused of something we are not," Canapino wrote. "Therefore, I strongly reject being generalized and placed in a category we don't deserve. I have not seen a single death threat directed at those who claim to have received them. From last year to today, no one in their right mind would do such a thing.

"It's outrageous to be accused of this so lightly, and I won't allow it anymore. If anyone did this, they are not part of us, and we don't deserve to be considered this way because of some misfit we strongly reject. The majority of our fans are respectful and kind people whom I deeply support and thank for their continuous support through good times and bad."

Additionally, Canapino noted that he, too, "constantly receive abuse and hate, and I have learned to live with it, as many people do, choosing to ignore it."

The fallout: a lost alliance and a benched driver

Outraged that the team and its driver's integrity would be called into question, while seemingly belittling the situation, Arrow McLaren officials confirmed Thursday morning it had severed its strategic alliance with JHR effective immediately -- a commercial deal that gave the former team the chance to place overflow sponsorship onto the wheel coverings of JHR's Nos. 77 and 78 Chevys.

"As reflected in the team's social media community code, Arrow McLaren will not tolerate any form of abuse or discrimination and totally condemns the online abuse directed toward our team and driver," Arrow McLaren wrote in its release, announcing the news. JHR's own statement minutes later that morning noted its appreciation for the time the pair of teams spent aligned, glossing over the understood reason for the split. "While the results of the partnership did not mature, we have the utmost respect for them and are confident in the future of Juncos Hollinger Racing."

Behind the scenes, O'Neill told IndyStar that internal talks around the the choice to pull Canapino out of the seat for this weekend had been increasing in recent days, clarifying that the decision had not been haphazardly reached Friday morning. Ultimately, O'Neil and Hollinger came to the conclusion, the team principal told IndyStar, at the end of a chaotic web of calls and meetings Friday that reached a head while Canapino was sitting with the rest of the 26 drivers in a public autograph session that ended 90 minutes before Practice No. 1 began.

After originally posting photos of Canapino and his teammate Romain Grosjean with fans at the meet-and-greet, the team ultimately deleted the post around the time it announced Siegel would sub-in for the weekend.

"This isn't something you can rehearse. It's very difficult, the communication with the team and when you can tell it, especially with the way this one spun out. There wasn't time to speak to the engineers properly even. Normally you'd have a plan," O'Neill said. "We've got owners not here [Hollinger is not at the race this weekend] and have had people on calls, and it was quite difficult to get everyone together with all the discussion required to make the right decision.

"The talk has been ongoing since Monday. It's been growing, and there's become more and more weight to help us make the decision. We didn't turn up this morning and go, 'We're going to do it.' This was getting worse and worse, and we had to do something. This is mainly just to give (Canapino) a rest, and we just need to stay together and come out the other end stronger."

According to the JHR's release announcing the driver swap, the team says it is "working directly with IndyCar to create a better community for our fans, drivers and team members, uniting to make IndyCar a welcome sport for all."

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Agustin Canapino takes 'leave of absence' for IndyCar weekend at Road America