Richard Antinucci has been wished happy birthday in the best way possible - by being selected to compete for defending Indy Pro Series champions Sam Schmidt Motorsports during the 2008 campaign.

In gaining the Italian-born Antinucci's signature, the Indianapolis-based squad has found a fitting replacement for 2007 IPS champion Alex Lloyd, who thoroughly blitzed the series last year en route to the crown. Antinucci won two races from the nine he entered in the category last season, and team boss Sam Schmidt is clearly confident he has a driver who can pick up from where former charge Lloyd left off.

"Happy birthday, and welcome aboard," the former IRL star joked, welcoming Antinucci to the fold shortly after his 27th birthday on 26 January. "Richard was someone we always kept an eye on at the road courses last year when he drove for his uncle [Eddie Cheever], and we're really confident in his potential for a great year in 2008. We're excited to see what he can do in one of our cars this season."

Indeed, despite making only nine starts in 2007 - all on non-oval courses - as the campaign drew to a close Antinucci became an increasing threat to Lloyd's dominance, finishing up in the top five in his last four races, including two wins and a second place. His drive with the team acknowledged to be the best in the IPS business is, he is well aware, a considerable career opportunity.

"You can describe this as a great birthday present," the San Diego-domiciled former British F3 and F3 Euroseries ace enthused of the announcement. "People have been saying, 'Oh, you're in Florida, you're not back home in California for your birthday', but the thing is, I've got my birthday present. This is my life - it's the best thing I could have.

"I'm thrilled; this is the kind of opportunity I've been waiting for. I'm very excited about learning oval racing as well. I think Sam and his team run a top-notch outfit. I am the only driver in their line-up who has posted IPS wins and this means they expect a lot from me. I am absolutely aware of the responsibility this entails, and I really look froward to proving to them that they've made the right pick.

"This isn't just a feeder series; it's a developmental series for the top flight of the IndyCar Series, which is my next goal. To see guys like Alex and Jay [Howard] go forward in the last two years is another great incentive to be with this team. On top of that, to work with Sam's engineering staff, to get to work with such a professional team, is contagious. It's very motivating."



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