Remembering Ronnie Peterson, Gonzalo Rodriguez on Sept. 11

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September 11 stirs the emotions like few other days on the calendar. As Americans, we tend to get caught up in the patriotism and the emotions of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

Racing has its own form of memorials on Sept. 11, in the form of two very talented drivers who we lost on that day many years ago. Ronnie Peterson died Sept. 11, 1978, and Gonzalo Rodriguez passed on Sept. 11, 1999.

Peterson (pictured), better known as “Super Swede,” was a World Champion-in-waiting in the 1970s. His stint at March to open his career, including a runner-up finish in the 1971 World Championship, led to an opportunity with Colin Chapman’s all-conquering Team Lotus, where he won 10 Grands Prix.

As Mario Andretti’s teammate in 1978, Peterson won twice and entered the Italian Grand Prix just more than a race win back. But the tragic crash just after the start of the race, where Peterson’s Lotus went in several different directions and caught fire, was enough to claim his life. He died in hospital the day after the race, aged 34. A tribute video compiled on the 30-year anniversary, five years ago, is below.

Rodriguez, a Uruguayan driver, starred in 1999 with a famous victory in the F3000 race at Monaco with the lesser-rated Astromega team. His performances caught the eye of Roger Penske, who invited him to America to drive a second CART Champ Car at Detroit and Laguna Seca in the second half of the season.

At Detroit, Penske announced Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore would be his new drivers for 2000, but still wanted to provide Rodriguez an opportunity to showcase himself to other team owners. A point on debut with a 12th-place finish was a very good result, indeed.

Come Laguna, though, Rodriguez had an accident in practice with a stuck open throttle at the notorious Corkscrew corner. His car front-flipped over the barrier and catch-fencing and landed upside down on the other side. Rodriguez was pronounced dead from a basilar skull fracture.

That was a particularly gut-wrenching time for Penske, whose other future driver, Moore, was killed later that year in the season finale at the California Speedway. Rodriguez was on several teams’ shortlists for drives in 2000. Sadly, neither was able to fulfill their potential in the new century.

Teammates James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens earn top-fives at Barber

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For the first time this season, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates James Hinchcilffe and Robert Wickens earned top-five finishes in the same race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

Hinchcliffe finished third in the Grand Prix of Alabama; Wickens was one spot behind in fourth.

Wickens had one previous podium at Phoenix with his second-place finish. Hinchcliffe’s best result was a fourth in the season-opener in St Petersburg, Fla., so this marked his first podium of the year.

Both drivers needed a little help from the rain.

As precipitation began to fall in the closing stages of the race, Hinchliffe asked his team on a couple of occasions if it was wet enough to pit for rain tires. He was told twice to stay out and was then called into to the pits at the optimal time.

“Solid weekend for us after coming here before – not a great test,” Hinchcliffe said. “Two cars in the top 10 qualifying; two cars, top five in the race. Pretty proud of these boys, everybody on the Arrow car.”

The rain helped Wickens’ race strategy come together.

“I was having to save a lot of fuel in that second stint,” Wickens said. “So once (Scott) Dixon starting getting close to me I was thinking ‘Oh God, I’m going to actually have to give this one up.’ And then the rain came, so the fuel mileage happened naturally. So, yeah, it saved us a bit.”

And while both were pleased with their top-five finishes, drivers are rarely satisfied unless they are standing on the top step of the podium.

Wickens’ top-five finish was hard-fought. After winning the pole at St Petersburg and starting sixth at Phoenix, he failed to advance to the Fast 6 in back-to-back races at Long Beach and Barber – qualifying 10th both times.

“I was a little gutted that we came out in a big bunch of traffic,” Wickens continued. “It made the race fun, but a little frustrating as well because of people off sequence and whatnot. We lost a lot of track position there. Both of us could have been fighting for higher steps on the podium, but we need to do a little better job in qualifying. “