IMS road course race: The glass half-empty outlook

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On the fence about how to feel regarding an IndyCar road race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? Feeling overly positive and need a sprinkle of negativity in your coffee? Or vice versa? Here’s some potential upsides and downsides of the first race to be held next May. We touched on the positives, but if you’re hankering for some pessimism, look below. Feel free to add more in the comments.

NEGATIVE ARGUMENTS

  • Tradition. To many, this is the last erosion of tradition being wiped from the Speedway. “The Indianapolis 500 is the only thing IndyCar should do at the Speedway!” they say. There are others who argue “tradition” went out the window the second NASCAR raced at the track. Times are changing and IndyCar needs to change and make big moves to stay relevant.
  • Attendance. This is a toughie, because for the Speedway bottom line, any crowd the road course race gets will blow the usual number for a practice or Opening Day in modern terms out of the window – think 7,500 to 10,000 now and likely 50,000 or more for a road course race. But it will pale greatly in comparison to the 250,000-plus on race day for the ‘500. What the Speedway will need to do is isolate the fans for this race into fewer sections to at least give the feel there’s still a decent crowd, and potentially sell banners that can be draped over the aluminum seats. It’s not going to look pretty, but if it can look fuller than the Nationwide races at IMS, it will have done its job.
  • It’s IMS, and not another track we’re clamoring for. I’m not going to argue that this doesn’t suck, at least a little bit. Right now it does give off, in part, a bit of desperation from the series standpoint that it is using its own backyard as a stop-gap while other races in other parts of this country or other countries meet their demise. Yes, it’s not Road America or Circuit of the Americas, or another oft-remembered track from the past (Portland, Cleveland, Phoenix or Michigan, anyone?). But I fail to see how another IndyCar race is a bad thing? And the potential drama of it carrying over into the ‘500 a bad thing?

My (hoping for the best) take: All I want is for the race to have a chance to be successful instead of dismissing it in advance. If it proves a bad proposition, either from an optics or business standpoint, then you dump it. But otherwise, it’s here, and ideally can grow from its inaugural running.

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Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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