Dover, FedEx, Autism Speaks team up again for “Day at the Races”

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For the third consecutive year, children and families affected by autism will be able to enjoy the excitement of NASCAR at Dover International Speedway through the “Day at the Races” event during Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.

Track, sponsor and organization are teaming up to provide an air-conditioned, sensory-friendly backstretch viewing area for those families.

In addition to pre-race visits from drivers, food and drink, and presentations on autism from educational speakers, the attendees will have use of a ‘quiet zone’ with muted lighting so parents can help their children get out of the crowd if necessary. Among other things, the zone will have video screens in case they still want to keep tabs on the race or watch a movie instead.

“There are a lot of kids on the [autistic spectrum] who love to watch NASCAR,” said Artie Kempner, a board member of Autism Speaks and NASCAR broadcast director, today at Dover.

“Whatever it is, whether it’s the cars being the way they look going around in a circle, there’s a symmetry to it, and a lot of folks on the spectrum just get into that symmetry. We’ve got a lot of NASCAR fans out there, and it’s great to put it all together. For me to be a part of this is a real honor.”

Also helping is Joe Gibbs Racing and FedEx-backed driver Denny Hamlin, who is running a special Autism Speaks livery on his No. 11 Toyota this weekend.

It is comprised primarily of blue puzzle pieces, each of them containing the first name and last initial of people who donated $11 or more to Autism Speaks in order to be represented on the car. Per Hamlin himself, the project netted more than $40,000 for the organization.

Earlier this year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1 in 68 children have been identified as part of the autistic spectrum.

That estimate is roughly 30 percent higher than the previous estimate of 1 in 88 that was released in 2012, and now more than ever, further awareness is necessary as more people are impacted by the disorder.

“Nine times out of 10, you’re gonna know somebody that’s affected by it or a family member that’s affected by it,” Hamlin said. “For us, it was an easy collaboration between myself, FedEx, and Autism Speaks.

“The ratio of how many children are affected is heading in a direction we don’t like to see. It costs these families a lot of money to have a child with autism – a lot of time – so it’s important for us to keep with that cause.”

To help make the “Day at the Races” even better for the youngsters on Sunday, Hamlin added that the group would go to a nearby Toys ‘R’ Us during Saturday’s Nationwide Series event and fill up “a truck full” of toys that are especially designed for autistic children.

“We’re going to load up a bunch of those toys tomorrow afternoon and bring them over to the hospitality area at Dover,” he said. “Along with the entertainment of the racing and everything that’s going on for the kids to take part and watch in, they’ll also have quite a few toys to keep them occupied as well.”

source: Getty Images
A detailed view of Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Dover car, which bears the names of fans who donated $11 or more to Autism Speaks. Photo: Getty Images.

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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