Hunter-Reay: “We’re going to put on a great show at Pocono”

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Indianapolis 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay has praised Pocono Raceway and says the Verizon IndyCar Series will put on a fantastic show this weekend (Sunday, noon ET, NBCSN).

It potentially could be the last one, based on a report from the Associated Press released Thursday that track president Brandon Igdalsky is concerned about a severe drop in projected ticket sales. The track is on a three-year contract to host the series; this is year two of that contract.

But considering the show Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves and the rest of the field put on at Indy, that ticket drop really shouldn’t be happening.

“I’ve said it in the past: Pocono is a racetrack that fits IndyCar racing and its current spec, fits it to a T,” Hunter-Reay said during this week’s IndyCar conference call. “We’re going to put on a great show there.”

He also praised the market, which in Pennsylvania is key to the Northeast and one of the few remaining IndyCar races in this region.

“The added bonus is we’re in the right market,” Hunter-Reay said. “We need to be putting on our races there, IndyCar does. Pocono, it was a major part of the schedule back in the day, and it seems to be that now it is again.

“So hopefully the fans will receive us well there. If we keep on putting on great shows, there’s no reason it can’t work. I think this one’s going to be a 500-mile race that will come down to the wire just like Indy did.”

Winning at Indy was one thing, but delivering again for the second double points 500-mile race is another challenge entirely.

“Pocono is a completely different animal than Indianapolis. They’re both very long, and that’s about all they have in common,” Hunter-Reay said. “The two tracks require different setups. They drive differently.

“The dirty air has a certain effect on the car in turn three. It makes it hard to follow; makes it hard to set up passes. You really have to work on your racecar. You have to make it actually balance well in turn one and turn three, which is a difficult thing to do.

“To set up passes is an entirely different exercise at Pocono than it is at Indy. You’ve got to focus on different parts of the track than you would at Indianapolis, and that means a different car. It’s also a different tire, different tire compound from Firestone.

“There are many aspects and variables that go into it that make it a different beast than Indianapolis.”

Hunter-Reay seeks to rebound after contact with Takuma Sato in the pit lane last year took both drivers out of contention.

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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