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Wickens set for IndyCar practice debut after last-minute hustle

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – It hasn’t even been 24 hours yet since Robert Wickens got the call that he’d be deputizing, temporarily, for Mikhail Aleshin in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda in today’s practice sessions for the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

But the 28-year-old Canadian out of Guelph, Ontario is fully stoked for the opportunity that he’ll be in at least today, and potentially further if Aleshin is unable to make it time for the weekend.

Wickens said repeatedly in a brief media availability that he is taking this weekend “day-by-day” and will look to gather data today in his first official running in an IndyCar, and second ever following his test at Sebring in March.

“First off, I’m excited to be here. It was definitely a last-minute trip!” Wickens said Friday morning. “I found yesterday at 2 p.m., then got on a flight, got to the hotel last night at 10, and got here as soon as the gates opened.

“I haven’t been here since 2007 when I raced in Atlantics. It’s a steep learning curve! But I know how exciting the car is and I’m super excited to drive it.”

The aforementioned 2007 Atlantics race is, surprisingly, Wickens’ only start at Road America, even though he starred in Formula BMW prior to his graduation to Atlantics as part of Red Bull’s Junior Team with Forsythe Racing. Fittingly, he beat James Hinchcliffe in that Atlantic race – Wickens was seventh and Hinchcliffe was 14th.

His running this morning will come only after a whirlwind period of getting the call to drive, then clearing it with his necessary Mercedes-Benz and HWA bosses.

“I was supposed to be in Europe… so I was home in Toronto. I thought I’d have a relaxing weekend at home before next race in Germany, as DTM is my priority,” he said.

“I had to call the HWA CEO who’s my first call in demand, but he’s more than happy for me to get seat time, he understood the situation, and said drivers driving different cars will make you better in our day job. So he called Toto (Wolff).

“I was more nervous about the timeframe, as this all happened extremely last minute. He’s in Azerbiaijan; and we needed a quick answer, yes or no. Five minutes later he called me back, and said, pack your helmet and have fun. It wasn’t that hard to convince him.”

Wickens said the fluid nature of the weekend has already changed his objective. Naturally, he wants to go through and race this weekend although he understands that if Aleshin makes it back, the Russian will be in the car.

“It’d be bittersweet if I can’t run the race; I’m excited to do an IndyCar race,” Wickens said. “My idol growing up was (the late) Greg Moore. I always watched CART, Champ Car, IndyCar. So it’d be cool to tick that box.

“But Mikhail and I were teammates at Red Bull. I feel for his situation. As an international driver it’s not easy with immigration.

“Obviously to be blunt, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t do the race. But then again yesterday, I was on my way to a relaxing weekend, now I’m at Road America.”

Wickens will enter into a field where he’s actually raced a lot of drivers before in either or both of the North American and European junior formula championships.

Included among that list are Hinchcliffe, Aleshin, Esteban Gutierrez, Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden, among others.

“It’s pretty cool. Rossi and I go pretty far back. We always karted in same championship. And I think we raced the first time against each other in GP3 in 2010. We did 3.5 as well. Him and I were in the top three of the championship.

“I haven’t seen any of my friends yet other than Hinch! But then there’s Conor Daly, Josef Newgarden, Esteban Gutierrez and more. It’s so cool to see guys can make career opportunities here in IndyCar.”

Wickens, who is using a seat formerly used by Simon Pagenaud when he was at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports through 2014, will look to add to the team’s data collection this afternoon.

If he practices but doesn’t race, he’ll be the first driver to do so since Rocky Moran Jr. in Long Beach in 2015. Moran was announced to make his race debut with Dale Coyne Racing but sustained a hand injury in practice, which opened the door for Daly to fill in and make his road or street course debut.

That being said, Wickens wants to race. He told NBC Sports he and the team have not discussed further race weekends yet; it is worth noting that the DTM calendar does not conflict with any remaining road or street course races this year.

“I’m in the car, not 100 percent comfortable but short time frame, it’s pretty good,” he said. “The team just wants simple data. If Mikhail shows up, he’ll have a car that’s better off.”

Audi bids farewell to Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich upon retirement

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Audi bid farewell to its iconic head of motorsport, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, at its end-of-season ‘Race Night’ event in Germany on Friday upon his retirement.

Ullrich took over the reins as Audi’s head of motorsport in 1993 and stayed in the role for 23 years, overseeing its arrival in the prototype class of sports car racing and domination of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Ullrich stepped down from the position at the end of 2016, handing the reins over to ex-Audi DTM chief Dieter Gass, and attended his final racing event with the German marque at its first works Formula E outing in Hong Kong earlier this month.

Ullrich was honored at the Race Night event on Friday and thanked for his efforts in developing Audi into a force within global motorsport.

“In 566 factory-backed commitments during this period he celebrated 209 victories, 13 of them in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, eleven in the 12-hour race at Sebring and nine in the ‘Petit Le Mans’ at Road Atlanta,” a piece on Ullrich’s tenure for Audi’s website reads.

“31 driver titles in super touring car racing, in the DTM and in the sports prototype category are credited to him. 57 campaigners were Audi factory drivers during Wolfgang Ullrich’s era and he was responsible for 18 new developments of racing cars – an impressive tally.”