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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.”

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’

Photo: Chris Estrada, NBC Sports
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NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”