Robert Wickens is an instant fit — and hit — in new IndyCar ride with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

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LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — James Hinchcliffe made no secret of who he wanted as his new IndyCar teammate, lobbying hard for his childhood friend from Canada.

It wasn’t an easy sell because Robert Wickens had zero IndyCar experience, and after racing six seasons in Germany, he was hardly a household name. Hinchcliffe fought hard, though, and got his buddy at Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports this season.

After two races, Hinchcliffe has proven to be an impeccable talent scout.

“I keep telling everyone `I told you so,”‘ Hinchcliffe told The Associated Press.

Wickens has had an unbelievable start to his IndyCar career and could have gone into round three, Sunday’s race on the streets of Long Beach, with two victories already. He won the pole in his debut at St. Petersburg, led 69 laps and was on his way to the win until Alexander Rossi spun him on a late restart. He was the leader last Saturday night in Phoenix on the final restart until Josef Newgarden passed him for the win on fresher tires.

Wickens has a pole, a podium finish and has led 113 of IndyCar’s 360 laps this season.

“Everyone thought I just wanted my buddy on the team, no one believed me when I said `No, this guy is really, really good,’ ” Hinchcliffe said.

Fans line up for autographs from James Hinchcliffe and new teammate Robert Wickens.

The all-Canadian lineup has been a hit for the Schmidt team, which has shown through two races to have strong, fast Honda-powered cars. Hinchcliffe is sixth in the standings and Wickens is eighth, just 20 points behind leader Newgarden.

“It’s been a dream start, minus two laps at the end of St. Pete,” Wickens told AP. “But you can’t take this as this is how it’s going to be all year. Motorsports changes so quickly. We’ve been in the hunt, we’ve been in the fight, and I think it’s caught a lot of people by surprise, including myself. But I’m not lying when I say I am learning as a I go.”

So who is this Wickens guy?

He met Hinchcliffe in Toronto when the two were racing go-karts but his career took him to Europe, where he spent the last 12 years. Six of those were in DTM with a factory-backed Mercedes team and Wickens was a star.

But he was homesick and found himself flying from Germany to Toronto every chance he could get.

“Living in Europe for 12 years, it took a toll. I was spending more and more time in Canada. I was flying 10 hours home to Toronto for five days, then flying back to the next race,” Wickens said. “My whole core of my life was still over there and I was more or less commuting to work.”

His goal was to return to racing in North America and move into an endurance series with a less hectic lifestyle, he just wasn’t sure when that day would come. When Mercedes said it was leaving DTM at the end of this year, it gave Wickens his opening.

Hinchcliffe had already started his recruiting job – the two had done a ride swap in early 2017 that gave Wickens his first time in an Indy car, and when Schmidt needed an emergency replacement driver last year at Mid-Ohio, Wickens got the call for the practice day – and Wickens was interested. Now he’s got the job and the Schmidt team finally has a strong and balanced two-car team.

Wickens doesn’t discount his friendship with Hinchcliffe as a source for the success.

“James and I grew up karting together and had a friendly relationship of `Anything you can do, I can do better,’ ” Wickens said. “Our off track relationship over our careers has definitely made us better drivers. We are super competitive on track and we fight for every inch. But driver debriefs, engineering meetings, we like the same race cars, which is a dream situation within a team so we don’t have work on certain things for him, certain things for me. We can just build a race car. It’s just a really good situation.”

As Wickens spoke, Hinchcliffe crept up behind him and blew in his ear. Wickens continued speaking, not even turning to see who was breathing on his face. He was unshaven, he said because the Maple Leafs had an NHL playoff game, and confirmed Hinchcliffe’s declaration that “like all true Canadians, Rob can open a beer bottle with whatever is on his person.”

The duo went to a sporting goods store in Long Beach to purchase hockey sticks in honor of the 16 Canadian members of a junior hockey team killed last week in a bus crash traveling to a game. The two plan to have all the drivers in Sunday’s race sign the sticks, then auction them to raise funds for the victims. It’s part of their Canadian spirit and hit close to home for both drivers.

“We were in Phoenix and I went to sleep Friday night and woke up to devastating news the morning of the race,” Wickens said. “They were all on that bus for their passion for hockey, doing what they love. Canadians are so supportive and passionate about what they love and we are a hockey nation. But you can think, in any situation, James and I have traveled to races on chartered buses and chartered flights, and it can happen to any sport. That it happened in hockey is just luck of the draw. It’s hard to swallow.”

NHRA shocker in Houston: John Force fails to qualify for first time since 2008, snaps 221-race streak

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Sunday’s eliminations in the 31st annual NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway in suburban Houston  just won’t be the same without John Force.

In one of the most stunning turn of events seen in the last decade-plus in NHRA drag racing, the legendary 16-time Funny Car champion and the sport’s all-time winningest driver on Saturday failed to qualify for Sunday’s main event of the race weekend.

It marks the first time Force, who turns 69 on May 4, failed to qualify for a race since Sept. 13, 2008 in Charlotte race, snapping a string of having made the eliminations in each of the subsequent 221 races until failing to do so Saturday.

“That is hard for me,” Force said after failing to go any faster than 222.29 mph in the four qualifying rounds for the race, two on Friday and the other two on Saturday. “You earn what you get. We didn’t put it in the show. We couldn’t get to half-track.

“We have had a lot of problems all year. At least I got my final shot to get in and I didn’t make it. I will be here tomorrow rooting on Robert, Courtney and Brittany (teammates Robert Hight and daughters Courtney and Brittany Force). I’ll be signing autographs for all the fans. I am sorry to all of you fans that I didn’t make it.”

Saturday’s failure to qualify marked only the 22nd time he’s DNQ’d in his 40-year professional drag racing career. He set a drag racing record by qualifying for 395 consecutive events from 1988 until April 2007.

“I am bummed that the boss didn’t get in. That was quite a streak he had going,” Hight said of hoss and father-in-law. “There is nobody better at rallying a team and leading a comeback than John Force.

“He loves the fight and he will do whatever it takes to get his team back on top. It really isn’t something to worry about because two of our Chevys are No.1 and No. 2 right now.

“We have good combinations and we just have to duplicate one of those set ups for John’s PEAK Funny car. He’ll be back next week in Charlotte.”

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As for the other classes (information courtesy NHRA Media Relations):Leah Pritchett set a new Top Fuel track record during the final qualifying session on Saturday to secure the top spot in Top Fuel heading into Sunday.Hight (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) are also No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the fifth of 24 events on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

Defending event champion Pritchett raced her Mopar Dodge dragster to a pass of 3.680-seconds at 326.00 mph. This is her first No. 1 qualifier of the season and eighth of her career.

“We’ve been developing our confidence the last couple of races,” Pritchett stated. “To be able to put it on the track is phenomenal. We know we need to be exceptional because our competition is exceptional.”

Pritchett will line up against Terry Brian in round one of eliminations on Sunday. Defending world champion Brittany Force locked-in the No. 2 spot after a 3.701 at 313.80 in her Monster Energy dragster. Tony Schumacher is seeded third and will face William Litton.

Hight’s final qualifying pass of 3.894 at 317.27 in his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro took him to the top of the Funny Car category. This is his first No. 1 qualifier of the season, second at Houston and 58th of his career.

“This is going to be a new ball game tomorrow,” Hight said. “With fresh asphalt and the sun being out; these cars are going to spin. It’s definitely going to be fun. Two of our Chevy’s are one and two (in Funny Car) which shows we have good combinations.”

Hight will face-off against Todd Simpson Sunday morning in the first round. Teammate Courtney Force sits in the No. 2 position with a pass of 3.911 at 295.14 in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro and two-time world champion Matt Hagan rounds out the top three.

Anderson, four-time Pro Stock world champion, remained atop the field Saturday with his pass of 6.492 at 213.00 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro from the first qualifying session on Friday. He notched his third consecutive No. 1 qualifier of the season and is seeking his first victory of the year.

“I haven’t had great Sunday’s yet,” Anderson stated. “I know I’m going to break through one of these days though. The weather is going to be great again tomorrow. I feel good about it, I’m excited and so far it’s just been a great weekend.”

Anderson will race Steve Graham in the first round of eliminations. Jeg Coughlin Jr. qualified in the No. 2 position with a pass of 6.504 at 212.36 in his JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro and Tanner Gray is third.

Eliminations at the NHRA SpringNationals begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday at Royal Purple Raceway.

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SUNDAY’S FIRST-ROUND PAIRINGS FOR ELIMINATIONS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.680 seconds, 326.00 mph vs. 16. Terry Brian, 4.275, 284.62; 2. Brittany Force, 3.701, 320.20 vs. 15. Terry Haddock, 4.081, 287.17; 3. Tony Schumacher, 3.703, 322.73 vs. 14. Bill Litton, 3.927, 306.60; 4. Billy Torrence, 3.737, 317.87 vs. 13. Kebin Kinsley, 3.819, 313.51; 5. Antron Brown, 3.740, 324.98 vs. 12. Terry McMillen, 3.783, 314.31; 6. Clay Millican, 3.746, 315.78 vs. 11. Mike Salinas, 3.766, 313.73; 7. Doug Kalitta, 3.748, 320.05 vs. 10. Richie Crampton, 3.766, 316.23; 8. Scott Palmer, 3.754, 318.17 vs. 9. Steve Torrence, 3.759, 313.88. Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry Totten, 4.636, 216.34.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.894, 317.27 vs. 16. Todd Simpson, Dodge Charger, 4.318, 288.33; 2. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.911, 313.58 vs. 15. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, 4.151, 283.49; 3. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.913, 311.85 vs. 14. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.077, 305.77; 4. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.918, 317.42 vs. 13. Richard Townsend, Camry, 4.026, 308.99; 5. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.918, 301.94 vs. 12. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.017, 307.51; 6. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.925, 311.41 vs. 11. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.994, 311.34; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.926, 313.00 vs. 10. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.989, 313.37; 8. Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 3.927, 316.52 vs. 9. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.938, 314.09. Did Not Qualify: 17. Jim Campbell, 4.341, 273.05; 18. John Force, 4.625, 222.29.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.492, 213.00 vs. 16. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.775, 205.60; 2. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.504, 212.36 vs. 15. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.621, 208.65; 3. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.507, 211.99 vs. 14. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.592, 210.93; 4. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.513, 212.29 vs. 13. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.548, 210.67; 5. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.518, 211.99 vs. 12. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.545, 210.50; 6. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.525, 212.79 vs. 11. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.532, 212.73; 7. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.527, 212.29 vs. 10. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.532, 211.79; 8. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.528, 211.93 vs. 9. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.530, 211.33.