NHRA champ Capps joins fellow NAPA driver Rossi in Long Beach

Rossi and Capps. Photo: IndyCar
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It’s been a good 12 months for NAPA Auto Parts’ sponsorship in motorsports.

NAPA made a last-minute deal to become the primary partner for Alexander Rossi in last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Rossi subsequently paid them off with the legendary, Bryan Herta-aided strategic “clutch-and-coast” gem where Rossi drove beyond his years for the victory in the No. 98 Honda.

Then at the other end of the experience spectrum, longtime NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car star Ron Capps secured one of the most popular championships in recent memory, finally breaking through in 2016 for his first title in the NAPA Dodge Charger.

And with Chase Elliott on the verge of his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race win – he’s won stages and kicked off 2017 with his second straight Daytona 500 pole in his No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, the company is on the verge of getting back to victory lane there.

Elliott was obviously busy at Texas Motor Speedway on NASCAR duties this weekend but with a break in the NHRA schedule this weekend, Capps made his maiden voyage to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach this weekend as a guest of Andretti Autosport and Rossi.

The two of them had met at the NAPA Owner’s meeting in Orlando just before the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener in St. Petersburg earlier this year.

This weekend, Capps got a first-hand look into the world of IndyCar, and got a two-seater ride with Mario Andretti.

“Getting to ride with Mario in the two-seater is something I never in a million years thought I would do, and what a ride it was,” Capps said. “It was one of the most thrilling things I have ever gotten to do.”

Capps recapped the rest of the weekend, as it was a break in-between NHRA’s most recent round of the season at Las Vegas and a couple weeks before the next three-in-a-row stretch, starting at Houston on April 23 (more below, starting at the 2:52 mark, during this week’s IndyCar Paddock Pass with Anders Krohn).

“I don’t have very many ‘off weekends’ with our (NHRA Funny Car) schedule,” explained Capps, “so, to be able to not only attend the Grand Prix of Long Beach for my first time, I was able to take my family for the weekend and take in everything that had made the Grand Prix of Long Beach what it is today.

“I was pretty excited when I heard Alexander Rossi was going to represent our great sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, but the weekend showed me why Michael (Andretti) and everyone at Andretti Autosport is successful on and off the race track. It was fun to be a part of the great NAPA Racing crew during the race as they executed race strategy that I knew was going give them a great chance to win. And, to watch Alexander drive such a consistent, fast pace all day was exciting for me. I felt devastated for the team when they had the problem near the end of the race. I can’t wait to go to our next IndyCar Series event!”

Rossi was on pace for a likely podium finish at least in his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda, probably second or third behind eventual race winner James Hinchcliffe, before a mechanical issue took him out of the race.

Robert Wickens in the Indy 500? Bryan Herta making plans to field a car for next year

Robert Wickens Indy 500
Brett Farmer/LAT Images/IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bryan Herta wants to enter Robert Wickens in the Indy 500 as early as 2024 – a year longer than preferred as work continues on the hand controls needed for the paralyzed driver.

Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in his 2018 IndyCar rookie season. He’s worked as a driver coach for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team since, but last year with Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai returned to racing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The 33-year-old Canadian won a pair of races (including the season opener at Daytona) driving a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR that is fitted for Wickens to race strictly through hand controls. Herta said Thursday that perfecting that technology for an Indy car in the biggest race in the world has slowed the project he’s determined to do with Wickens.

‘I’M AS HUNGRY AS EVER’: Robert Wickens’ return to racing

“I’d love to take Robbie back to Indy because I know he could do that, and I think that would be a next step for him in his journey,” Herta told The Associated Press. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the logistical side of things, hand controls, and I think we have solutions for that.”

Herta said Honda has been supportive of the process, which Herta called “one of the most important things we’ve done in racing” last year.

“We actually looked at doing it this year, but the logistics of it, the timing, it just wasn’t enough,” Herta said. “That’s not something you can rush. There’s some things that we have to work very closely with IndyCar on, and things we just have to get right. It’s a process, but I can see a path to it.”

Wickens, when told his boss was openly discussing the Indy 500, grinned widely. Herta as a team owner won the Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi.

“That’d be fun,” he said of running the Indy 500.

But like Herta, Wickens said the effort has to be both done correctly and be competitive.

“We’d like to do it right. If we started right now, can we get a car ready for the open test in April? Probably,” Wickens told The AP. “But I don’t know where the systems would be and I want to get on proper simulators to make sure its correct.

“We all want to do a proper, professional effort,” he added. “I don’t want to do it for a marketing campaign. I want to do it for a chance to win.”

Wickens later tweeted about the possibility of racing the Indy 500 and said his goal was “always to get back to the top level of motorsport” whether it’s IndyCar or IMSA.

Wickens in 2021 did a demonstration in Canada that marketed advancements for paralyzed drivers and gave him a chance to again drive. His entire life had been upended 14 races into his rookie IndyCar season, just three months after winning top rookie honors at the Indianapolis 500.

Wickens has since married, returned to racing last year and welcomed the birth of his first child, an son named Wesley whom is infatuated with both race cars and the trip to Disney he took this week during the off days at Daytona International Speedway.

Wickens, who uses a wheelchair but can stand with some support, marks a full year back racing on Friday in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Despite success last season, Herta made changes to his lineups and Wickens this year will be teamed with Harry Gottsacker.