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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.”

EXCLUSIVE: NHRA’s Don Schumacher, all 7 of his drivers to donate brains for concussion research

From left, DSR Top Fuel drivers Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher. Photos courtesy Auto Imagery.
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In a collective large-scale move never before seen in motorsports or any other form of professional sports, NHRA drag racing team owner Don Schumacher and all seven of his drivers have pledged in writing to donate their brains upon death to the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk has learned exclusively.

The pledges were all signed this afternoon at suburban Denver’s Bandimere Speedway, site of this weekend’s Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals.

Team owner Don Schumacher (in red shirt) and his seven Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers sign written pledges to donate their brains for concussion research Friday at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver.

Don Schumacher Racing is the second-most successful team overall in NHRA history, with 11 Top Fuel and five Funny Car championships, as well as over 300 combined nitro national event wins by all seven of its drivers (as well as retired driver Gary Scelzi).

This is the first time an NHRA driver, owner or team has announced they will donate their brains to science for further study on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be detected and diagnosed after death.

However, more than 3,000 current and former athletes in other sports have already pledged their brains to research post-mortem, including NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., U.S. Women’s Soccer Team star Brandi Chastain, and several former NFL Pro Bowlers including Randy Cross, Keith Sims, Shawn Springs and Gary Fencik.

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. plans to donate his brain to CTE research

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s decision inspires NASCAR Hall of Famer to donate brain for CTE research

While concussions are not a widespread problem in the NHRA as in, for example, the NFL, they still happen from time to time.

With the g-forces, high-speed explosions and crashes and intense vibrations Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers endure while exceeding 330 mph in 1,000 feet, concussions are always a threat, but that threat is usually mitigated by the safety equipment found in the race cars.

Don Schumacher Racing’s Funny Car drivers, from left, Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps and Matt Hagan.

In pledging their brains, Schumacher and his seven drivers will also “immediately begin a comprehensive brain monitoring process to ensure an in-depth brain profile upon donation,” according to a team statement.

DSR’s pledges coincide with CLF Project Enlist, a new program launched this week by CLF and Infinite Hero Foundation (IHF) a non-profit organization (and a partner of DSR) that assists military veterans returning from battle and their families. IHF’s main goal is to “accelerate research on traumatic brain injury (TBI), CTE and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in military veterans.”

DSR and Project Enlist are conducting recruiting and outreach to military and veteran communities to increase participation in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation (VA-BU-CLF) Brain Bank brain donation registry.

The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank is the world’s largest CTE brain bank specializing in research into concussions, ALS, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Schumacher, who was one of the sport’s most successful drivers in the 1960s and 1970s, has since gone on to build a vast business and racing empire that employs over 2,000 individuals. He is also regarded as one of the top innovators in performance and safety in drag racing.

“Donating my brain for research to help other individuals in this world is something that I’m more than willing to do,” said Don Schumacher, who was recently named to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America’s Class of 2019. “It surprised my wife, Sarah, but she also agreed to me doing this based on its potential to help drivers, soldiers, business people and the population of the world.

Team owner Don Schumacher.

“I support (the CLF) 100 percent and was thrilled that my seven drivers agreed to donate their brains.”

Here are comments from all of Schumacher’s seven drivers who have pledged to donate their brains to research post-mortem:

Tony Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “I think any athlete donating their brain is a great idea once you’re done with it here on earth. If people can come up with a better system, and a better way to keep future drivers safer, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to improve our world. The doctors and the technology with all athletes right now, they’re diving in deep to come up with concussion research, and as a driver that goes through 11,000-horsepower, 2.5-Richter scale shaking every single run, I think we’re good candidates to research.”

“Fast Jack” Beckman, driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “My wife didn’t take the news that I was pledging my brain quite the way I thought. Apparently, she wants to have me stuffed and put in the corner of our living room (he said with a laugh), but (growing serious) I’ve been an organ donor since I was 16. My thought is, if it can help somebody else, that’s fantastic. When you see these veterans coming back with traumatic brain injuries and PTS, and there’s no one cure for this, it makes you realize how much more we still need to learn about the human brain to have effective treatments for the majority of the injured vets. To be a part of that in some small way; well, I can’t take my brain with me, haven’t used it since I started driving a Funny Car (he said with another laugh), so someone else might as well take advantage.”

Ron Capps, driver of the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “When approached with the chance to help the Concussion Legacy Foundation and have an opportunity to help with advancing the study, treatment, and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes as well as other at-risk groups, we said ‘yes’ without hesitation. The Concussion Legacy Foundation is a group of dedicated people doing great things to help the next generations to come, and we’re proud to help in any way we can.”

Antron Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “We always want to do whatever we can to help elevate the safety in our sport, and be proactive in bettering the safety for all.”

Matt Hagan, driver of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car: “I think it’s pretty cool to donate anything to science. My brain is kind of mush anyways (jokes). Anytime we can do something to help is a good thing and being able to have research off of how your brain is affected by g-force and things like that, is interesting. Driving a nitro Funny Car is not something just anybody gets to do. There are only maybe 50 people in the world that really, truly experience the g-forces we do on a regular basis. These cars are extreme, we put on a show, and we put our bodies through elements that most people will never even understand. If we can help with the research of concussions and saving lives, that’s a great thing, and I’m all about it.”

Tommy Johnson Jr., driver of the Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “I elected to donate my brain because of all of my years of racing, suffering explosions and experiencing tire shake. If the Concussion Legacy Foundation can learn something that would help the next generation, I would be very proud to be a part of that. Tying it in with the soldiers who experience traumatic brain injuries, if we can work together and help one another, I think it’s a great opportunity for the road to recovery for everyone.”

Leah Pritchett, driver of the Mopar Dodge Top Fuel dragster: “When I was first asked if I would be open to donating my brain for future research, there wasn’t even a question in my mind at all. All of us are safer in our passenger cars and safer in our race cars because of what we’ve been able to learn from the past. We get to do what we do and are safe because of technology and science. If I have a legacy to leave behind, and it can benefit anybody in any way, from the sports community to the military to a child that wants to play football, whatever it may be, once I’m gone, I won’t need my brain so I’m proud to know that it will benefit others.”

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