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Robert Wickens eager to begin IndyCar career with retooled SPM

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Once upon a time, Robert Wickens was an up and coming star in the American racing scene. A standout in Formula BMW USA and other junior categories, Wickens eventually landed in the old Champ Car Atlantic championship, winning once on his way to third in the championship in 2007.

But, from there, his racing ventures took him across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. Consequently, many of his accomplishments may have flown under the radar for American observers. But, be careful of dismissing those accomplishments, as doing so masks a driver who has quietly developed a mighty impressive resume.

Wickens won races in Formula Renault 3.5 and Formula 3 Euro Series in 2008, finished second in the 2009 FIA Formula Two Championship, did the same in the 2010 GP3 series, and was the champion of the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 Series, beating drivers like Jean-Eric Vergne, Daniel Ricciardo and Alexander Rossi in doing so.

Wickens’ exploits caught the attention of Mercedes-Benz, who placed him in the German DTM series from 2012 onward, where he won at least one race every year between 2013 and 2017, finishing as high as fourth in the championship in 2016.

In short, Wickens’ career in Europe is nothing to scoff at, though several were left to wonder how he might fare if he ever got a chance to return the open wheel ranks.

That fire was reignited in 2017 after Wickens and long-time friend James Hinchcliffe completed a “ride swap,” with Hinchcliffe sampling Wicken’s Mercedes DTM machine while Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 ARROW Electonics Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens. Photo: IndyCar

Wickens’ performance was impressive enough that SPM called on him to fill in for Mikhail Aleshin at Road America last June, when Aleshin briefly ran into a problem reentering the U.S. after competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

A rapport with SPM now fully established, Wickens quickly emerged as a candidate for a full-time seat alongside Hinchcliffe after the 2017 season concluded, and it was hardly a surprise when SPM confirmed him shortly after last season ended.

With the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season now only days away, Wickens is chomping at the bit to get going.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for about six months now since the announcement came out that I was joining INDYCAR,” Wickens quipped. ‘We’ve worked a lot this winter getting me comfortable in the Lucas Oil car. We’ve gone testing, now what’s next is to go racing.”

Testing did not see the SPM squad near top of the time sheets – Wickens had the 16th fastest lap on ISM Raceway in February, while teammate Hinchcliffe was 22nd. However, Wickens does not appear concerned, asserting that testing has actually gone well, though St. Petersburg will give him and the team a clear sense of where they stand competitively.

“I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far through testing, but we won’t really know for sure until we get into the first race,” Wickens revealed. “I’m just really eager to get started and get to St. Pete. I’ve heard the track’s great, the fans are great, and now I just want to live it for Sam (Schmidt). All around, I’m just very excited.”

Hinchcliffe — who along with Toronto native Wickens have dubbed themselves “Team Canada” — shared similar sentiments, highlighting a series of changes that occurred with the SPM organization.

Along with the addition of Hinchcliffe, Todd Malloy was brought in as the new technical director, former Team Penske engineer Billy Vincent joins as a crew chief of Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 entry, and Leena Gade, a three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winning engineer with Audi’s former LMP1 program, entering as an engineer for Hinchcliffe as well.

All told, the changes indicate the team has its sights set on improving upon back-to-back 13th-place finishes in the IndyCar championship.

“There’s been a lot of change, not only with the 2018 aero kit but internally at SPM personnel-wise,” Hinchcliffe said. “So we’re really anxious to get ourselves into a race weekend situation to see how we all perform and start picking out how we can improve and build this team up to be regular contenders.

“I’m excited for (Wickens’) first race, Leena’s (Gade) first race, first race of the 2018 kit – there’s a lot of stuff to look forward to.”

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Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”