Sebastien Bourdais, right, has been a big influence to Pietro Fittipaldi, left, both before and after the latter's crash two weeks ago in Belgium. Photo: Getty Images.

As he recovers from injuries, Pietro Fittipaldi soaks in welcoming Indy atmosphere

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The only thing standing – no pun intended – between Pietro Fittipaldi and climbing into an Indy car Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a pair of crutches and a cast. But his heart and emotion was more than ready to go.

Fittipaldi planned on being at IMS this week to take part in practice for what he hoped would be his first appearance in the May 27th Indianapolis 500.

But Pietro will be watching from the sidelines this year, cheering for teammate Zachary Claman Demelo, who will be driving the No. 19 Honda for Dale Coyne Racing.

Fittipaldi, who hoped to follow in the footsteps of grandfather and two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi, suffered a fractured left leg and broken right ankle while qualifying for a sports car race on May 4 at Belgium’s famed Spa road course.

The 21-year-old Brazilian (he turns 25 on June 23) is expected to be sidelined until at least early July, but still holds out hopes he’ll have a few more IndyCar starts later on this season.

To date, he’s only had one career IndyCar start: earlier this year at Phoenix, where he qualified 10th but completed just 40 laps, knocked out by a crash that resulted in a 23rd-place finish.

Pietro spoke with the media Thursday at IMS about his crash, his recovery and his future during an interview session. Here are some of the highlights of that interview:

HOW IS HE FEELING: “I’m a lot better. I got here on Friday. I’ve been working with all the IndyCar doctors. Dr. (Terry) Trammell has been helping me a lot. It’s good to be in the racing environment because it keeps me active. They got me training every single day doing physical therapy and everything. Also to be close to the team, a lot of drivers came by the motorhome to come and talk to me, see how everything’s going. That’s really cool.”

ON BEING AT INDIANAPOLIS: “It’s good to be in this environment. Obviously I would like to be in different circumstances. I’d like to be racing. But it is what it is. Working hard to get back racing soon.”

ON LIVING AT IMS IN HIS MOTORHOME, EVEN THOUGH HE’S SIDELINED DUE TO HIS INJURIES: “I couldn’t really get much closer than that. We decided with all the doctors to stay at the track, at the motorhome, because Dr. Trammell is at the medical center here every day, with all the nurses there. Denise also works with IndyCar. They’ve been helping me out a lot. I’ve been training at Pit Fit doing the physical therapy here, and at the same time trying to stay up to speed with the team. The team gave me a radio. When I’m at the motorhome not doing anything, I’m just listening, trying to stay along with everything.”

MORE SPECIFICS ABOUT HIS PHYSICAL CONDITION: “My upper body feels normal, feels very strong. That’s what we’re trying to keep so when I get back in the racecar I’m really fit on the upper body. They’re already working on the lower body, as well, doing a lot of quad and hamstring stuff.

“I’m already weight bearing on the left leg, which is quite early, but the doctor has been pushing me quite hard. We’re already doing that here. Then getting the mobility back on the right ankle is going to be important, which we already are. The plan is to be back at Mid-Ohio.

“Obviously Indianapolis, I would have loved to be racing at the 500, at the Indy Grand Prix. We ran well at the test here at the GP (just days before his crash at Spa). I was really looking forward to it. Obviously, the team had a very good car. I knew before coming here we were going to have a good weekend. Unfortunately the accident happened. Now it’s fully focused on getting back recovered as soon as possible and get back to racing.”

HOW IS HE FEELING EMOTIONALLY? “Of course I’d love to be racing. Racing is like this. Things happen that sometimes are out of your control. We had an electrical issue. I lost power steering, went straight into the wall in qualifying. We all know the risks and dangers in auto racing.

“It’s like this. Now it’s my other race. Now I’m focused on getting back as fast as possible, you know, getting back to be able to do a good job.

“I’m disappointed, I’m hurt that I’m not being able to race here in the 500. But it is what it is. It’s toughen up and get back as soon as possible. … Obviously I’m going to be focused on my IndyCar schedule. Doing those last five races are going to be very important. But, you know, I’m a racer. I always want to race as many things as possible, be competitive. My focus right now is to get back as soon as possible. Like the plan is already in a week to get back in a go-kart. That’s what we want to do, then get back in Mid-Ohio. That’s going to be my first race.

“… As racers, if you love the sport, as soon as you know you have an injury, first thing you ask the doctors, When can I be back racing? You don’t even know what you have, When can I be back in the racecar? That’s the mentality we have most of the time.”

HAVE HE LEARNED ANYTHING FROM HOW DALE COYNE RACING TEAMMATE SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS CAME BACK SO QUICK FROM HIS CRASH HERE AT INDIANAPOLIS LAST YEAR? “Yeah, of course. Sebastien came to my motorhome yesterday. I was speaking to him for an hour or so. He was telling me all about his recovery, his rehab, how he got back in around eight to ten weeks, something like that. It’s obviously very inspiring.

“Even with my cousin, Christian Fittipaldi, when he got injured, he came back, he had one of his best races. He had the same injury that I had on my left leg. I’m getting a lot of input from a lot of friends and family, which is always good. It’s putting me on the right path to getting back.”

HOW MUCH HAS HE SPOKEN TO GRANDFATHER EMERSON? “Quite a lot. He was actually supposed to come visit me today, but he’s going to be coming next week. He has been following me throughout the whole process, when I got injured, when I had the surgery there in Belgium, then I got transferred here to Indianapolis last Friday.

“Another person that’s been helping me a lot is my uncle, Max Papis. He was actually in Belgium. He was going to arrive for my qualifying. I actually met him at the hospital. He helped me to connect me with all the IndyCar doctors here who have been doing a fantastic job. I really can’t thank them enough. The program they put together for me it’s top of the line. I’m really happy to be here.

“Yeah, just my whole family, my mom who has been with me, I feel bad for her because she’s been doing most of the work, getting me in and out of the wheelchair, doing everything for me. So thank you.

“I just want to take this opportunity also to thank all the fans and all my friends and family who have been sending me messages through social media, through my phone, just thank you so much. We’ll be back very soon.”

HE ONLY COMPETED IN ONE INDYCAR RACE. HOW HAS THE COMMUNITY RESPONDED TO HIM, PARTICULARLY IN LIGHT OF HIS INJURY: “It’s amazing. The environment, it’s great. I think from all the drivers, it’s a much closer community than what we’re used to in Europe. You’re very friendly. Obviously when you’re racing on track, it’s everyone for themselves. When you’re out, especially how it is at the motorhomes, I can’t experience that now, but usually you would have barbecues and stuff outside with other drivers after practice day, after a race day.

“Then obviously working with the team, since my first test at Sebring with the Dale Coyne team, the environment’s been great, with my engineer, Michael Cannon, and even from the other side, Craig Hansen, as well. They’re two very experienced engineers that I’ve been able to feed off and learn.

“I was really confident that this year we were going to be able to show some really good results. It was unfortunate what happened, but we’ll be back.”

*******************************

Team owner Dale Coyne also took part in the media session and answered a few questions as well:

WHEN DO YOU HOPE TO SEE PIETRO BACK IN A RACE CAR? “Initially you think a broken bone, six to eight weeks. The right ankle is probably going to be a little bit longer for him than his left leg. Putting weight on his left leg already. Realistically, his original schedule was to do the (INDYCAR) GP, this race, Texas, then not come back till Mid-Ohio. I think the plan is we’ve moved some races around with Zach (Demelo), so he’ll do this race, probably Texas. But that frees the whole rest of the season up so (Fittipaldi) can come back at Mid-Ohio and finish up the season.”

HOW GOOD IS IT TO SEE PIETRO AT IMS? “He’s a racer. This is the environment he lives in. These are the people that support him. You always learn. You’ve got to be here to learn. Every day there’s something to learn, whether he’s in the pits or just a radio away, people talking to him at night or in the morning. He’s going to learn every day. It’s great to have him here.”

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Podcast: James Hinchcliffe might find a silver lining in disguise at Indy after ‘an emotional roller coaster’

Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway
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INDIANAPOLIS – No one could blame James Hinchcliffe for going incognito at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, and he might do exactly that on the eve of the Indianapolis 500.

But it won’t be because the SPM driver is bummed about missing the biggest race of the IndyCar season. Actually, it’s because the crushing disappointment of getting bumped from the field a week ago might have a silver lining.

“I’ve heard all these stories from way back when to the present day of what it’s like just outside the speedway on Saturday night before the race,” Hinchcliffe said during a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that was recorded and released Saturday. “Up Georgetown (Road), in the Coke Lot, you hear all these crazy stories about all these crazy parties and the rest of it.

“And honestly, we’re always isolated in our little bubble inside the speedway in the drivers lot. Part of me is tempted to dress up in disguise and just venture out there and see what it’s all about. I’m very tempted to do that and maybe document some of the exploits out there.”

And if Hinchcliffe lingers well into the night? Well, it’s not as if he has a 500-mile race to worry about Sunday.

“I know the (track’s) cannon is going to go off at 6 a.m. (Sunday) and wake us up, but I have fewer responsibilities tomorrow than most of my colleagues,” the Canadian said with a laugh.

Of course, it still has been one of the longer weeks in the life of a 31-year-old who is ranked fifth in the points standing and seemed on track for a career season. Before Indy, Hinchcliffe’s average finish in the first five races was 5.8, including a third at Barber Motorsports Park.

But the momentum screeched to a halt when his No. 5 Dallara-Honda was knocked out of the field in the closing hour of the opening day of qualifying at the Brickyard last Saturday.

Hinchcliffe gamely accepted the outcome with a series of graceful interviews shortly afterward and has maintained a brave face during a week of promotional appearances

“It’s been an up and down week,” he said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. The term good days and bad days doesn’t even apply. You have good hours and bad hours.

“The busier I’m keeping myself, the better I’m feeling. There were times you have that little driver tantrum in your head like, ‘I don’t want to do any of this stuff because I’m in a bad mood! And blah, blah blah.’ But talking about it helps you get over it, and staying busy takes your mind off it a little bit.”

Still, there is no escaping the reality of when the green flag falls on the 102nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“Sunday is probably going to suck,” he said. “There’s no way around that. The start of the race is really going to suck. Then when I see how hard it is out there, I might think it sucks a little less.”

It has been easier to swallow because of “fan support that has just been completely overwhelming,” and Hinchcliffe of course has a perspective about Indianapolis that few have after a near-fatal practice crash in 2015 (“(Missing the race) actually wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had at Indianapolis Motor Speedway”).

His comeback from the brush with death brought his team closer together, and he’s hoping the latest spate of adversity will do the same.

“One of the hardest parts was just being back with the crew right afterward, getting back to the garage and seeing a group of like 10 grown men literally brought to tears over what just happened,” said Hinchcliffe, whose team misjudged the amount of time left in the session after a tire vibration problem quickly ended what would be his final attempt. “It shows you how much this race means. If we had a really bad crash at Detroit on Saturday morning and couldn’t get the car fixed in time for Sunday. We’d all be like, ‘Man that really sucks. We’ll fix the car and come back next week.’

“But not getting to start Indy, man, is just such a gut punch for these guys and for all of us. But at the same time, it brought us closer as a group. There were mistakes made that we’re going to learn from. There’s no doubt that we come back as a stronger unit because of this. Emotionally, from a preparation point of view, from an execution point of view.”

There was a jolt of positivity from a second-place finish in a pit stop competition Friday. Hinchcliffe’s team, which has posted the fastest pit stop in two races this season, fell to Scott Dixon’s team in the final after pulling out a surprise victory over Will Power’s crew from the non-preferred right lane in the semifinals.

“Even if we beat Dixon in the finals, it wouldn’t have felt as good as that win did,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was such an awesome performance. The guys have been killing it in the pits. It’s definitely a point of pride for us.

“It was fun to get back in the car and do something for the fans and do something for the boys. We won a check at the end of the day. Add it to the beer fund and go have a fun Sunday night.”

Other topics discussed in the podcast:

–How and why he became a popular star by learning how to showcase his affable personality early in his career;

–Why the IndyCar Series needs a driver to play the villain role;

–An expanded explanation of why he believes the Indianapolis 500 should be separate from the championship;

To listen to the podcast, click here for Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or play the Art19 embed below: