INDYCAR: Hinchcliffe, Wickens hope return to Road America pays dividends

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When Robert Wickens went to Road America last year at the invitation of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – he subbed in opening practice for then SPM driver Mikhail Aleshin, who was delayed in arriving at Road America after the 24 Hours of Le Mans due to via issues – it was like taking a few licks off an ice cream cone.

Once he got a taste for IndyCar, it wasn’t long – just a few weeks later, actually – before Wickens decided he wanted the full-course meal.

That’s why he’s with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as a rookie this season.

That’s also why the Toronto, Ontario native is looked forward so much to returning to the 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

Now, instead of being an observer, the 29-year-old Wickens is a full-time IndyCar participant in the No. 6 SPM Lucas Oil Honda. And what better place to earn his first career IndyCar victory than in Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix.

“This is my one-year anniversary of an IndyCar press conference,” Wickens said during Friday’s at-track media availability. “That’s kind of cool. Good timing for a coffee.

“It’s cool. I mean, to do it at a track like Road America is even more special. I mean, it’s such a cool place, so much history. As a driver, I think it’s a favorite for everybody.

“A big reason why I agreed to help out the team last year was because it was at Road America, just because it’s such a cool track to drive. Driving an IndyCar on such a good track, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

“Now I’m a full-time guy. Hopefully we can get some good results this weekend.”

Long-time friend James Hinchcliffe kept touting Wickens’ talent and ability to SPM for the last couple of years. Finally, both the team and Wickens agreed to a marriage for 2018 and beyond.

“I had obviously a huge interest in Rob coming to the team,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was a huge advocate for it very early on. I was one of the few guys — myself and Piers Phillips were the ones that followed Robby’s career all through Europe, knew what he was capable of. We were the ones that put our foot down and said, ‘This is the guy we have to take a look at.’

“Once his name was on everybody else’s radar within the team, I tried to sit back. What I didn’t want to happen is I didn’t want people to think I was trying to get my buddy in the seat. I laid out all the facts.

“If you looked at everything on paper, the facts were this is the best available guy in the world for this car in the world. I wanted them to figure it on out on own rather than just hammer it in.”

While Wickens was a stranger to the IndyCar series, he was not a stranger to many of its current drivers.

“There’s so many people (currently in IndyCar that) I grew up racing against,” Wickens said. “This guy (pointing toward Hinchcliffe, who was on the stage with him) is one of them.

“It’s always nice to see when the kind of ladder system works. Kids that you grew up racing against, you end up being professionals with. Some are good. Some are bad. You have this childhood rivalry that you can’t shake. Luckily that wasn’t me, but I know other drivers that have been through that.

“But honestly, it’s just fun. I mean, I’m racing with a smile on my face, which not every person can wake up in the morning, be really happy to go to work, regardless of the environment.

“I’m just looking forward to this weekend. Hopefully we can rebound well after Texas (crashed, finished 19th) and go from there.”

Road America is also a special place for Hinchcliffe, but for a different reason. It’s there that he climbed back into an IndyCar (for a test session) several months after his near-fatal crash at Indianapolis while practicing for the Indy 500 in 2015.

“This place has always been one of my favorites,” Hinchcliffe said. “I got my first open-wheel race win here back in Formula BMW, all the way up to getting back into an IndyCar for the first time after the accident.

“I was gutted when I got to IndyCar and we didn’t race at Road America, so I was very excited when they finally announced when we were coming back. As Robbie said, this is a lot of drivers’ favorite road course in the country. It’s always nice to get to rip an IndyCar around this place.”

Hinchcliffe’s return to Road America is once again looking for a different type of comeback.

Having failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 this year, Hinchcliffe remains 11th in the IndyCar point standings. While he struggled during both races at Belle Isle (finished 11th and 16th), he bounced back with a strong fourth-place showing two weeks ago at Texas.

“The car has been solid the last few weekends,” Hinchcliffe said. “Hopefully we can bring home some more good points.”

Road America will mark the fourth race for Hinchcliffe of working with engineer Will Anderson, who replaced Leena Gade, who lasted just five races with the team before parting ways with SPM.

“Coming into the season, I had exactly zero people on my stand from 2017, or any other year of my career,” Hinchcliffe said. “Having worked with Will for a bunch of years as assistant race engineer, it’s nice to have that familiar face on the stand.

“We already speak the same language, know how each other works. It’s made that transition a little bit easier. It’s never ideal to do that mid-season.

“I think he slipped into the role very nicely. I think him and I have been working pretty well together. It’s been productive so far.”

Wickens agreed, adding that his route to IndyCar was indeed somewhat circuitous more so than he ever really anticipated.

“That was the big thing,” Wickens said. “Obviously as a kid I grew up watching IndyCars and loved racing Indy cars. My career went to Europe at a pretty young age pursuing Formula 1, then we got approached by Mercedes to race in the DTM in German touring cars.

“I was never always hoping for an IndyCar opportunity. I was honestly completely content where I was. But then situations changed and I had to look for some new avenues to go racing.

“IndyCar was my top prospect. It’s what I probably wanted to do the most this season, given the new aero kits, given like IndyCar is always on the rise, other championships are starting to struggle a bit.

“I think the timing was right. Happy to be a part of it. Even more I’m happy that the results are coming in the first year.”

Ironically, while Road America last year whetted Wickens’ appetite for IndyCar, it wasn’t until the IndyCar race on his home turf of downtown Toronto about three weeks later that he really started considering the American open-wheel series as a viable option for the next step of his racing career.

“At this time last year, IndyCar wasn’t really on my horizon,” Wickens said. “It was more just to tick off a bucket list.

“Around the Toronto weekend is when I kind of first thought about, like, talking to teams, kind of seeing what I could do.”

And now he hopes to show what he can do Sunday with a strong run.

“The plan is to start at the front, race at the front, finish at the front, right?” Wickens said. “I don’t think not having race experience on this track (is a detriment). If I follow my game plan, I won’t really have to pass anyone.”

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Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night / DB3 Inc.

On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.

Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)