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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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Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”