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Sam Schmidt addresses decision to replace Hinchcliffe; Wickens status with IndyCar team

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Sam Schmidt confirmed that James Hinchcliffe remains under contract to Arrow McLaren Racing SP but will not be driving for the team in 2020. He also said the popular 31-year-old driver from Canada is free to negotiate a deal with another team in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Schmidt, who merged his Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team with McLaren with the new operation beginning competition next season, also said Robert Wickens remains part of the team as a “driver coach and consultant.” Wickens continues to recover from spinal injuries that have left him with partial use of his legs but continues to make impressive progress in his recovery and rehabilitation.

Schmidt also said Arrow McLaren Racing SP plans to enter a third car in next year’s Indianapolis 500, but there is no agreement or plan in place at this time for two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso to be in that car.

“It certainly remains an option, but nothing’s been confirmed,” Schmidt said Wednesday. “We absolutely have had a history of 12 years of running a third car at Indy and still plan to do that and Fernando remains an option but nothing’s confirmed.”

Should Wickens ever fully recover to resume racing, Schmidt said the No. 6 Chevrolet will be available to him to race.

“I think Robert continues to inspire and motivate and just amaze everybody on a daily basis,” Schmidt said. “Because he’s continuing the program, he’s continuing to improve, he is a part of the team as a driver coaching consultant and will continue.

“And I think that’s one of the major assets we have that Oliver Askew was talking about in that he will be there at a majority of the races next year assisting these young guys to get acclimated as quick as they can.

“So he’s part of the team, but also he’s got a major focus on his rehabilitation and he’s hell bent on driving again and I wouldn’t bet against him.”

While that prospect remains a long way into the future, Hinchcliffe has lost his ride. It was officially announced on Wednesday Arrow McLaren Racing SP that 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Mexico and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida would be the team’s drivers in 2020.

“I think Ric (Peterson, one of the owners of the race team) and I would say that this is one of the toughest decisions we have had to make since we have been team owners, because I personally have known James, Jeremy, Arlene, his brother Chris for 11 years and love him,” Schmidt responded to a question posed to him by NBC Sports.com. “And I really appreciate what he’s done for the team, tremendous, tremendous investor in the sport and our brand and everything else.

“I’s a gut wrenching decision, but we were faced with an opportunity to pick up these two young guns coming out of Indy Lights that already have 13-, 14-, 15-years’ worth of experience and it was just an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.

“Everything’s amicable, I have all the faith in the world that James is going to wind up in a full-time ride and Ric and I are fully supportive of that. It’s just a competitive environment and for our partners and everything else that we’re — everybody, it was a group decision, we got an opportunity in front of us, we got to take it, we want to go win races.”

In theory, Hinchcliffe could sit back for a year and collect his paycheck from the team, but Schmidt doesn’t believe that will happen.

“What’s to stop him is the race driver within him,” Schmidt said. “I think as Gil de Ferran (McLaren Sporting Director), myself, anybody else on the line that’s a driver, you want to drive, you want to prove, you want to win the Indy 500, you still got boxes to check.

“I have no doubt that he and his team are burning up the phone lines and talking with everybody out there, in any series but primarily Indy Car. He’s still young, he still wants to win races, so I think that’s what’s to stop him from doing it.

“Certainly, it’s his option, but I don’t think you’ll see him do that.”

NBC Sports.com reported on Tuesday that NTT IndyCar Series team owners Bobby Rahal and Dale Coyne are both interested in talking to Hinchcliffe about the possibility of expanding their current and respective teams. However, both team owners said at this late stage of the offseason, it will be very difficult to get everything in place with sponsorship, team personnel and equipment to expand from their current two-car teams.

 

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

NHRA: Antron Brown takes major step toward team ownership

NHRA
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There will come a day that when three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown wants to talk to his boss, he’ll need to look no further than in the mirror.

The New Jersey native announced Tuesday that he has begun to lay the groundwork to own his Top Fuel team, eventually branching out from Don Schumacher Racing.

“It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time, it’s also nerve-wracking because the buck stops here right now,” Brown told NBC Sports. “Now the coolest part is you get to help and drive and motivate and push the team forward, to make decisions and leave a legacy behind for my family.”

Brown will continue racing for DSR this season while beginning the transition to eventual sole ownership of the new AB Motorsports in the future. Even when he officially leaves the DSR camp as a hired driver, Brown and his new team will retain a technical partnership with the Schumacher organization.

Moving toward team ownership is just a natural evolution for Brown, who previously ran his own Pro Stock Motorcycle team from 1998 until joining DSR in 2002. It’s also a move that potentially may lead other current drivers to start thinking about their own futures.

It’s no secret that many of the biggest names in drag racing – both drivers and owners – are getting up in years. John Force will soon turn 72, while Schumacher is 75. They’re among several others in the sport who are making contingency plans for their teams to continue to operate once they’re gone – and Brown wants to do his part to help the sport grow and flourish.

“When you’re able to have ownership, you’re looking at the talent coming up,” Brown said. “You’re able to reach down and see and give other people opportunities that you had. When I came to race for Don Schumacher at DSR, he’s given all these people at his place this opportunity to drive.

“But what happens when the Don Schumachers, the John Forces, the Connie Kalittas go? You lose all the owners of our series, so who’s next in line to take over that lineage or carry that torch? It’s a necessary means for the future for the upcoming people.

Antron Brown’s plans to become a team owner were embraced by his current team owner, Don Schumacher. (Getty Images)

“I’ve been in this sport for over 20 years. This is the next evolution of my chapter, the next page of my book. What am I going to do when I decide to hang the helmet up one day? I want to be there to bring that new crop of drivers and talent up and help mold them to be the best version of themselves to carry the sport forward and to share with them what was shared with me over all my years in the sport, from Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Big Daddy Don Garlits, Mark Oswald and Don “Snake” Prudhomme, all the people I looked up to.”

While Brown will start as a single-car team once he transitions to ownership, he hopes to eventually build AB Motorsports into at least a two-car operation, with his Top Fuel dragster and a Funny Car.

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The path to eventual ownership began nearly a year ago when Brown and Schumacher discussed the future.

“Me and Don had a heart-to-heart talk,” Brown said. “When I told him what I wanted to do, Don said, ‘Antron, I know this is what you want to do. I’ll support you in this.’

“That’s a cool experience when you have a gentleman that has done everything in this sport, from over 350 national event wins, 17 world championships – and I’ve done three with him – and is in every motorsports hall of fame there is.

“What is he going to do next? He’s making the sport better by pushing people like myself to do what I’m doing now. No matter how long it takes, I know I have him on my backside, pushing me to get to that point.”

Like father, like son: Antron Brown and son Anson, who is following in his father’s drag racing footsteps. Photo: Antron Brown’s official Facebook page.

His family’s future also figured into Brown’s decision. His oldest son, Anson, soon turns 16 years old and is heavily involved in NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, as are Brown’s other children. It’s likely his son some day will follow in his father’s footsteps.

But don’t think that the elder Brown, who turns 44 in March, is ready to hang up his firesuit just yet.

“I’ll stop driving when I feel I’m not capable to drive no more and I’m not having fun no more,” he said. “That’s nowhere in the near future. I know I’m going to drive for at least another 15 years.”

Heading into this season, Brown will retain current sponsorship from Mac Tools and Toyota, as well as associate sponsorship from Hangsterfer’s on his 11,000-horsepower dragster. Global Electronic Technology also has signed on as a new associate sponsor in a multiyear deal.

“It’s no secret this has been a goal of Antron’s for a while now, and I’m happy to be able to provide the tools and resources needed for him to be able to successfully branch out on his own,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “It’s important for me to see my team members grow.”

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Brown burst upon the NHRA scene atop a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 1998, earning 16 wins over the next 10 seasons. He joined DSR in 2002 and made the switch to Top Fuel in 2008.

Since then, Brown – who now resides in suburban Indianapolis – has gone on to become one of the winningest drivers in Top Fuel history with 50 national event victories, as well as three championships between 2012 and 2015.

That performance recently earned him AutoWeek magazine’s Top Fuel Driver of the Decade.

Brown also announced Tuesday he is reuniting with former crew chief Brian Corradi, who returns to the team after spending the last two seasons as co-crew chief for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Corradi will share crew chief duties for Brown with NHRA veteran Mark Oswald.

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When he won his first title in 2012, Brown became the first African-American world champion in Top Fuel history. He hopes his move to ownership will continue to grow NHRA’s already significant focus on opportunities for minorities and females in the sport.

“I think it’s important across all spectrums, period,” Brown said. “I think a lot of fans see me, and they can relate to me because I am them. I came from a good, hard-working family in Chesterfield, New Jersey, which is right next door to Trenton.

“Everybody in my family from my great uncles to my grandpop made their own way, had their own businesses, from swimming pool to paving to septic tank businesses.

“One thing my grandpop said to me is the world is wide open. He said, ‘Son, you can have anything you want in this world, as long as you put the effort and put the work towards it.’ If people can resonate with my story from where I came from and where I’m heading, I hope it gives them this energy, this ray of hope that ‘if Antron Brown can do this, so can I.’

“That’s the only way for motorsports to grow. It’s for the young ones to get interested in it and I want them to know the opportunity is there. All they have to do is take it.”

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Brown will be among more than 30 Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers who will take part in this weekend’s annual preseason “spring training” test at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in preparation for the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals Feb. 6-9 in Pomona, California.

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