(via Toronto Star) – In years past, when race fans went to the Honda Indy Toronto (nee Molson Indy), there was usually a Canadian driver to root for: Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Tagliani, Patrick Carpentier, Paul Tracy — the list goes on.
But on Friday, when the cars and stars of the Verizon IndyCar Series take to the track at Exhibition Place, there will be an entire team of Canadians to support.
It’s IndyCar’s very own Team Canada.
The official name is Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The only non-Canadian is the guy whose name comes first: Schmidt, as in Sam Schmidt. All of the other principals were born north of the 49th.
The Peterson in Schmidt Peterson is Ric Peterson of Calgary. The technical director is Todd Malloy of Kapuskasing, Timmins, and Toronto, in that order. The two racing drivers are James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., and Robert (Robbie) Wickens of Guelph, Ont.
Let’s take a closer look at all of them.
Ric Peterson is the CEO of Calgary-based Oculus Transport Ltd., which is primarily a trucking company active in the province’s oil patch. An entrepreneur and businessman, he sits on a number of boards of directors.
Back in the day, he raced in both the Toyota Atlantic Championship and the CASCAR Super Series for late-model stock cars. He and Hinchcliffe have investigated promoting an IndyCar Series race through the streets of Calgary.
He splits his time between Calgary and Indianapolis, Ind., where the racing team is headquartered.
Todd Malloy’s chief claim to fame is that he was the tech director who was behind Dan Wheldon’s victory in the Indianapolis 500 in 2011. After spending his childhood in northern Ontario — he’s the son of Toronto-based automotive journalist Gerry Malloy — Todd studied engineering at the University of Waterloo.
He worked as an engineer with Newman-Haas Racing from 2007-2010 and since then has served stints with Bryan Herta Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing before landing his current gig as technical director for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
He’s had wonderful success along the way, but the highlight continues to be that 2011 Indy 500 victory.
“It’s the biggest win of my racing career,” he told me at the time. “I can’t describe it. It’s what you dream about; it’s why you do this. It was the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 with all that great history. It’s just incredible to be a part of it.”
Robert Wickens was a childhood karting prodigy. Like Wayne Gretzky in hockey, Wickens left every other kid in his dust on the kart track. He moved into cars and won the Formula BMW Championship when he was 17. That got him a Red Bull (energy drinks) Scholarship and he went on to race in Champ Car Atlantic and various European championships.
In 2011, he won the Formula Renault 3.5 championship and defeated Jean-Eric Vergne, Alexander Rossi and Daniel Ricciardo in the process. They all went on to Formula One while Wickens was left without a ride.
Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolfe threw him a lifeline and placed him with Mercedes in the German Touring Car Series where he remained till this season, when he moved to IndyCar as Hinchcliffe’s teammate at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
He nearly won his first race in the series, at St. Petersburg, Fla., in March. He was running third in last Sunday’s race at Iowa Speedway but wound up fifth because of another IndyCar Series screwup. He’s due for a breakthrough victory.
Might that first win come in Toronto? Stay tuned.
James Hinchcliffe, who won the IndyCar Series race in Iowa Sunday and is on a roll coming into Toronto, is no stranger to Toronto racing fans and the Honda Indy. Even in 2015, when he nearly died after being injured in a crash at Indianapolis, he was at the race as the grand marshal. He’s as fit as a fiddle this year and is coming off that great performance in the race at Iowa.
His curriculum vitae is as extensive as Wickens’ and he has a leg up on his teammate when it comes to extracurricular activities. For instance, during the 2006 season, when he was in Champ Car Atlantics, he did commentary on Champ Car telecasts in Europe. And he finished second on the TV show Dancing with the Stars in 2016.
Hinchcliffe was instrumental in arranging for his good friend Wickens to join him at Schmidt Peterson for the 2018 season. But that begs the question: how can you remain such close friends when you are racing each other?
“Every driver on the circuit at some point it going to be pissed off with every other driver on the circuit,” Hinchcliffe said one morning at breakfast. “That’s the nature of the beast. If you race each other for years, at some point something will happen on the track to make tempers boil over.
“But we are a big family. We fight like family and we also make up like family. You talk it out, you fight it out, you hug it out and then you get on with it. That hasn’t happened between Robbie and me yet but it’s inevitable at some point.”
Hinchcliffe explained the reasoning for bringing Wickens into the team.
“We wanted somebody of his calibre in the (second) car because we needed somebody to push me. For the last couple of years, I don’t think I developed as much as I could have because I wasn’t being pushed internally.
“Now we have a guy who’s as fast as anybody on four wheels and we have a personal relationship. We have similar driving styles and our feedback is so similar that making changes to improve the performance of the car is easier.”
The question begs, then: is having Wickens on the team better for you?
“He’s absolutely making me better,” Hinchcliffe said. “I make him better, we make the team better. We’re pushing the engineers the way we haven’t been able to the last few years. So it’s been refreshing.”
Speaking of engineers, Hinchcliffe had praise for Molloy.
“His approach is so thorough and detail-oriented that it’s helped our team immensely,” Hinchcliffe said. “The IndyCar Series is a ‘spec’ series (all the racing cars are essentially the same), so the details make the difference. That guy puts in hours you wouldn’t believe and he’s making every other guy raise their game.
“From a technical side, I don’t see a better guy out there than Todd.”
When it comes to a race through the streets of Calgary, which Hinchcliffe had been investigating with Peterson, Hinchcliffe called it “slow burn.”
“I don’t think the conversation has been tabled just yet. It’s being discussed. Ric has been trying to get people in touch with each other to move that along. We all would love to see a race there for a lot of different reasons.”