(via INDYCAR.com) – This was already going to be another homecoming when James Hinchcliffe doesn’t get to see that much of home, except for the myriad of obligations he had scheduled in preparation for the Honda Indy Toronto on Sunday.
Then the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver went and won the Iowa Corn 300, the race preceding the Verizon IndyCar Series’ lone stop in Canada, on July 8. That just amped up the focus on Hinchcliffe, a native of nearby Oakville, Ontario.
Hinchcliffe has some assistance in sharing the hometown load this year, with friend, teammate and fellow Ontarian Robert Wickens getting his first close-up taste of the experience.
While Hinchcliffe’s slate was as chocked as usual heading into his ninth Toronto start, Wickens bore the weight of “market advance” in his first swing through town as an INDYCAR driver. Welcome home, rookie.
Wickens helped unveil the race trophy and joined in a media event at the Toronto commuter train on Wednesday, then was scheduled for 10 radio and television interviews on Thursday in addition to the media luncheon. And that was before the race weekend even began.
There has been much to anticipate about the return of the driver who grew up in Guelph, west of Toronto. Although the 29-year-old Wickens has raced around the world and proved a quick study in Indy cars – particularly in his first four oval races, where he has led laps in three and finished second in his debut at ISM Raceway – he admitted that his first revolutions this week around the 1.786-mile, 11-turn Toronto circuit would be different and, by the tone of his normally understated tone, special.
“I drove a Champ Car Atlantics race, 2007, around the Honda Indy circuit. Then you thought it was a big deal, but once you get older, you kind of get how much bigger it is when you’re the headline event,” Wickens said. “So, it is going to be crazy.
“The big thing is it’s a home race, but if you try harder to be better, you’re just going to be more prone to mistakes, so you mess with the chemistry and system, so you should just keep doing what you’re doing.”
While he was 11th in opening practice on Friday, if Wickens’ season to date is an indicator, he’ll be up to speed quickly. Currently sixth in the driver standings, he won the pole and led with two laps left in his first race, the season opener at St. Petersburg, before a collision with Alexander Rossi sent him off course and to a 18th-place finish. Since then, he has collected eight top-10 finishes, including podiums at ISM Raceway and the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Even last week at Iowa Speedway, where he for the first time expressed newcomer apprehension on the 0.894-mile short track, Wickens was in position to challenge for a win but settled for fifth place.
Hinchcliffe said time and experience made mitigating his home race and all its extraneous tug a simpler task.
“Basically, the rule is quite simple: for all my friends, all of them now are old enough to afford to a ticket, so I try to not spend too much time worrying about getting people tickets,” Hinchcliffe said. “And then the hard part becomes trying to balance your time with media requests and sponsor things, but we’ve gotten a good system down and I’ve got a good team around me that helps take care of me in that sense and its definitely gotten easier.”
Hinchcliffe expected Wickens to be immediately veteran-like in this regard, also, but his teammate wasn’t so sure.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he admitted. “To be honest, I think there’s going to be a lot of people who want a picture or want to say ‘hi’ or kind of send their regards and positivity, but ultimately there’s always a time and a place. INDYCAR weekends are always so crazy and everyone is trying to be nice and supportive, but it can actually stress you out a little bit because you only have three minutes to get to the next meeting.
“You don’t want to be mean to people, but at the same token you don’t have time to stop. I always feel bad when I can’t make time for people because I’m worried they’re going to think I’m a jerk. I think the team learned a lot about this with James and I think they probably have a good protocol in place and they probably have a good process in place to let people have the best access as possible.
“It’s definitely going to be an experience. I just hope I can keep my head above water and, once all that is said and done, we did a good job on Sunday and enjoy it. As a kid, I dreamed of racing around this track in front of my fans and, hopefully, getting on the podium would be a dream.”
There would be plenty of familiar faces waiting there.