(via INDYCAR.com) – When he was younger, James Hinchcliffe knew his way around the paddock at Exhibition Place in Toronto. An enthusiastic fan and aspiring racer, he pursued his favorite drivers with fervor and precision, trying to score autographs in the way he would one day score trophies.
“Before I was a driver, I was a kid with a hero card and Sharpie, trying to race Mario (Andretti), Michael (Andretti), Jimmy (Vasser), all those guys around the paddock,” Hinchcliffe recalls. “For me to be on the other side of it now is a huge privilege. Trying to share the experience with as many people as I can, what I love doing, what I’m going to continue to do. I’m glad people are enjoying it.”
Scott Dixon was clearly the story Sunday at the Honda Indy Toronto, recording the 44th victory of his career, moving him closer to second place on the all-time wins list and expanding his lead in the standings as he pursues the fifth championship of his career.
But Dixon wasn’t all that was interesting about the race. Canadians had reason to cheer for their countrymen, as well, and all three Canadian drivers posted positive results. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates Robert Wickens and Hinchcliffe finished third and fourth, respectively, and Zachary Claman De Melo finished 14th, the second-best finish of his rookie season.
A year ago, Wickens was a spectator at Toronto, among the first to congratulate Hinchcliffe after a third-place finish. Now, with his sixth top-five finish of 2018 behind him, Wickens wishes he could race in his hometown every week.
“I would take a home race every race if I could,” Wickens said. “It’s such a cool feeling. I’ve never had one as a professional driver, to come here and take in how good the Toronto fans are. What makes it even cooler is it’s not just me saying it. Simon (Pagenaud) mentioned it, Scott (Dixon) mentioned it. The fans here in Toronto are one of the best on the calendar. To be Canadian, to just embrace the whole thing, to get out of the car, hear the grandstand roar, it brought me goosebumps.”
They’ve known each other since their go-karting days, when Hinchcliffe, who was raised in suburban Oakville, Ontario, raced against Wickens, who hailed from nearby Guelph. This season, though, Hinchcliffe and Wickens became teammates in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Their friendly competition has led to positive results on track; Wickens has three podium finishes in his first 12 races in the Verizon IndyCar Series, while Hinchcliffe rebounded from the disappointment of failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in May by winning July 8 at Iowa Speedway.
“Our setup is so good because we really push each other,” Hinchcliffe said. “Every track that we’re going to, a lot of them Robby is going to for the first time, for the first time in a decade. We sit down every weekend and we go over notes, go over video, he picks my brain a bit.
“The big challenge of this track is just really the bumps and the multiple surface changes, getting him to understand there’s no such thing as a car that feels great over an entire lap here in Toronto. You need a pretty OK car everywhere.”
Claman De Melo, a 20-year-old from Montreal, has been filling in for Pietro Fittipaldi, who sustained broken bones in both legs during a sports-car crash in May at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. Fittipaldi will test Tuesday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and is expected to return to the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda for the Honda Indy 200 on July 29 at Mid-Ohio.
Claman De Melo enjoyed every moment of his opportunity to race in front of Canadian fans.
“The fans were great,” he said. “I expected to probably be a little bit overshadowed by Hinch and Wicky, but the fans were great all weekend. A lot of people knew me. I got a lot of support, signed a lot of autographs. Extremely cool experience.”
Sometimes it’s such a cool experience that it’s difficult to explain.
“Life’s a crazy thing,” Wickens said. “It’s hard to kind of predict the future. I like to think that I’m just kind of a perfect example of that. But it’s just been a great day, a great week – been a pretty good year, to be honest with you. This is our third top-five in a row. It would be great if we could keep up this momentum.”
Wickens’ performance secured sixth place in the standings with five races remaining in the 2018 season. Hinchcliffe continued the praise he’s repeated since Wickens joined SPM.
“Like we’ve seen all year, every position and every situation he’s been put into he’s handled like a veteran,” Hinchcliffe said. “No different here this weekend.”
Except, perhaps, that this performance was in front of the home crowd.
“It’s amazing,” Wickens said. “Honestly, 365 days ago I was rushing to the podium to watch Hinch. It’s crazy full circle (that) I’m here now.”