Although it was Oakville’s James Hinchcliffe who moved up the most spots at the Honda Indy in Toronto this weekend, it was a moment prior that stood out for Canadian race fans.
The return of Robert Wickens.
The former teammate of Hinchcliffe got behind the wheel of a specially prepared pace car on Sunday, 11 months after a terrible accident at Pocono Raceway left him in a wheelchair.
It not only touched fans as he toured he course alone, but his fellow drivers as well.
“Obviously it’s not every day that something quite that cool happens right before you get in the race car,” said Hinchcliffe, who began Sunday in 14th position and finished sixth.
The drivers watched Wickens on the pit straight video screen as they sat in the cars waiting for the formation lap.
“I was kind of watching everybody’s reaction. I could tell when he was getting close to a wall, [his fiancée] Karli’s face (also in the car) was lighting up. You could hear the cheers from every corner of the racetrack, even from inside the car.”
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Second-place finisher Scott Dixon marvelled at the recovery and rehab process Wickens has been able to get through.
“It’s impressive,” said Dixon, a three-time winner at the Toronto Indy event, most recently last year. “I think a lot of us had the chance to go and hang with him in Denver through his rehab for a couple of days. The effort the guy is putting in is unbelievable — it’s six to eight hours a day.”
After that unforgettable moment, the focus shifted to Hinchcliffe, who was trying to become the second Canadian to win the event (Paul Tracy did it twice).
The mayor of “Hinchtown” hoped to continue his recent success in Toronto and perhaps challenge to end the drought, but it was not race day that cost him.
“Qualifying was unfortunate,” said the 32-year-old, in his post-race press conference. “We had the eighth fastest time in qualifying but started 14th because of the nature of the way the (qualifying) groups worked out.
“If we started a little higher up, we could have kept that top five streak alive.”
In Hinchcliffe’s previous three starts in Toronto, the six-time Indy Car series winner who now races for Arrow-Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has finished third twice, and a fourth place finish last year.
With his promotional responsibility outside the Canadian National Exhibition grounds managed, Hinchcliffe isn’t feeling the effects of the weekend going into next week’s race at the Iowa Speedway.
“I’ve had enough experience doing this race to know what is too much,” said Hinchcliffe. “I have a great team of people around me that kind of help manage and know when to say no to stuff because I’m really bad at that so other people have to do it for me.”
Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud nearly went wire-to-wire as the pole leader and led for 81 out of 85 laps for his third win of the season Sunday.