While it will be his first laps at speed in his own car, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports rookie Robert Wickens is no longer a stranger to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.
When practice begins for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 later this afternoon, the Canadian driver will have already completed his Rookie Orientation Program while accomplishing this feat in his teammate James Hinchcliffe’s car.
The switch was made when Wickens’ No. 6 Lucas Oil machine ran into gearbox issues.
For Wickens, it will begin a journey that even his stellar rookie start cannot hold a candle to. It starts with four straight days of practice on the 2.5-mile oval before Indianapolis 500 Bump Day on Saturday, May 19.
While the SPM entries are expected to be strong (and therefore be clear of any “bumping” danger), disaster can strike at any moment during those four laps. Unfortunately, Sebastien Bourdais is the most recent example of that, and Wickens is completely aware of the challenges.
“Definitely once we get into kind of the qually trims and stuff like that, it’s going to be a whole new animal because we were just driving with quite a bit of downforce on because it was just rookie orientation.
“I’ve heard the nightmares of qually trim, and I’m cautiously looking forward to it.”
Following Bump Day is Pole Day on Sunday, May 20, and Wickens could most certainly be in the Firestone Fast Nine shootout during the final hour of qualifications for the pole award. If he thought Bump Day was nerve-wracking then he will be in for quite a treat if the Indy 500 pole is on the line.
The pressure will simmer a bit on Monday, May 21 while the action most likely will not. The final full practice day following qualifications has become one of the more entertaining days of practice in recent memory with teams running in trains of six, seven and even eight cars at one time testing aerodynamic balances.
As race weekend nears, a crescendo builds starting with May 25th’s Carb Day. The final on-track session before the big race, teams make final adjustments in front of the largest practice crowd of the month. Legends Day on May 26 will take Wickens back to the Speedway for the public drivers meeting and an autograph session in the Pagoda Plaza before scurrying downtown to the 500 Festival Parade.
Finally, it is race day and the most unpredictable moment of all has arrived. Sunday, May 27 brings the emotion, the agony, the pageantry and the ecstasy for one driver that each competitor craves.
So will the 29-year-old feel the pressure this week or the next? It seems like Wickens is more keen to pick up on this opportunity than realize it as a threat.
“I’m ecstatic. I mean, I’ve dreamed of doing a ‘500 since I can remember,” the Canadian explained. “There’s been so much history, so many good drivers. I mean, anything can happen there. To be honest, I just want to take it, like I’ve been saying all along, just kind of one day at a time, because every day in IndyCar seems to be different.
“I can’t find kind of a trend to get in a routine or do this, that, or the other. I feel like something is new every time. I think all (this) week it’s just going to be interesting with practice and trying to get a good car. I was able to do my rookie orientation last week. It was fun.”
And so has been the mindset for Wickens this year. Despite the rookie of the year talk and outside chances at winning a championship in his maiden voyage, Wickens has been all about enjoying the moments and interacting with a team that most certainly suits him.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has been one of the most consistent outfits in the IndyCar paddock this season with Hinchcliffe 5th in points and Wickens trailing him in 8th. Had it not been for a late-race run-in with Alexander Rossi, Wickens could be in the top five in points just as his teammate is.
With all the numbers aside, though, this is Indianapolis. Anything and everything is possible, and most of it will happen. For a wide-eyed rookie at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway it is all about understanding just that, while taking the good with the bad sometimes and being the most resilient driver on the track.
A formula for victory that seemed to work for Takuma Sato last year in the Indianapolis 500 is right there for the taking. Now it is up to Wickens to find out how deep he can dig and when he will learn about how much “Indy means.”
Will his moment come this year? Next year? Ever?
That is somewhat up to him and his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew to decide, though the old Speedway will always have the last word.
Images courtesy of INDYCAR Media.