IndyCar drivers, unsettled and with heavy hearts, return to racing this weekend with their minds on Robert Wickens, the Canadian driver who remains hospitalized after a frightening wreck last weekend.
Once they get in their cars, they will have no choice but to push the Pocono Raceway crash away and focus on their jobs.
"It's been a tough week, I think everybody wouldn't mind a week off," Ryan Hunter-Reay said Thursday.
Wickens has been hospitalized with a spinal cord injury since his car launched into the fence Sunday at the Pennsylvania track. The severity of Wickens' injury has not been determined, and the waiting has been agonizing for the IndyCar community.
They race again Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis, and teams will honour Wickens with decals made by a Toronto merchandiser for the 29-year-old. The "Wicky" stickers will be the only reminders the drivers can have once they get in their cars.
"It's difficult when someone gets hurt and you're close to someone that gets hurt," said Josef Newgarden, "but at the same time, you've got to be able to switch gears. If your mind is somewhere else or if you have any second thoughts or second-guesses ... you can't perform at a peak level, and that's where a driver has to thrive. They have to drive at peak response time and peak decision making, and you can't have anything cloud that."
Viewers got a front seat glimpse into how dangerous racing can be when the camera inside Hunter-Reay's car captured real-time footage of Wickens' car sailing over top of Hunter-Reay and narrowly missing Hunter-Reay's head.
"I could see it. I knew it was close. I saw him get up into the fence and he was flying over me, I saw all of it," Hunter-Reay said Thursday. "In real time, having lifted, I wasn't really aware I was that close. After seeing the in-car (video), you know, the reality set in that I got very close to a much different and much worse outcome."
An IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, Hunter-Reay had time to "shrug down" in the cockpit in his own attempt to duck Wickens' car. He recalls having the reflex to protect his head.
"I didn't want to lower my head forward because if something does hit you, you have the motion of coming back and hitting the headrest," he said. "But I did try and shrug down and it just goes to show there's no room to move in those cars. I did try to move my head vertically and on the video it looks like there is no movement."
Hunter-Reay had time this week to reflect on "divine intervention, whatever you want to call it," and being able to walk away from the Pocono crash. He spent a few days at home with his wife, Beccy, and three young sons, who watched the race on television in Florida. One of the boys asked him to please not crash.
James Hinchcliffe grew up racing karts against Wickens. When Wickens was ready to leave touring cars in Germany at the end of last season, Hinchcliffe recruited the fellow Toronto native to IndyCar. Wickens landed a slot next to Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and was having an exceptional rookie year that began with Wickens nearly winning his series debut.
Hinchcliffe stayed with Wickens in Pennsylvania until he needed to prepare for Gateway, where the team will field only his car. He said he will race this weekend with a broken heart for his best friend, then return to the hospital to see Wickens.
Hinchcliffe, who was hit in the hands with debris during Wickens' wreck, was nearly killed in a 2015 accident when a broken part from his car severed an artery. His childhood hero, Canadian Greg Moore, was killed in a 1999 race. He also landed a top IndyCar ride when a seat opened following Dan Wheldon's death in 2011. He's had an emotional week and has not publicly spoken about Pocono.
At Gateway, he'll have an entire community to help lift his spirits.
"The best place for us is at the racetrack," Newgarden said. "The quicker you get back to the track, the better. That's what we do. That's what we love. Wickens would want to do the same thing, I would think. As much positive energy as we're sending to him, we're going to try and funnel a little bit of that into the race weekend, too."
Hunter-Reay understands how fortunate he was at Pocono. He has wrestled with concern for Wickens, his good fortune and the next race ahead.
"Robbie is still in the hospital, still going in for surgeries, and we are just waiting every moment for some news," Hunter-Reay said. "But you pick up and you compartmentalize mentally, you focus on what you have to focus on because if you are distracted in the race car, things can go even worse.
"We are all thinking about Robbie and we are all moving forward together. You just keep going, once you are in the car in full go mode and your adrenaline is pumping, that's our natural place. A switch is flipped."
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