CP MOTORSPORTS - BRISCOE RACING IN INDIANAPOLIS 500 ON EXTREMELY SHORT NOTICE
Ryan Briscoe, like millions of others around the globe, saw video of NHRA Top Fuel driver Larry Dixon’s spectacular broken-and-airborne-dragster crash from Gainesville, Fla., in March. The veteran Verizon IndyCar Series racer from Sydney, Australia, has seen plenty of nasty-looking wrecks.
He also has seen his colleagues walk away from those dreadful-looking incidents, relatively unscathed at that. So his reaction to James Hinchcliffe’s fiery, flipping practice accident this past Monday was not one of alarm. “He’ll walk away from that. They usually do,” he said he figured.
“That was my first thought,” Briscoe said.
Little did he know he’d be making his 10th Indianapolis 500 start Sunday, with less than a week’s preparation.
Briscoe had no idea that the popular Hinchcliffe nearly bled to death but survived only because of the swift and sure work of the IndyCar Series Holmatro emergency medical crew and the Methodist Hospital trauma team. He had no idea of the severity of the situation. He hadn’t heard that a steel “wishbone” piece of the car’s suspension snapped as the rocker broke, shot through Hinchcliffe’s right leg, and pierced his left thigh before lodging in his pelvic area. He had no idea at first that his friend was undergoing delicate surgery about five miles down 16th Street.
“When I saw Hinch’s crash, I honestly didn’t think he was badly injured at the time,” Briscoe said. “The news hadn’t come out. Then I started getting some phone calls Monday afternoon.”
The next day, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports co-owner Sam Schmidt called Briscoe, who had no IndyCar Series ride this season and has been racing a Corvette in the IMSA sports-car series and prepping to compete at the upcoming 24 Hours of Le Mans. (He had driven Prototypes for nearly a decade and won eight times in the American Le Mans Series, although he is perhaps better known for his 130 IndyCar starts.)
Schmidt and Briscoe visited via phone and agreed to a substitution appearance. Then Briscoe made a few phone calls, too, to fellow drivers. He spoke with Scott Dixon, the 2015 Indianapolis polesitter, and the retired Dario Franchitti – both his former Chip Ganassi Racing mates – and buddy Helio Castroneves, who was one of three racers to flip their Dallaras here earlier in the month.
“They said not too much has changed [with the track and the safety and handling of the cars],” Briscoe said. “So it gave me that confidence boost coming in here. I feel like 100 percent in the game.”
He said he “felt confident accepting the offer. It’s a very experienced group of guys from top to bottom – just a world of experience. I feel like my engineer, Allen McDonald, is one of the best in the entire paddock, one of the most experienced. This team has had a lot of success in this series, at this track. Sam knows everything there is to know about this place.”
(Proving his point was Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ 1-2-3-4 finish in the Indy Lights Freedom 100 ladder series race Friday. Englishman Jack Harvey won the event, three laps ahead of his closest rival, teammate and pole-winner Ethan Ringel. Scott Anderson and R.C. Enerson finished third and fourth, respectively.)
Briscoe was allowed an hour of solo practice Thursday around this two-and-a-half-mile oval where he earned the pole position in 2012, started from the front row three times, and recorded two top-five finishes.
The purpose was twofold. One reason was to ensure safety when Briscoe gets into traffic. The other was to get him up to speed in the car that’s sponsored by drag-racing benefactors Forrest and Charlotte Lucas and Lucas Oil.
“It’s what all the drivers would want whenever someone comes in at this place, so that we’re not going out there in traffic unfamiliar and rusty and cold,” Briscoe said. “I feel like I’ve been made as comfortable as I can be in the situation.”
In 36 laps during Friday’s Carb Day, the final pre-race warm-up for the entire field, Briscoe’s performance ranked 30th on the 33-car grid. He also participated Friday in the Tag Heuer Pit Stop Challenge along pit road.
(Castroneves, of Team Penske, won the competition for the seventh time and – in NHRA parlance – “pulled a Vandergriff.” He popped from his car and took off running back up through the pits to hug his team owner and crew.)
But, Briscoe said, “No matter how much experience, how comfortable you might be with the car, race day is a whole new ballgame to everyone in the field.”
Hinchcliffe qualified 24th, on the outside of Row 8, but per longstanding rules, the driver change moved the team’s starting position to the rear of the pack. Briscoe has a strong understanding of what he needs to do Sunday when the green flag falls.
“We’ll be starting in the last row. There’s plenty of time. It’s a long race. It always surprises you how long the race is here. You think you’ve been out there all day, and you might be closing in. You take note of the laps and you’re only halfway. Patience will be the key, as always,” Briscoe said.
“I wish Hinch was here, but it’s an opportunity that’s been given to me and I’m excited for it. And I’m willing to go out there and do my best,” he said. “I’m just here to fill in for Hinch and do the best I can for the team and the sponsors, for Arrow and Lucas Oil.”
Hinchcliffe remains hospitalized, and details of his expected rehabilitation are still unclear. However, Schmidt said Thursday, “It’s been really, really exciting to see the progress the last couple of days. There could be some surprises as to how soon we see him back.”
But Schmidt said the team’s post-Indianapolis plans for Hinchcliffe’s seat are on the back burner.
“We haven’t approached anybody,” Schmidt said. “We love Ryan, but he’s going to go do some European stuff after the 500.” He said he wants to “get through Sunday, the biggest race of the year, the biggest race in the world, and we really want to do well with all three cars.”
Brit James Jakes will drive one of them from the middle of the seventh row, and second-generation Indianapolis 500 racer Conor Daly will start directly behind him, in the middle of the eighth.