INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Ryan Briscoe was home in Connecticut, getting ready to leave for France next week for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, when he received a call he had been anticipating.
Ever since the devastating wreck that sent James Hinchcliffe to the hospital during Monday’s practice for the Indianapolis 500, the natural assumption had been that Briscoe would step into the No. 5 car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the 99th running of the race.
It became official when team co-owner Sam Schmidt dialed his number Tuesday morning.
“Obviously coming into the Indy 500, the day before Carb Day, is not ideal,” Briscoe said Thursday, shortly before taking his first few laps in a special familiarization session.
“It’s not how you prepare for this race,” the 33-year-old Australian said. “Often a year out, you’re visualizing how you’re going to practice and all the prep you’re going to do. When something like this comes up, you have to throw that all out the window.”
Briscoe is no rookie. He has started the race nine times, three from the front row.
“After we got through Monday, all that situation, and started looking forward to this weekend, it was an obvious decision,” Schmidt said. “It was great that he was still available.”
Hinchcliffe had qualified outside Row 8 when he took to the track Monday for practice. His wreck occurred in Turn 3 when a piece of the car’s suspension, later identified as the rocker arm, failed and sent the car slamming into the wall at more than 220 mph. Part of the suspension wound up piercing the tub and going through Hinchcliffe’s upper leg and pelvis. Despite massive blood loss, Hinchcliffe underwent surgery and is expected to recover.
In the meantime, Schmidt had to come up with a driver for Sunday.
Briscoe, a former Indy 500 pole winner, had nearly worked out a deal with the team to field a separate entry, but sponsorship fell through and he was left without a ride. He kept track of what was happening in Indianapolis this month — wrecks involving Helio Castroneves, Ed Carpenter and others — and knew he might get a call when word reached him of Hinchcliffe’s wreck.
“Sam knows everything there is to know about this place,” Briscoe said, when asked about the difficulties of a short preparation. “It’s been great talking to him about it. I’ve been made as comfortable as I possibly could in this situation.”
The eight-time IndyCar race winner arrived in Indianapolis on Wednesday, just in time to get fitted for the car. He wasn’t able to take laps until Thursday, and even then it was with nobody else on the track. He’ll get his first taste of traffic Friday.
“The team has been amazingly resilient. It’s remarkable,” Schmidt said. “We’ve been working nonstop, basically taking the 250 or 300 hours it takes to prepare a car for this place and done that nonstop since Monday night, and now we’re here.”
Briscoe is unlikely to stick in the car past this weekend.
For one thing, he has commitments at Le Mans. For another, those happen to be with Corvette Racing. Schmidt fields IndyCars powered by Chevrolet’s main rival, Honda.
Briscoe at least got the go-ahead from the American manufacturer to drive this weekend, and he’s slid into a three-car team alongside James Jakes and Conor Daly.
“Ryan has been at this for a long time,” Jakes said. “He’s been here with Ganassi, he’s been here with Penske. That’s just a testament to the driver that he is.”
While the team presses on with preparations for their marquee race, Schmidt said Hinchcliffe continues to amaze doctors with his recovery. He sustained mostly soft tissue damage from shrapnel as his car exploded, and that tends to heal quicker than other injuries.
Still, the team will need to find a fill-in going forward. Among those who could be a fit are veteran Justin Wilson, former Schmidt Peterson driver Katherine Legge, rising star Tristan Vautier and Oriol Servia, who will race in the Indy 500 for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
“Obviously I’ve thought about it. It’s a good opportunity,” Servia said. “But in all honesty, I haven’t had a conversation with them yet. We all hope that Hinch makes a quick recovery.”
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