In any other year and under any other circumstances, Stephen Simpson would be perched high above Turn 3 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon, talking to JR Hildebrand by radio.
Instead, Simpson will be strapped into an IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race car at Virginia International Raceway.
Simpson’s streak as one of Hildebrand’s spotters for the Indianapolis 500 will end at four when Simpson climbs behind the wheel of the No. 54 JDC-Miller MotorSports Audi RS 3 LMS TCR on Sunday for the Virginia Is For Racing Lovers Grand Prix. He will team with co-driver Michael Johnson.
The change is happening because of the chaos that hit racing schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Normally a May institution, the Indy 500 was moved to August. Simpson was booked to compete at VIR on the same day.
Simpson said he’s never experienced a scheduling conflict between his spotting and racing duties. He helped with spotting during Indy 500 practice and qualifying but surrendered the role for Friday’s Carb Day practice and Sunday’s 104th Indy 500 to be at VIR.
“I hope this is the last (time it happens),” Simpson said of the conflict. “Having been spotting for practice and qualifying weekend but not being able to do Carb Day and race day is disappointing, but I’m happy I’ll be racing.”
Simpson, who left South Africa to pursue a racing career in the U.S. in 2006, is a longtime friend of Hildebrand, a native of Sausalito, Calif..
Hildebrand said he’ll miss Simpson’s skills during Sunday’s race, but is proud of his friend’s racing accomplishments.
“We understand that he has a racing career, too,” he said. “He is an excellent spotter as he is a racing driver and has that mentality during a race for us. He can see things for me that could be happening in front, behind and next to me on the track.”
Simpson’s diverse racing experience helps his spotting skills. And vice versa – spotting helps his racing career.
“Being a driver helps me be a better spotter because I can understand what the driver is going through while on track and I can adjust the information, how much and how specific the info I need to give depending on the situation,” he said.
“I also think it helps me as a driver because there is always more to learn, and being involved with a team for the Indy 500 and in a role other than driving gives me an opportunity to learn things I wouldn’t be able to if I was in the driver’s seat.”