Ryan Hardwick says he’s mentally and physically ready to return to IMSA competition this weekend at Mid-Ohio after an “unplanned break” stemming from a concussion sustained at Daytona International Speedway in January.
The 40-year-old Bronze-rated driver was ultimately sidelined for more than three months after an accident in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge practice that resulted in him sitting out the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona in the No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R.
It was later decided that Hardwick would also stand down from driving duties at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in March, which he admitted in hindsight proved to be the right call.
“It was an unplanned break that’s for sure,” said Hardwick. “It’s a tough injury, a head injury, I guess. I felt like I was ready to go for Sebring. I was really wanting to get back into the car at Sebring again.
“You break your leg or your arm, or you have an injury like that, it’s really simple, when you’re physically healed or not.
“But with a head injury it’s tough to pinpoint. And I’m very thankful. I had a really great group of neurologists here in Atlanta at the Shepherd Center that I worked with as soon as I got back home from Daytona after my injury.
“They knew I wasn’t quite ready.
“I was going through a gauntlet of physical therapy, cognitive therapy work, vision therapy, reaction time stuff. About four days a week, I was there working with these guys and they knew I wasn’t where I needed to be. A
“Hindsight 20/20 looking back now I just finished my last round of tests and through their whole system just last week, right before I went to go get in the car at Mid-Ohio, and my scores on all these assessments last week compared to that week, leading up to Sebring are drastically different.
“I can look back and see now they were correct. Turns out these neurologists know what they’re talking about.
“I wasn’t the same guy that week before Sebring as what I am now.
“And so it felt good to finally get back into the car. And I was really proud of the test and the results that I obtained over a couple of days there.”
Hardwick turned his first laps back in Wright’s Porsche during a two-day test at Mid-Ohio last month.
“I took it slow at first, just kinda getting my feet underneath me, the first couple sessions out, taking it easy,” he said.
“But by the end of the first day, I was within a few tenths of where was driving at Mid-Ohio last year. And then by the second day that I got to drive, I was really outperforming what I was doing there last year.
“I think everyone gets faster every year, right? Everyone gets a little faster and a little better, and I’m sure our competition will be better, but I personally felt good not only with the injury, but just being out of the car for so long.
“It’s since that practice session before Daytona that I’ve driven a racing car.
“Even without the injury, it’s tough to drive at the level you have to drive at in this championship. To take three months off, that’s really challenging. So, for me to come back and even be on par with where I was at prior to the injury much less step past that felt really good.
“I know the competition is going to be really tough, me stepping back into this after getting over it, but you know everyone’s had a pretty long break here since Sebring. Mine’s just been a little bit longer.
“But I fully expect and look forward to being competitive jumping right in there trying to help my team stay in the mix of this championship all the way through the end of the season.”
Hardwick Focused on Helping Long, Team Win Overall GTD Title
With co-driver Patrick Long currently leading the GTD championship, courtesy of a fourth place class finish at Daytona and runner-up result at Sebring, Hardwick says his full focus rests on helping Long and the team secure the overall GTD title and not the WeatherTech Sprint Cup, which kicks off this weekend.
The duo finished second in the GTD standings last year in Hardwick’s first full WeatherTech Championship campaign after being sidelined due to a torn ACL mid-season in 2019.
“Our focus is on the overall championship,” Hardwick said. “We’re obviously leading it right now and we finished strongly last year and so my personal focus is the overall championship and trying to help and do my part for this team and for Patrick to win the overall championship.
“The Sprint championship, I think, it’s a nice deal. Obviously, it’s garnered a few extra entries into the series.
“Right now I think when time looks back on the Sprint champion, I don’t know how truly important it is. I’m sure it’d be nice. You’re talking to somebody who’s never won it. So, I’m sure it’d be nice, but our focus is the overall championship from the season.
“I got to do my part and Patrick and Jan Heylen and Trent Hindman… I can’t thank him enough for stepping in and filling my role. He did a much better job, probably than I could have done.
“And now it’s my job to help these guys continue and help our team continue to finish the season one step ahead of where we did last year.”