On a Monday morning at a downtown Toronto Honda dealership, the building is humming with excitement. Today, race car driver James Hinchcliffe is present to kickoff his media day. This is no ordinary event—the Oakville, Ontario native isn’t just primed for the start of the 2016 Indycar racing season—it’s also a celebration for Hinchcliffe’s comeback from injuries sustained in a 223 mph crash during practice for the Indy 500 in May of 2015 that nearly cost him his life.
With his trademark beard, wearing a black Honda golf shirt with various team-related logos, “The Mayor of Hinchtown” is in his typical good mood as he presses forward with the first interview of the day.
“There’s no doubt that racing is a sport of extremes in a lot of ways,” reflects Hinchcliffe. “You experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.”
This is owing to the escalating risks that come with trying to shave thousandths of a second off of every lap time. While Indycar might not draw anything close to the viewership that Formula 1 or NASCAR do, it is nonetheless one of the most competitive racing series in the world. Standing out as an elite driver requires a special form of commitment, as only a select few are capable of pushing themselves right to the edge.
There have been more twists and turns in Hinchcliffe’s nearly six seasons in Indycar than a kite navigating hurricane-force winds. While he won the 2011 Indycar “Rookie of the Year” award and has four career wins in Indycar to his name, there have been spats of bad luck ranging from races he didn’t finish to traumatic events he was lucky to survive.
His 2015 accident at Indy was undoubtedly the greatest single crisis of Hinchcliffe’s career. When the right-front suspension rocker on Hinchcliffe’s #5 Schmidt-Peterson Indycar failed, the vehicle crashed into the wall. A steel rod from the suspension pierced Hinchcliffe’s upper left thigh, and he likely would have bled to death were it not for the quick response of the Indycar safety team immediately taking him to the hospital.
In addition to his body being skewered, he also suffered a concussion and neck injury due to the crash. The rest of his season was a wash, spent as an observer from the sidelines.
“The thing that was going to help me the most was rest, was doing nothing,” says Hinchcliffe of his painfully slow recovery. “The doctors were like ‘We need you to do the most nothing that you can do.’”
For a competitive driver who enjoyed both the thrill of racing and the promotional activities synonymous with the upper echelons of modern motorsports, his forced vacation was an unwelcome event. But he accepted the reality of his situation so that he could come back stronger on another day.
James Hinchcliffe was born on December 5, 1986. He has two older siblings: Chris, who just graduated with his doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University and Rebecca, an entrepreneur who also works as operations manager for her brother.
James started racing go-karts from the age of 9, and his racing career was somewhat inspired by his father, Jeremy.
“The number one thing our dad did was exposure,” says Rebecca. “Dad used to race vintage race cars.”
Once young James had expressed interest, his father gave him the direction that was essential in his development. He eagerly supplied his son with books on racing, tapes of races to watch and the training needed to learn the craft.
There were also many more contributions required for James to pursue racing.
“Sacrifices were definitely made,” says Rebecca of the financial investment needed by the family to propel James’s career forward. “We just kind of made it work.”
Although Hinchcliffe had tested strongly in an Indycar, it was the financial backing of businessman Eric Sprott put Hinchcliffe in a Newman/Haas Indycar in April of 2011. When the team folded at the end of the year, Hinchcliffe ended up being sponsored by internet company Go Daddy while at Andretti Autosport during 2012 and 2013.
Hinchcliffe’s ability to differentiate himself from the pack through his innovative use of social media, his personal website (www.hinchtown.com) and his offbeat humor have been tremendous assets in blazing a path forward throughout his career. Despite this, the inner-workings of the race world ended up impacting on Hinchcliffe’s direction more than anything else. Midseason during 2014, United Fiber and Data (UFD)—then the primary sponsor of Hinchcliffe’s car at Andretti—reportedly began to fall behind on their payments.
“UFD was a new company and I don’t think the growth within the company happened quite the way they planned,” revealed Hinchcliffe. “The situation led to me not being able to drive at Andretti anymore.”
The ever-optimistic Canadian then begins to wax poetic about how when a door closes, a window opens. In this case, a seat became available for Hinchcliffe at Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports (SPM) when rising French driver Simon Pagenaud moved from SPM to take a newly-created fourth car at Penske.
As a smaller outfit, SPM has had success with Pagenaud taking four wins during his three years with the team. However, during the 2015 season, the Honda engines powering Schmidt-Peterson cars appeared to be at a disadvantage when compared to the Chevrolet engines that won 10 races compared to Honda’s six. Despite these, and other differences between teams, there is much greater parity in Indycar than in the much more glamorous (and prohibitively expensive) ranks of Formula 1 racing.
Says Hinchcliffe, “In Indycar you have a much better shot of winning on a regular basis than in F1 unless you’re on one of two teams.”
Still, there’s no question that many other factors—including car reliability, prerace setup and even luck—will come into play during the 2016 season. Hinchcliffe can push himself to the limit, but he can’t control all the variables that will affect his season.
There’s a photo from the March 13, 2016 Indy of St. Petersburg, Florida that sums up the tragic realities of motorsports: James Hinchcliffe, standing in front of his gold and black race car is smiling for a prerace photo with deceased driver Dan Wheldon’s two young sons. To the left of them is the wheelchair bound quadriplegic SPM team co-owner Sam Schmidt.
Wheldon died on October 16, 2011 during a 15-car pileup when his Indycar flew almost 99 meters into the catchfence and his head struck a lighting pole. Schmidt was a promising Indycar driver testing at Walt Disney World Speedway in January 2000 when he experienced the crash that permanently paralyzed him from the shoulders down.
Drivers are cognisant of the risks. Yet they also understand that chronic worry doesn’t allay danger and leads to actions that invite disaster rather than mitigating it.
“To do what we do, you sort of have to have this blind belief that it won’t happen to you,” says Hinchcliffe. “If you think that it can—if you’re thinking about it in the car—you’re not thinking about driving the racecar, about making the right decisions at the right time.”
From 2003 to 2008, Hinchcliffe saw a sports psychologist, something that he continues to benefit from to this day.
“He and I worked on a lot of stuff over that time and he taught me an awful lot about how to put yourself in the right position in competition.”
Cultivating a positive mental outlook has allowed Hinchcliffe to better endure the fickle winds of fortune that govern results in Indycar. But for all his charm, grace and off-the-cuff wit, he has left one question unanswered. It’s the one Hinchcliffe began to address in 2013—the year when he took three wins: How great can he become?
To date, Hinchcliffe has never won a championship at the higher levels of auto racing. His best results in the Indycar series were a pair of 8th place finishes in both 2012 and 2013. His sixth-place finish at the 2012 Indy 500 was his highest showing at that legendary race. No matter what’s happened in the preceding seasons, he approaches each new season with a plan for consistency. “My goal every year is the same: Do the best job that I can do, make as few mistakes as possible,” says Hinchcliffe. “If you make fewer mistakes than everyone else, you’re going to be in a position to win more races than the other guys. Winning those races—that takes care of itself, and the championship takes care of itself at the same time. The things that I can control, as long as I do that well, that’s my goal.”
There is intense and unyielding pressure on Hinchcliffe’s shoulders—from his team, his fans and the racing league itself. Week after week, he’s racing on the limit, playing the game for thousandths of a second. He’s taken it all upon himself because he wants to move beyond mere potential and secure concrete results. Something else is also apparent. Somewhere along the way, as he approaches higher speeds and escalating risks, a part of his spirit becomes truly alive. He’s like a thoroughbred horse on the threshold of an infinite frontier. The promise of that freedom—it’s what has made him surge forward throughout all the challenges. And any other path, no matter how safe or secure, is an unacceptable compromise.