Hinchcliffe Driving His Way Out Of Two Shadows
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
The man who replaced Danica Patrick at Andretti Autosport is not too proud to get in touch with his feminine side, right down to the long, black hair of the wig gracing his official INDYCAR credential.
That wig is the hairpiece James Hinchcliffe wore during driver introductions for the IZOD IndyCar Series season-opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 25, the Canadian’s debut in the bright green No. 27 Team GoDaddy.com car previously associated with Patrick.
“She gets it,” Hinchcliffe said during a media visit to Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, two days after qualifying in the middle of the three-car front row for today’s 96th running of the Indianapolis 500. “We raced against each other last year. We weren’t super-close but she knows who I am and what I’m about. She was a great sport about everything.”
Hinchcliffe, the series’ 2011 Sunoco Rookie of the Year with Newman/Haas Racing, was hired during the offseason by team-owner Michael Andretti to replace Patrick, who left Andretti Autosport after a seven-year open-wheel run for a fulltime ride in the NASCAR Nationwide Series with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports. Patrick also is competing in selected Sprint Cup races with Tony Stewart’s Stewart-Haas Racing, including today’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I guess a day after the announcement was made, a fan on twitter had sent me a photo where he had superimposed my head onto Danica’s body, right,” Hinchcliffe said. “So it’s the hair and the suit and the
whole bit and I thought it was hilarious. So I actually submitted it as my (INDYCAR Competitor’s) hard-card photo. So all year now my hard-card photo is me with this gorgeous long hair…and she thought it was funny. She gets it.
“I mean, there were maybe four people on earth that thought that (wig walk) was in any way a joke against Danica. It really wasn’t. I was making fun of myself, that’s what it was. For the most part that’s how everybody took it. It was all lighthearted, it was all in good fun. And hey man, let’s be honest. I’m following one of the toughest acts to follow in sports with Danica Patrick, so I figured let’s break the ice, let’s get it out of the way. I’d been calling Danica about 87 times that weekend already, so why not just have some fun with it?”
Patrick exited INDYCAR as its most marketable marquee personality, a crossover star with a single-name brand that GoDaddy.com officials exploited to the max. The man known as “Hinch” admittedly hasn’t approached that cha-ching level yet, but qualifying second for the world’s greatest auto race certainly has raised his profile.
Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske (226.484 mph) nosed-out Hinchcliffe (226.481 mph) for the pole at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway by 0.0023-seconds and 9.168-inches during a dramatic Fast Nine Shootout on May 19. The time differential is the closest 1-2 in race history.
“I’m over it. It took me a couple hours to sort of swallow that pill,” said Hinchcliffe, one of five Andretti Autosport entries competing in Chevrolet-powered Dallara DW12 chassis. “The big indicator for me was I slept well that night, and I was expecting to toss-and-turn a little more than I did. But at the end of the day, you’re still starting on the front row of the Indy 500 and it’s not a bad place to be. We know we had the pace. If one little thing had gone differently that could have been us. That’s the mystique of Indianapolis. That’s what makes it so cool. We put on a helluva show in qualifying, everybody enjoyed watching it. I think it’s going to be a great race.”
Ironically, Hinchcliffe was not Michael Andretti’s first choice to replace Patrick, who scored her only victory with the organization in May 2008 at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. Two-time/reigning Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon had the job locked heading into the season-ender at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16. Tragically, Wheldon – who won the 2005 Indy 500 and IndyCar Series championship for Andretti Green Racing – suffered fatal head injuries in a multiple-car crash.
“We actually were going to sign the contract right after the race for him (Wheldon) to drive the car this
year, and it just was a real shock,” Michael Andretti said. “He was just a great guy. He was a great driver and more importantly, a great person and a huge loss for the sport. One thing about Dan was he knew how to win races. There’s a lot of people that are good racers but they just don’t know how to win races. Dan knew how to win races.”
Hinchcliffe is winless through 20 career IndyCar Series starts, including four this season with Andretti Autosport. But he posted his first podium finish on the Streets of Long Beach last month and sits third in the point standings led by Team Penske’s Will Power and Helio Castroneves, who have combined to win the season’s first four street/road-course events.
Hinchcliffe, who posted seven top-10 finishes in 2011, said he was negotiating with Newman/Haas Racing when Wheldon’s death stunned the sporting world.
“It’s very rare that a ride of this caliber with this high-profile of a sponsor isn’t signed, sealed and delivered in Septemberish-time,” said Hinchcliffe, a 25-year native of Toronto. “So all of a sudden they found themselves heading into the winter needing to find somebody for this ride and they called me. I mean, I never in a million years would have thought I would be getting that phone call _ and was very quick to realize that there was a mutual desire to work together and get the deal done.
“I was lucky for two reasons. First off, the obvious one, I’m not a woman. I hope that’s obvious. So it really avoided any sort of direct comparison to Danica in that respect. If another woman had gotten this ride I think it would have been a much different sort of scenario, maybe a much more difficult position to be in. So in that respect, it was different out of the gate, a different set of circumstances.
“The other way I was lucky was that I’m this sort of off-the-wall, goofy kid who doesn’t take life too seriously in a lot of ways, and that’s sometimes frowned upon in the corporate world and the sponsorship world. And I just happened to stumble across the one sponsor that loves that. They embody that as a
company, and so the combination of us was kind of a match made in heaven, really. I mean, not only do they let me be myself, they encourage it. They want me to continue the things I’ve been doing up to this point, which is great. It’d be tough for me to change and be anything else.”
Hinchcliffe’s fulltime teammates are Marco Andretti, Michael’s son, and Ryan Hunter-Reay – both holdovers from Danica’s tenure with the organization. Asked if he had noticed any impact on the series by Danica’s departure, Michael Andretti said: “Actually, no, not really. I think what it has allowed to happen, I think you’re hearing a lot more about our other drivers. We have such great talent and great personalities and I think they were sort of in the shadow a little bit, and I think it’s exposing them more, which I think is actually a positive for the series.”
Wheldon’s 2003 rookie season at Andretti Green Racing was made famous by the hazing the Englishman took from teammates Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta. Michael Andretti said Hinchcliffe has been a seamless fit, and without the practical jokes Wheldon endured.
“He’s been a great breath of fresh air to bring in, and he fits-in with everybody,” Andretti said of Hinchcliffe. “Everybody loves him. The camaraderie is as good as when we had it then. That’s one of the reasons why we are getting the results we are having right now is because our drivers are all really getting along, and they’re having fun. They’re in meetings, joking and having fun and that’s when you know things are going good.”
After Briscoe earned the record 17th pole for Penske Racing at IMS, team-founder Roger Penske said Andretti Autosport remained the guys to beat.
“I think that makes him a very perceptive person,” Hinchcliffe said of “The Captain,” whose drivers have won a record 15 Indy 500s. “If you look at how all our cars have been running, it’s clear this team has done a complete 180 from last year. I think it says a lot about this team. They take this race more seriously than anything else. My chief mechanic openly says in front of his wife that when he won the 500 with Dario back in ’07 it was the greatest day of his life, including his marriage. She’s cool with it and she gets it. That’s how important this race is to these guys.
“To see Andretti Autosport cars second, third (Hunter-Reay), and fourth (Marco Andretti) on the grid, I think it says a lot about the hard work that’s been going on the last six months in the shop to get these cars ready for Indy. So yeah, the equipment is tremendous and the support, the people…and also the chemistry among the drivers. I always say racing’s not about cars or tires or engines it’s about people. If you get the right combination of people, you will be successful, period.”
Hinchcliffe started 13th and finished 29th at IMS last May 29, when contact on Lap 99 of the scheduled 200 momentarily wiped the perpetual smile off his face.
“I think in the car I’m a very different person than I am out of the car,” Hinchcliffe said. “I try very hard. I worked very hard for a long time to separate those two. There were times where I was probably too lighthearted in the car when I was younger, and there were times when I was too serious out of the car. Trying to find that balance has been a key to some of my success, just knowing when to flip that switch. If you’re in the lighthearted mode all the time, you’re not taking the racing serious enough. If you’re too serious all the time, you burn out easily, you don’t appreciate where you are, what you’re able to do.
“I think having that careful balance is a very important part of what keeps me loving the sport so much.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgNo Comment