Race Fan Hinchcliffe Has Become Race Fan Favorite

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 10 2017

James Hinchcliffe thinks he knows the secret to his success as a fan favorite.
(Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas _ James Hinchcliffe’s ever-expanding Verizon IndyCar Series fan base easily can be measured by a variety of social media metrics.

As self-proclaimed mayor of the fictional internet city of “Hinchtown,” James is well-versed in the power-and-profile of twitter, Facebook and instagram. But the 30-year-old native of Toronto, Canada, prefers to trace his popularity to one real-world fact.   

“I was a fan of racing long before I was ever a driver,” said Hinchcliffe, whose office is the No. 5 Arrow Honda fielded by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. “So for me, I understood that fan connection. My parents (Jeremy and Arlene) were definitely race fans and because of that experience I had of being the 10-year-old kid chasing around drivers with a Sharpie and a notebook, I really understood that side of it.

“You know, I live and breathe racing and it’s hard for me to accept sometimes that I’m now in that position to make that difference in a kid’s day at a racetrack _ to stop and sign a kid’s autograph or stop and take a selfie with a fan or call into an interview _things like that. They were things I appreciated as a fan, and I wanted to give that back now that I was fortunate enough to be on the other side of it.”

Hinchcliffe has returned to Texas Motor Speedway for Saturday night’s Rainguard Water Sealers 600 _ “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race” _ in search of his first victory on the repaved/re-profiled 1.5-mile oval. Recall that Hinchcliffe finished second to Graham Rahal by 0.0080-seconds _ closest race in TMS history and fifth-closest in Indy car history _ in last August’s rain-delayed/rescheduled event.

“The race that we ended up putting on, if that doesn’t make you want to come out to Texas

James Hinchcliffe takes practice laps in his Schmidt Peterson Honda at Texas Motor Speedway.

and watch the INDYCAR race,” Hinch mused, “then go buy some golf clubs or a tennis racquet because this isn’t your sport.”

Hinchcliffe was decidedly off-pace during Friday’s single afternoon practice, placing 20th on the 22-car grid at 218.213 mph. He went on to qualify 16th Friday afternoon with a two-lap average of 220.004 mph for the 248-lap/372-mile event. NBC Sports Network’s telecast will begin at 8 p.m. (EDT). The race also will be available on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

It’s likely a tossup between Hinchcliffe and Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves for the title of INDYCAR’s Most Popular Driver, as their separate appearances on “Dancing With the Stars” and various network programming have exposed INDYCAR to non-traditional audiences. That’s an element of his brand Hinchcliffe closely monitors.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was kind of on the forefront of the generation that understood that outside relevance from the racetrack _ outside of the race car relevance _ was a very important part of being successful in this sport. I didn’t come up in the ‘tobacco money era,’ where sponsor dollars were running rampant and you could kind of just do whatever you wanted. I grew up in the era where sponsor dollars were very difficult to find and being a good representative for a company was as important as what you could do on a racetrack. So it was something I was always very conscious of.

“But at the same time, it is very much who I am. It’s not a contrived thing. A lot of drivers are very different people when they’re at home with friends than they are at the racetrack. I totally understand and respect that. The racetrack is a place of business, it’s a very serious environment that we work in. But I always took the approach to try to be the same guy at home and the same guy at the racetrack. I wanted people to know the ‘real me.’ I was very fortunate to get to do what I do and I wanted to really just enjoy life.”

Hinchcliffe began the season with 111,640 followers on twitter (@hinchtown), 61,167 Likes on Facebook.com/hinchtown and 111,386 followers on instagram (@hinchtown). Fitting those obligations into his on-track duties, off-track sponsor responsibilities and need to maintain his fitness regimen admittedly makes for a full day.

“The hardest part about social media these days is the amount in which you need to be participating,” Hinchcliffe said. “That’s changed a lot. You know, when I first got twitter back in 2009, if you sent out a tweet every couple of days you were good. Now, people are so hungry for content _ they’re so keen to be a part of what you’re doing _ that the hard part is really keeping up with it. I enjoy doing it, but it almost has become a fulltime job. I have a lot of help now from other people that kind of get me through what I feel like I need to do to honor what the fans really want.”  

Hinch’s clicks likely spiked after his fifth career victory in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Round 2 of the schedule, on April 9.

“That was huge, man,” Hinchcliffe said of the 43-year-old event known as America’s Monaco Grand Prix. “We got through 2016, which was largely labeled this sort of comeback year, and the one box that we didn’t check was winning a race. We came pretty darn close at Texas, but didn’t quite get the job done. And so over the offseason that was a big bone of contention for us and didn’t sit very well with us. We knew we could and we knew we needed to (win) and to knock it out that early in the season, but more importantly at a place like Long Beach, made it extra special.”

The comeback Hinchcliffe referenced dates to the life-threatening injuries sustained to his upper left thigh and pelvis on May 18, 2015, when he crashed into the Turn 3 SAFER Barrier during a post-qualifying practice for the 99th running of the Indy 500. Speared by a suspension piece, Hinchcliffe nearly bled to death.

Despite myriad surgeries and plenty of sheet-time, Hinchcliffe never doubted he would return to win poles and races. He realized the former when he qualified P1 for the 100th running of the Indy 500 last May and sealed the deal on the Streets of Long Beach.   

“I mean, that was my motivation,” Hinchcliffe said. “That’s what got me through those days when I couldn’t put my pants on by myself, when I could only take 1,000 steps. I knew I wanted to get back into a car and when the doctors said I’d physically be able to _ it was up to me at that point. Once it was in my hands, I grabbed it and ran with it as best I could.”

Hinchcliffe sits 10th in points heading into Saturday’s Round 9 of the schedule, with his Long Beach victory among two top-five and four top-10 results. Hinchcliffe qualified fifth for both ends of last weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on the Belle Isle Raceway street course, finishing third in Race 1 on Saturday afternoon.  Hinch and SPM teammate Mikhail Aleshin of Russia continue to duke-it-out with series powerhouses Team Penske of the Chevrolet camp and Honda’s Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing.

“That’s the plan,” said Hinchcliffe, who is working with race strategist Robert Gue and engineer Allen McDonald. “Certainly we don’t have the numbers and resources maybe of a Penske-Ganassi program. But last year as far as the Honda teams stacked up, we had Andretti covered and that’s an impressive thing to say for a small, two-car team up against one of the super teams.”

Aleshin, who led his first lap of the season in Race 1 at Belle Isle, is 15th in points. The 30-year-old native of Moscow is searching for his first series win after 42 starts.

“We take a lot of pride in what we do because we do have fewer resources, we’ve got fewer people, maybe fewer sponsor dollars and we’re trying to kinda change that,” Hinchcliffe said. “We are working hard on the commercial side to get the finances and sponsorship in place to be able to put certain programs…whether it’s people resources or shop resources, whatever we need, to really make ourselves regular contenders. We’re getting closer and closer every year. As the rules kind of stay the same it allows us to close the gaps to the guys that maybe have a bit of an advantage when a new package came out, and I think we’re seeing the results of that.”

Hinchcliffe’s runnerup finish to Rahal at TMS last Aug. 27 capped perhaps the weirdest chapter in INDYCAR history. The race was completed 76 days after its original date due to two consecutive days of rain in June. Hinch was leading when the race was halted after 71 laps were run on June 12. He led 188 of248 laps of “The Resumption” only to wind up second after a last-lap pass by Rahal, a fellow-Honda driver with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

“It was a thrilling night, there’s no doubt about it,” Hinchcliffe said. “The No. 5 car was so hooked up all night. We picked up right where we left off in June and led a bunch of laps. We had the tire management figured out exactly like we did two months before and it came down to where we had a really good car on the long runs. That’s what we had set-up for, that was intentional.

“That’s what we wanted and it was serving us really well until you get into a situation where, as the saying goes, cautions breed cautions. We had one somewhere in that last stint and it led to another one (Laps 232-239)…and it led to that 10-lap dash at the end where some guys had two tires, some guys didn’t, and I was doing absolutely everything I could. I was pulling out every trick I had ever learned or ever watched guys like (Sam) Hornish back in the day, and Dario (Franchitti) pull off at mile-and-a-half tracks, Dan Wheldon…and I look back on that night and how amazing that finish was for the fans, which at the end of the day is what this is all about.

“I look back on what I was in control of and what I could do…and it’s probably the only time I’ve come second in a race where I looked back and thought, ‘You know what _ there was nothing I could have done differently to change that outcome.’ We did everything we could and we put on a helluva show for everybody watching INDYCAR. Those two things made it a little bit easier to take. “

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 10 2017
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