A usually smiling, light-hearted James Hinchcliffe suddenly goes quiet, shifts anxiously in his seat, and quickly looks away. His spine visibly stiffens, his fists clench tightly and he stares contemplatively out a window of the motor home that serves as his mobile apartment on some race weekends.
“Hinch” takes a deep breath and tries to compose himself as he prepares to talk about the difficulties encountered on his personal road to IndyCar. After a few seconds lost in thought, he exhales slowly, looks slightly upward to the ceiling and begins to answer in an uncharacteristic soft voice.
“My dad and I had nobody. Nobody in the sport that we knew, nobody that came out and offered advice,” he said.
“We did it all on our own and we learned a lot of lessons the hard way by getting screwed over by lots of people, by not understanding the politics of it, and that’s not fun,” he added, his voice trembling on the last word. “I don’t like people taking advantage of other people and unfortunately, in a competitive business like this, it happens all the time.”
While not a distant memory, Hinchcliffe’s rough ride got a bit smoother three years ago when he landed a seat with the famed Newman-Haas IndyCar team with the backing of Toronto businessman Eric Sprott.
There’s no doubt that Sprott’s sponsorship of the Oakville driver pushed him over the top; Hinchcliffe’s graduation to IndyCar in 2011 was the culmination of a plan he put in place many years before he was ready for the big leagues. The blueprint he created is one that young, aspiring drivers would be well-advised to study and emulate.
While still a teen, the now 26-year-old looked back almost 40 years for his inspiration in three-time world champion Jackie Stewart. The Scotsman was arguably the first “professional’ racing driver in the sense of being commercially driven to make a good living and actively courting financial backers.
“He really understood the value of sponsors, how to get them on board and keep them,” Hinchcliffe said. “Jackie was the guy who really coined the term, ‘You have to be 80 per cent businessman and 20 per cent racing driver’.”
Stewart raced in Formula One between 1965 and 1973. He won 27 races in 99 starts, including five in his final season which ended with him retiring as world champion.
Although Stewart’s parents had a small garage with seven employees and he didn’t want for anything growing up, he wanted more. When he started racing, Stewart realized that attracting commercial partners was the way to get it.
“I was hungry to make money,” he said. “Until 1968, there was no sponsorship in Formula One. So, I was there when there was no sponsorship and I was there when it began. But to get success you have to win, and if you win, financially you are rewarded.”
In Hinchcliffe’s case, it was all about creating a brand around the fact he is a breed apart. The Oakville, Ont., native made a point to highlight his easy-going personality and off-the-wall sense of humour to help him stand out in a crowd.
Talk to his father, Jeremy Hinchcliffe, and you’ll soon discover where the son got his sense of humour.
Wearing a white short-sleeved “James Hinchcliffe” dress shirt and blue jeans, the man that his son identifies as the single greatest influence in his life avoids taking credit for his son’s business savvy.
Instead, like his son, the elder Hinchcliffe reaches for humour.
“I’m not a successful anything at the moment because I am retired,” he said with a huge grin. “James is very fortunate in many respects because of his timing. He missed the heyday of the tobacco money and being a driver for Player’s days, but he was leading edge in understanding being relevant outside the car.”
Long before social media hit its stride, Hinchcliffe began engaging with fans online through his Hinchtown.com website, which put the spotlight directly on his quirky personality and instant likeability. Toronto motorsport marketing expert Jim Bowie played a key role in devising the concept and making it a reality.