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Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe laughs with his crew during practice time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis May 25, 2012. (BRENT SMITH/Reuters)
Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe laughs with his crew during practice time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis May 25, 2012. (BRENT SMITH/Reuters)

Motorsports

James Hinchcliffe’s rocky road to racing respect Add to ...

“It was a way of getting fans involved in the sport – there were a lot of people who wanted to be a part of it and wanted to be on the inside, but they couldn’t afford to go and sponsor an F1 car. But doing £500 or $1,000 is a lot more attainable and that was how we worked it.”

Wilson’s earnings and prize money were put into an investment account, which paid him a set salary. The roughly 900 shareholders waited until either there was enough money to pay them back twice their original investment or until 10 years elapsed.

After a decade, the fund would be divided equally among the shareholders based on the number of shares owned, something that will happen this summer. With the downturn hitting racing hard for several years and cutting Wilson’s earnings, the investment didn’t turn out as expected with most likely getting about 70 per cent of their cash back.

While the share idea got Wilson’s foot in the door, complacency once you get there is not a quality that any driver can afford these days.

“I think the speed is maybe five per cent of what makes you a qualified, top line racing driver these days,” said Wilson, who drove for Stewart early in his career.

“It’s not just in IndyCar, it’s in every form of racing: You have to be good on the media side, the PR side, the marketing and try to come up with unique ways to stand out from the crowd. For example, you can’t just turn around and say, ‘I don’t like Twitter and I am not going to do it’ because you will be nowhere. It’s a big part of racing these days and you are trying to create a following that gives you value.”

Unlike Wilson, Hinchcliffe never won a championship on his way to IndyCar although he was 2004 Formula BMW USA Rookie of the Year. His savvy on the public relations side also began in his F-BMW days because the manufacturer took the young drivers through media and public relations programs, made sure the drivers dressed properly, and ensured they had a proper fitness regimen.

Hinchcliffe’s best season coming up the ladder was his final year of Indy Lights in 2010 where he was championship runner-up with three wins, four poles and 10 top-five finishes in 13 starts.

In fact, many criticized the young driver for directing his attention to pursuits outside racing, such as serving as a colour commentator for the old Champ Car World Series international television feed.

While many contended at the time that Hinchcliffe should decide whether he wanted to be a racing driver or television commentator, the exposure in the broadcast booth was all part of a bigger picture: If he wanted to make it to the top level of open wheel racing, being fast behind the wheel was only a small part of the equation.

U.S. racing Mario Andretti spends time with Hinchcliffe because he is a teammate of his grandson Marco, who also drives for Andretti Autosport.

He agreed that Hinchcliffe is the real deal, and young kids coming up the racing ladder would be well-advised to learn from his example.

“If you are a more complete package you have a better shot and James is a car owner’s dream because of his personality, the way he expresses himself, and his ability to represent a sponsor – they all love him and then he goes and wins races,” said the 1978 F1 world champion.

“Responsibilities have changed since I was driving, but it’s also about who you are representing. Right now, James is representing a sponsor with attitude and that’s what they are looking for and they couldn’t have found a better guy. “

Hinchcliffe’s experience is a long way from the early days in the 1950s and 1960 when sportsman car owners funded their teams and cars because they simply loved racing.

Essentially, drivers just drove the cars and knew that someone else would worry about paying the bills.

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