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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 ...

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.

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“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.

“We knew we needed to make a website, so we looked at every driver website we could find to see what we liked and didn’t like and came to two conclusions,” Hinchcliffe said. “First, they were all exactly the same and second, they all sucked. They were so boring and plain and it was almost like there was some template of a driver’s website: Here’s pictures of me, here’s all the trophies I have one and here’s a button you can click if you want to sponsor me, as if that ever works.”

Soon after the flagship website hit cyberspace in early 2006, the “Mayor of Hinchtown” made his appearance. It stuck, although some early visitors thought he was a politician, Now in its sixth iteration, the website was the key driver in building the Hinchcliffe brand, serving as a platform to showcase his almost eccentric style.

Hinchcliffe fastened strips of silver duct tape to the tops of each racing boot and wrote “Stop” on the left and “Go” on the right in black marker. Most race drivers at the top levels use both feet to drive the car, braking with their left foot and hitting the throttle with the right.

While the words remain, Hinchcliffe no longer needs the tape since today’s established IndyCar driver version is a bit more sophisticated with the “Stop” and “Go” labels now embroidered in white thread.

Although his early website was rudimentary by today’s standards, it got the point across. “Hinchtown 6G” still lets his personality shine through, albeit in a more refined package that includes with videos, contests, merchandise, and even a mobile app.

There’s also no doubt that the inspired move to the web that the 26-year-old made years ago played a key role in attracting high-profile sponsor Go Daddy to the table which, in turn, landed the Canadian a ride with one of the top IndyCar teams, Andretti Autosport.

There’s also a tragic side to this story. The Go Daddy car was originally slated to go to two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, of England, who had signed to drive with the Andretti Team for 2012. He died in a massive, multi-car crash early in the 2011 IndyCar season finale.

The seat in the No. 27 car became free at the end of 2011 when Go Daddy driver Danica Patrick announced a move from IndyCar to NASCAR.

When Go Daddy began looking for drivers who would become its next spokesperson, the first thing it did was look at all the candidates’ websites. There was no doubt that Hinchtown stood above the rest.

“Hinch was the right driver at the right time for us. Hinch understands technology and the value of social media, which he uses to engage fans,” said Barb Rechterman, Go Daddy’s chief marketing officer. “Hinch has a keen sense of business acumen, which is very attractive. He’s been great to work with and exciting to watch. I can’t think of anyone who could have had more fun handling the pressure of taking over Danica’s IndyCar ride.”

Hinchcliffe is certainly not the first racer to use business acumen to get to the top. Fellow IndyCar driver Justin Wilson sold shares in himself a decade ago to help find his first ride in Formula One with the Minardi team. At the time, the 2001 FIA International Formula 3000 (now GP2) champion got a couple of tests in F1, but couldn’t get a team to commit to him.

So, Wilson came up with his novel plan and went back to try to land a Grand Prix seat for 2003 after his personal Initial Public Offering raised some much-needed cash.

“I went back to the same F1 teams 12 months later and said, ‘I’ve got $2-million can I drive your car?’ and they couldn’t get me through the door fast enough,” he chuckled.

“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.

“Guys went to little local tracks and started winning and then the owners from the bigger tracks down the road saw then and hired them away and that’s how you graduated,” said three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford.

“You got hired because you had talent and could drive a race car – now you have to walk in with a heavy wallet or a chequebook. It’s sad. It’s evolved from a sport and a competition to a business and I am not sure that the business side of it makes it very attractive.”

Change came to IndyCar about 30 years ago when many aspiring Formula One drivers who didn’t have the cash to buy a ride in Grand Prix racing headed instead to the U.S. to try to make a name for themselves in the cheaper series.

While IndyCar teams spend about $10-million annually per car to race in the series, that price tag is dwarfed by F1’s astronomical costs, which easily top $250-million in a top, two-car team.

Interestingly, Rutherford’s first run in the Indy 500 came in a Watson Roadster powered by an Offenhauser engine that was backed by the City of Victoria. Then again, the sponsorship that team owner Eddie Kostenuk attracted amounted to enough money to buy gas and make the trip to Indianapolis to run the car in the race.

“It was deals like that. They weren’t big deals, but it was bigger than anything else at the time,” said Rutherford, who finished 29th that year after his transmission gave up just 43 laps into the race.

“It’s very different now: All the major teams have people who do nothing but make deals and sell sponsorship. Sponsorship and technology has really screwed up racing. You could win the Indy Lights championship two years in a row, and if you don’t have somebody to pay your way when it comes time to graduate into the big cars, sorry.”

Hinchcliffe’s rookie year in IndyCar serves as a perfect illustration of how much money matters. Although he was at the 2011 season opener wearing a Newman-Haas shirt and already accepted as part of the team, the outfit would not put him into a car until his sponsor cheque from Eric Sprott and Sprott Securities was deposited in its account.

After getting burned a few times by team owners who were more interested in cashing his cheque than keeping promises or fielding a competitive car for him to drive, Hinchcliffe wants others to benefit from his tough lessons.

And that’s why the now-successful IndyCar driver goes out of his way to help young hopefuls understand the ropes so that maybe a few will avoid the pitfalls that marked his rise up the racing ladder.

It’s also about giving youngsters the real goods: Few drivers actually make a living at racing.

“I really try to make them understand Jackie’s point: You do have to be much more of a business person than a racing driver,” he said.

“If you don’t want to work hard off the track for something that is other than driving the race car, just save yourself the time, aggravation and money and get out now. Go buy yourself a tennis racket because this is not the sport for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s fair or not, it’s the reality of the sport and you either accept it, embrace it and try to do it, or you get the hell out.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone

Twitter: @jpappone

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