When trouble strikes James Hinchcliffe this year, fans shouldn’t expect him to get out of his IndyCar in a race unless it’s on fire.
After an embarrassing episode in Baltimore last year, the 26-year-old from Oakville, Ont., learned a valuable lesson: Never count yourself out even when things go terribly wrong.
Hinchcliffe tagged the wall 37 laps into the street race in Baltimore and stopped his Andretti Autosport racer on the side of the track convinced his No. 27 Go Daddy Chevrolet’s wonky handling was due to a broken suspension.
He climbed out to inspect the damage and quickly realized that the problem was a flat rear tire. Then came a mad dash back into the cockpit and an agonizing trip back to the pitlane for new tires. The gaff meant he finished two laps down in 15th place in a race where he ran as high as second.
“I can tell you here and now that I will never get out of my race car again until I know for damn sure that thing cannot be driven another inch,” he said.
“It was a comedy of errors, but no one was laughing at the end of it. It was one of those things where anything that could have gone wrong did.”
That basic lesson is one of the things Hinchcliffe will take into the 2013 IndyCar season in his return with the Andretti team. This season marks the first time in his racing career that he will drive for the same team for consecutive years since he started racing cars in 2003.
His multi-year deal backed by Internet hosting company Go Daddy ended a decade of uncertainty for the young racer who usually spent the better part of his off-seasons drumming up sponsor support to keep his racing career going.
Hinchcliffe looked to be on his way to stability when he signed with the legendary Newman-Haas outfit in 2011 and ended the season by taking home IndyCar rookie of the year honours. Weeks later, Newman-Haas announced it was getting out of racing, leaving Hinchcliffe without a ride for 2012.
While his lighthearted attitude off the track and popularity with fans delivered the seat with Go Daddy, he wasn’t the company’s first choice to replace IndyCar’s most popular driver, Danica Patrick, after she left for NASCAR at the end of 2011.
The No. 27 Chevy was supposed to be Dan Wheldon’s ride. The Englishman had agreed to drive for Andretti in 2012 only days before the two-time Indy 500 winner died in a massive pile-up in the 2011 season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“It’s something I think about a lot,” Hinchcliffe said.
“It makes that much more appreciative of it and makes me want to do a good job not only for myself and the team but also for Dan because I do genuinely feel like I have to represent him now and that’s an honour.”
The Canadian looked to be a strong championship contender in his sophomore year, taking seven Top-6 finishes in the first eight races, including a sixth place in the Indianapolis 500 where he started second.
May’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing also gave him his highlight of the year.
“Leading Lap 1 of the 500 was pretty cool – it was actually the first time in a race car that I let my mind wander for a second and think how cool it was to be doing what I was doing,” he said.
“I came out of Turn 2 and there was nobody in front of me, all the stands were packed, the balloons from the start of the race were still floating in the sky, and all I could see was Turn 3. It was a surreal moment, but it didn’t last too long because Turn 3 came up pretty quick.”
The Indy 500 also showed that Hinchcliffe has great respect those who have gone before him. In his qualifying run for the race, the Andretti driver brought along a pair of gloves once worn by late driver Greg Moore of Maple Ridge. B.C.
Moore, who died in a crash during the 1999 Championship Auto Racing Teams (commonly known as CART) season finale, never raced at the famed Brickyard due to the open wheel split in North America between 1996 and 2008.
Although things started well last year, Hinchcliffe couldn’t keep the early momentum going for the second half of the season, scoring only one Top-6 finish in the last seven races.
After being as high as second in the IndyCar point standings early in the year, he faded to eighth by the end, although that result was four spots better than he managed in his rookie season.
“I think a lot of it was circumstance,” Hinchcliffe said when asked about his poorer results as the season wore on.
“The pace was there in the second half, but a couple of things went wrong or we had some bad luck. It was just weird that we had all of our good results in the first half and all of our bad ones in the second, but I don’t think too much of it was us losing our way.”
Hinchcliffe’s racing fortune didn’t improve much after the IndyCar season either.
He travelled halfway around the world to compete in the Australian V8 Supercar championship’s prestigious two-day Gold Coast 600 in late October, only to have a pair mishaps ruin his trip.
On the first day, Hinchcliffe was slow to get away at the start and got rear-ended by another car after a few metres, setting off a multiple car crash that saw him retire. Day 2 wasn’t much better with Hinchcliffe climbing from 21st at the start to 10th before the pitstop to change drivers went awry and the car was dropped off the jacks with only three wheels securely fastened and retired soon after.
Hinchcliffe starts his 2013 racing year in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, where he will return to race the No. 70 Speed Source Mazda that he helped pilot to a sixth overall in the GT Class in 2012. This year his teammates are Jonathan Bomarito, Marino Franchitti, Tom Long and Sylvain Tremblay.
But the 24 Hour race is just a tune-up for his IndyCar season, which begins Mar. 24 with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla.
“We started working on 2013 two weeks after [the 2012 season finale in] Fontana [Calif.] and having that head start is a big deal and hopefully it will show when we start the season in St. Pete,” he said.
“I think both on track and off we had a really strong season last year and if anything, it just sort of left me left me wanting more because I know that our final place in the championship was not indicative of where we ran all year.”
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)