“I’m really sorry I am not an accountant, mom.”
That was the first thing Canadian racer James Hinchcliffe said to his mother Arlene when they saw each other a couple hours after the death of fellow IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon 12 laps into the season finale in Las Vegas on Oct. 16.
“As soon as my mom saw me, despite knowing I was perfectly fine, she burst into tears and we hugged for about five straight minutes, really saying nothing,” he said.
“It’s what I do and both my parents have obviously always supported me doing it and we all understand the risks and that it is part of our sport.”
Wheldon died after his car became airborne in a chain reaction accident at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and flew into the catch fencing above the wall. An autopsy showed that blunt force trauma caused his death.
What has angered Hinchcliffe in the aftermath of the accident is talk that Wheldon was driving over his head trying to win a $5-million bonus put up by IndyCar.
“That’s insane: Dan drove to win every single race,” he said.
A two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar champion, Wheldon was chosen by the series to race for a one-time prize he would split with a lucky fan in the stands.
To win the cash, he had go from last on the grid in Las Vegas to the winner’s circle.
“I don’t think the prize was on his mind in the slightest, especially 12 laps into a race,” Hinchcliffe said.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s $5 or $5-million on the line, we drive to win no matter what.”
And that kind of drive on and off the track is exactly what Hinchcliffe looked for earlier this week when he held his third annual “Hinchtown.com Canadian Karting Award” shootout at Mosport International Raceway.
While it might be reasonable for Hinchcliffe to concentrate on building his own career, the 24-year-old thinks it’s never too early to give back to the community.
“I don’t have a $10-million a year contract or live in a mansion somewhere, but I am now at the top level of racing in this country. I have reached my goal and I know that’s the goal of a lot of other kids,” Hinchcliffe said.
“Part of the motivation for this project is to let these kids know that it’s tough getting to the top and it’s harder coming from Canada because there isn’t as much corporate sponsorship involved and there’s only two [IndyCar] races here. But it’s possible, and they can get there too.”
Hinchcliffe’s event gets support from the Bridgestone Racing Academy and Autosports Media Group. It puts eight young kart racers into the Bridgestone Racing Academy’s open wheel formula cars for a shootout to win a fully paid three day “Wheel to Wheel” race licensing course at the school during the 2012 season.
The winner was 20-year-old Zach Robichon, of Ottawa, who Hinchcliffe said showed incredible maturity in and out of the car.
“He was asking questions, really eager to learn and showed good progression throughout the day. On top of that, he was really quick, especially considering he had never been in a formula car before,” Hinchcliffe said.
“I know that we’ve only done this three years, but this year’s crop was the best we ever had. It’s incredibly cool to see how many good racers we have coming up. I think I might lose my job to one of them some day.”
While he jokes about it, it’s not outlandish to believe that one of the kids winning Hinchcliffe's challenge will actually end up in IndyCar.
After all, Hinchcliffe got his first car racing licence from the same school in 2002 and a decade later, he’s reigning IndyCar rookie of the year despite missing the first race of the season.
But after winning the rookie crown when the finale was stopped due to the 15-car accident that claimed Wheldon’s life, he really hasn’t felt like crowing about his accomplishment.
“I’m still not at the point where it’s something I am celebrating because of the final race of the season,” he said.
“Time helps with everything but, at the end of the day, what happened in Las Vegas is a very real reminder of the danger of our sport, just how precious life is and lucky we are to do what we do.”
Hinchcliffe joined the Newman/Haas team for the second race of 2011 at Alabama’s Barber Motorsport Park after his sponsorship deal with Sprott Securities closed too late for him to make the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla.
While the wound of Wheldon’s passing is too fresh for him to savour the rookie crown, Hinchcliffe thinks taking the title after competing in one fewer race than the other drivers will bring a smile in the future.
“It’s the only title you just get one shot at winning – you’re only a rookie once,” he said.
“We had a very strong year and I am proud of that from a team point of view. They took a risk on having me in the car and I am happy that I was able to do what they wanted me to do.”
Hinchcliffe hopes to return to the No. 06 Newman/Haas car in 2012, although it is thought he has had a few other teams knock on his door. The big plus that comes with staying put is that he and the crew already have a good working relationship and they can pick up where they left off this year.
Part of the equation will be finding backers to help fund his next season, something he said gets a bit easier when you already have an IndyCar season under your belt.
With a new car set to debut in 2012, teams will also be eager to finalize their driver line-ups early to ensure that they get in as many testing kilometres as possible prior to the late March opener in St. Petersburg.
“If teams want to be competitive, they are going to have to know who their drivers are by December, which means that there’s a chance that for the first time in my life I will know what I am driving before March, which will be tremendous and will make Christmas more enjoyable,” he said.
“I have been in this sport for long enough to know that it could end for [reigning four-time IndyCar champion]Dario Franchitti tomorrow if the wrong circumstances arise. It really is one of the most ruthless sports out there and you are never 100 per cent safe.”
Then again, if things don’t work out for Hinchcliffe in IndyCar, there's always accounting school.