James Hinchcliffe waved the Canadian flag when he emerged from his car after winning last year’s IndyCar season-opening race.
It was a fitting gesture from a man who has been both motivated and burdened by Canada’s winning tradition in open-wheel racing.
The 27-year-old driver from Oakville, Ont., enters this IndyCar season fresh off a breakout 2013 campaign that saw him win three races and finish eighth overall in the driver standings.
He became the first Canadian to win a major open-wheel race since Toronto’s Paul Tracy won on the now-defunct CART circuit in 2007. And it took the pressure of having to live up to his heroes off his shoulders.
It’s something that pressured him in his first few IndyCar seasons.
“A hundred per cent. And it was 100 per cent self-inflicted,” Hinchcliffe said Wednesday in a phone interview. “As a fan of Canadian motorsports and of IndyCar racing, I wanted to keep up my end of that bargain.
“I wanted to be the guy that some eight-year-old kid was watching win races. Because that’s what got me passionate about IndyCar racing, and I want to have that kind of positive effect on this sport and this country.”
Canada produced a number of open-wheel drivers in the 1980s and 90s, including Tracy, Jacques Villeneuve, Scott Goodyear and the late Greg Moore. Villeneuve is a former Indianapolis 500 champion, Tracy and Goodyear both had second-place finishes in the Indy, and Tracy and Villeneuve were both overall CART champions.
Moore was an Indy Lights champion who won five CART races before he was killed in a crash in the last race of the 1999 season.
“I very much want to be part of that history because it’s that history that got me interested in being a racing driver,” Hinchcliffe said. “Growing up watching the Scott Goodyears and Jacques Villeneuves and Paul Tracys and Greg Moores that really inspired me.
“One of the things that I’ve always noticed is that in Canada, we don’t make a ton of IndyCar drivers, and a lot of guys don’t make it to this level. But if you look at the ones that have, they’re all winners. And I felt a huge pressure my first couple of years of not letting that tradition down. Not being ‘that guy.“’ Hinchcliffe said he doesn’t consider himself on par with the Canadian drivers of the past just yet, but he wants to help keep the tradition alive and get young Canadians interested in the sport.
He will be doing that with a new sponsor and a new car this season, which begins March 30 in St. Petersburg, Fla. His team, Andretti Autosport, changed manufacturers from Cheverolet to Honda, and sponsors from webhosting site Go Daddy to United Fiber & Data.
“I’ve had a couple of sessions now in the Honda and it’s great,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s a great relationship that we already had with them because Andretti Autosport had a long and successful history with Honda going back several years, and my rookie season was with Honda, so it was kind of like coming home.”
He hopes the new car will lead to consistent results in 2014. In the first four races of last season, he had two wins sandwiched between two 26th-place finishes.
“We want to be very consistent and we want to be finishing races, because if you look at our season last year, we I think had the pace we just didn’t have the consistency at certain points,” he said. “So as long as we do our job, we minimize mistakes, we improve on areas where we were deficient last year, that’s my goal. And I think if we do that, things like race wins and championships will start coming our way.”
IndyCar’s attendance and TV ratings have suffered lately, the root of which stems from a schism in open-wheel racing in the mid 1990s that formed two rival series.
The affable Hinchcliffe, who won IndyCar’s rookie of the year in 2011 and fan favourite award in 2012, says the competition on the circuit is “better than it has ever been,” but more aggressive marketing is needed to attract new fans.
“I try to do as much as I can to help grow it because I genuinely believe in what we do,” he said. “I believe it’s fun and exciting and entertaining and dangerous and sexy and all those things that make sporting events cool. Anything I can do to further that and help spread that message, I’m absolutely going to be a part of.”