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The Globe and Mail

Dowbiggin: Hinchcliffe drives with the spirit of his idol

Canadian IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe threw out the opening pitch here for the Blue Jays on Tuesday. He entertained the crowd with a nice pickoff move before delivering an accurate throw to home. Don't let a little clowning convince you that the GoDaddy-backed driver is not serious about this weekend's season-opening race in St. Petersburg, Fla.

GoDaddy brings with it the legacy of former driver Danica Patrick. But Hinchcliffe drives with the spirit of his idol, the late Canadian driver Greg Moore, in the co-pilot seat of his No. 27 car. It was Moore, killed racing in 1999 at the age of just 24, who initially inspired the young Hinchcliffe into a career in racing as he grew up in Oakville. "Having never really met Greg, I still idolized him," Hinchcliffe says before the Blue Jays game. "He was The Guy. A great role model on track and off."

Moore's tragic death shook Hinchcliffe. "His death did make me re-assess and it certainly made my parents re-assess as well," says the 26-yer-old. "I was young, just getting into it, and they see their son's hero die. It did cause a family gathering with my parents (Jeremy and Arlene). At the end of the day they could see I had a passion for it. It would have been easy to pull the plug, but they stuck with me and let me drive."

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So Hinchcliffe's thoughts naturally went to Moore during qualifying at the Brickyard in Indianapolis last May. "Greg was an oval specialist, but he never got a chance to race at Indianapolis as a result of the split between IndyCar and Indy Racing. He never did the 500, and that's the biggest deal for any Indy car driver. The fact that he didn't get a chance to go around the speedway doesn't sit well with some people."

So when one of Moore's former crew members approached Hinchcliffe with a special request the product of go-kart racing was only too willing to help. "One of Greg's mechanics in the Forsyth Racing team days had a pair of gloves that Greg had given him. He approached me in May and said Greg never got a chance to drive at Indy, would you mind taking him for a couple of laps?

"I held onto the gloves through practice until the four qualifying laps at Indy. Then I tucked them into my suit and I took Greg for a run around the speedway." Hinchcliffe qualified second.

Face of Canadian racing

While he helped the Jays on Tuesday, Hinchcliffe could only envy the preparation time baseball players receive compared to drivers in the circuit. "They get a month and a half on the field to prepare for their season. I have had five days total in the car between September 15 and the first race here this weekend in St. Petersburg. Imagine telling a pitcher he is only allowed to begin throwing five days prior to the start of the season.

"We have to maximize those practice days because the time is so precious. It costs $50,000 for one day of training, and ultimately we do a lot of our learning on the track. It's a big challenge."

Getting that costly learning first means getting a ride and then getting the necessary miles in competition. "Being young and eager is good, but it'll probably be five years before you're consistently good. Dario Franchitti didn't win his first title till he was 10 years on the circuit. If you get in at 23 you'll probably be about 28 before you can start battling for your first championship."

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With Sportsnet taking on the IndyCar contract this year, Hinchcliffe has an opportunity to do for his sport what Milos Raonic has done for tennis in Canada. Namely become the face of a sport looking for exposure in the hockey-saturated TV landscape. "Being a small country there's less corporate support fort a Canadian racing. We can't compete with the very big hockey sponsors.

"From a driving point of view we can only race six months of the year compared to guys who can race all year long in warmer climates. It adds an element of us having to travel a lot more. Having said that we produce an awful lot of terrific drivers and that starts at the grassroots level back home."

Recruiting with a different kind of green

Before heading to Israel, president Barack Obama made out his annual NCAA March Madness bracket. The president was not very bullish on Notre Dame's lime green uniforms, and so he bumped the Irish from his draw (although eliminating teams for their unis is something your mother would do.)

But, according to Notre Dame's coach Mike Brey, there's method to the garish threads. They're not meant for broadcasters, alumni, Irish fans or even presidents. "Are they cool with the kids we're trying to recruit?" Brey told the Jim Rome Show. A killer uniform can land you the highest recruited kids, said Brey.

According to Brey, one 17-year old recruit called him up to say he'd seen the lime greens, was impressed and had purchased one right away to wear for his friends. Mission accomplished.

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