James Hinchcliffe has hung up his dancing shoes and put his racing helmet back on. It's a much freer feeling than one year ago.
The Oakville, Ont., driver says the upcoming IndyCar season – which begins Sunday with the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – feels like a clean slate.
Hinchcliffe, who competed on ABC's Dancing with the Stars last fall, was riddled with questions entering last year after a near-death experience at the 2015 Indianapolis 500 when his left thigh was pierced by the car's right front rocker following a crash in practice.
"I think going into the start of last season, there was so much talk about 'the comeback' and all the rest of it and it carried through all the way into the month of May just being that's where the accident happened, so the first four, five races of the year it was heavy running commentary on it," Hinchcliffe said in a phone interview.
"Now, coming into 2017, it's not a story any more, we're so far past it. For me, it feels like a much kind of freer start to the season in that sense and everybody's just talking about going racing and not thinking back to what happened a couple months ago."
Hinchcliffe rebounded at the 2016 Indy 500 – IndyCar's premier event – by taking the pole position before finishing the race seventh. He followed up with a third-place finish at his hometown race, the Honda Indy Toronto, before coming second at the Firestone 600 in Texas.
Hinchcliffe said that earning the Indy pole position and finishing on the podium in Toronto were "dream come true moments."
"It was great to be on the podium but it made me that much more hungry to win in Toronto," Hinchcliffe said. "I've never had that much luck there and to kind of have a good fortune and put up a good result was huge. I want nothing more than to give everyone back home something to cheer for. That moment in Toronto was very special."
The 30-year-old and partner Sharna Burgess were runners-up on Dancing with the Stars. Hinchcliffe said it took lot of convincing to get him on the show, but he has no regrets after finishing second.
"I'm floored we even made it to that point. Everybody doesn't believe me when I tell them, but I can't dance. It's not something I can do. They put me in a situation where I learned very specific steps to a very specific song and that was it. But if you just put me out in the middle of a dance floor with some random track playing, I'm just gonna go to the fist pump or the Macarena."
Being involved with the TV show meant few breaks for Hinchcliffe, who said he worked every day from Aug. 28 to Nov. 24. But he said preparations with his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the coming season have been great.
IndyCar officials have frozen rule changes for 2017, which Hinchcliffe says will close up the field and make for a competitive year.
"For the first time in three years, we haven't had to be taking big swings at figuring out how to make this car work," Hinchcliffe said. "We have a season's worth of data to look back on and we look at races where we performed well, and more importantly races where we didn't and try to figure out why."
Last season was dominated by Simon Pagenaud and Team Penske, with the Frenchman winning the IndyCar title ahead of teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves. Penske added more firepower to its team in the off-season by signing Josef Newgarden, the 2015 Indy Toronto winner.
"The Penske organization really put a firm beating on us all of last year and we're all very keen to beat back," said Hinchcliffe, whose last IndyCar win came at the 2015 Grand Prix of Louisiana. The Canadian has four career wins including the 2013 race in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"Our street car package it needs some work. We're not on Penske's level, but nobody is. It's tough. They have more of an advantage on the street courses than anywhere else compared to other teams and that's something that we've obviously put a lot of focus on over this winter to be stronger in 2017."