Long Beach, Calif – No one is as happy to see the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series behind them than driver James Hinchcliffe. It’s not for the lack of results though, it’s for a different reason. Now, in 2017, Hinchcliffe can discuss his success in his profession and even his runner-up in last season’s Dancing With the Stars and not talk about his practice crash in 2015 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Instead of fielding questions about that crash, he’s now answering questions about racing.
“For sure, I knew that going into the 2016 season that it was going to be a hot topic of conversation,” Hinchcliffe said on how much different this season is as far as answering questions from the media than last. “A lot was made about going back to the speedway (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and my big goal for the Month of May was to have a new story to tell.
“I think qualifying on pole and having a car that was capable of running up front all day, and being on the podium in the Grand Prix (of Indianapolis) kind of helped change the tune a little bit. But, of course, you’re still going back to every track for the first time after that, and it was still a topic. Now, we’re showing that everything is flying on my end. We’re still as a team capable of fighting for race wins. I’m as dedicated and motivated as ever. It’s nice now to get that year behind us and not be talking about that quote on quote comeback.
“We’re back and as good as we’ve ever been.”
For the first time since his stardom on Dancing With the Stars last Fall, Hinchcliffe, 30, heads back to Los Angeles in his full-time job – a race car driver. Does that change his role this weekend though, as the town recognizes him for not just his success behind the wheel of his No. 5 Honda, but for his success on stage in Hollywood too?
“I think we all have that role all the time regardless of the city we’re in, regardless which team you drive for or how many wins you have,” Hinchcliffe told me in an exclusive interview for Race Review Online about whether he feels like more of an ambassador for IndyCar this weekend. “Every single driver in this series is an ambassador or spokesman, essentially a stakeholder in IndyCar or the IndyCar business. Any time anyone has that opportunity to help spread that message and let people know what we’re up to, and show them just how good the competition is in IndyCar, I think it’s our responsibility to do that.”
“Obviously it’s our first time back as a series since the show ended and it certainly raised the profile in town. This race in itself is the Indy 500 of street course racing. Its been around and one of the more prestigious and the most history as far as the who’s who of greats have won here. The town really embraces it in a big way. Not just Long Beach in itself but Los Angeles in general.”
With that being said, it couldn’t be scripted any better if Hinchcliffe drives his Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports Honda to victory lane on Sunday afternoon in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (4 p.m. ET/NBCSN/INDYCAR Radio Network). If the popular Canadian could win this weekend, where would that win rank among his career accomplishments?
“I won’t lie to you, it’s arguably right after,” Hinchcliffe said about winning at Long Beach and where it would stack if he also won at Indy or anywhere else for that matter. “For me, Toronto (his hometown) would obviously be up there, then Long Beach would be up there for sure for all those reasons and the reasons of the history behind the place, the challenge of this place. A win here would be an absolute a career high, a top three no doubt.”
A win could realistically come too. Hinchcliffe has been stellar on the 1.968-mile southern California street circuit over the course of his career with a third and seventh place finish respectively in Toyota Atlantic competition from 2006-2007. Then, that success carried over to Indy Lights, as Hinchcliffe finished a third place finish in 2009 and reached victory lane in the series in 2010. The success in the ladder series’ then carried over since to the Verizon IndyCar Series with a fourth and third finish respectively in his first two years of competition in 2011 and 2012. He crashed twice in 2013 and 2014, but the latter he was in the top three before crashing in a fluke incident.
But, the last two years he came home 12th and eighth respectively, and mix that with a ninth place effort in the season opener at St. Pete, which could have easily been a win if not for a fluke caution, and you can see why Hinchcliffe is a favorite to win at Long Beach on Sunday.
“I wish I knew, if it was something I can put my finger on I would look for that at more race tracks,” Hinchcliffe said on what makes him so good at Long Beach. “It’s a track that’s always suited my style. I’ve had a lot of firsts here and have been very competitive over the years. It’s always somewhere we’ve managed to be very competitive.”
I asked him if the new found speed from Honda for 2017 surprised him, and his answer was completely honest and genuine.
“I was very surprised. I think we all were. I wish I could say it was some trick we knew that was coming from the Honda camp, but we were just as surprised as everybody else when the dust settled at St. Pete. I think (the resurgence) is a combination of things certainly. We knew we’d be better relative to St. Pete last year because we now have had a year with this bodykit and we know we had a big engine upgrade during the Month of May last year, so we knew we’d be more competitive at St. Pete. The other important thing to remember is four really, really good cars (Chip Ganassi Racing) switched over to Honda (in the offseason). That’s essentially an eight car swing in Honda’s favor on that part.”
I wanted his thoughts on what would happen if he was leading like he was in the season opener at St. Pete on March 12, and another caution flew in the middle of a pit cycle? Is that fair? Would he change anything from a rules stand point so the leader isn’t penalized?
“It’s tough, it’s really tough,” Hinchcliffe said. “I’ve accepted that this is part of IndyCar racing. I don’t think we can do an open pit scenario. That’s something we’ve gone back-and-forth on. That discussion has been thrown around a lot, but we’ve always settled on under caution. Driver and crew safety is far too important to put in risk for the sake of getting into the pits in time. That said, the ideas of Virtual Safety Cars don’t really appeal to me. I get it, the guy running up front shouldn’t be penalized for being running up front, but it does mix things up a little bit. It is part of the the allure. It makes strategy options open up for guys that do start in the back. It gives other teams that wouldn’t be normally fighting for wins chances to win. I think those stories are cool for IndyCar racing. Did it bite us in St. Pete? Absolutely. Has it benefited us in the past? Absolutely. When push comes to shove, a rule like that probably evens out of the course of a drivers career. The few exceptions are the Scott Dixon’s and Will Power’s who are always in good equipment and phenomenal drivers who are usually up front anyways. They’re not normally in the back anyways to benefit from a lucky yellow. The biggest issue with St. Pete is I don’t think that should have merited a full course caution anyway but that’s a different subject.”
Does that change anything from a strategy standpoint for this weekend? St. Pete had just two cautions, one of the first lap, the second on Lap 25. Then, Long Beach last year went caution free. Will those facts make this weekend a nightmare for drivers and engineers?
“That’s one of the hardest jobs in IndyCar racing – a strategist. We look at all the historical data at a racetrack, when the cautions come and whatever historical data derive from that and you try to make the call in the heat of the moment on race day. It’s never easy to do. This weekend will definitely be a tricky one. You never know, we’ve seen races here that cautions breed cautions and we’ve seen races like last year where we can go flag-to-flag without incident.”
In a way to fix that, IndyCar added five additional laps to this weekend’s race so teams would have to make it a three stop strategy and not make the race a fuel saving event like last year. But, Hinchcliffe doesn’t necessarily think that it will 100-percent work. He says the mentality at the start of the race will be much different, but if a caution flies, it could move it back to a fuel saving race.
“The thing is, we as drivers try to push for that to be honest,” Hinchcliffe said of the addition of five laps to the race duration. “When it’s the way it was last year, if it goes all green, it’s a bit of a toss up and everybody tries to make the two stop strategy work which is boring for fans and boring for drivers. So you add the laps to make it impossible to do in two and everybody pushes to three stops, it blows strategy wide open, and makes windows very big for pit stops which is great. But, here’s the problem, all it takes is one caution at the right place to get you back in a two stop situation. I think IndyCar did the right thing, because like last year, if you go caution free, the race is destroyed before we even go green. At least now we know that’s not going to be the problem. This is not going to eliminate the fuel save racing. All we need that right caution that’s just the right length at just the right time that’s going to bring it back in. But, at least we’re not starting the race with that mentality.”
Hinchcliffe, also talked about how physical the series is in general, but at Long Beach too. The physicality of this sport, makes winning races all that more rewarding because of it.
“It’s incredibly physical,” Hinchcliffe told me about racing in IndyCar. “To get beat up like that on a street course with bumps and curbs. Every time you hit one of those bumps, it’s a jolt through the body. You’ve got to have the muscle strength to wheel one of these things around corners that are over 100 mph, with the downforce and g-forces, Long Beach in particular, the front stretch where you normally get to rest has a big curve in it even though it’s a subtle turn, you’re doing it at over 150 mph and it’s a lot of force on the body. It’s a very high brake force track so the g-forces are very high. It’s also normally hot in California so you’re dehydrated and you’re fluid intake is important. Having all of that combined in a sport is only comparable to triathlons in terms of the physicality and how continuous the physicality is. No doubt, it for sure plays a part in it. To survive a race like that to be the guy standing on top is huge. It justifies the hours and hours we put in every week training and making ourselves better.”
To me, Hinchchliffe is the driver to beat on Sunday. He has the skill, has the confidence and has the car to make it to victory lane. It’s his turn.