(via Toronto Star) – The NTT IndyCar Series will kick off its 2019 season Sunday with a race through the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., and driver James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., can’t wait to get going.
Hinchcliffe, who’s now a veteran heading into his ninth season in the Big League, has not had the best of luck in a career that’s had more downs than ups. Yes, he’s won races — six at last count, including the one in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2013 — but he’s remembered more for a crash that nearly took his life in 2015 and then, last year, failing to qualify for the biggest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500.
But that was then and this is now and he’s bullish on his career, his team and the series.
“I can’t wait to get going,” he said in a recent interview. “I want to start out winning and keep winning, particularly at Indy. The team responded so well to what happened at Indianapolis — I mean, we had our best stretch of the ’18 season after that disappointment — and I think the series is poised to really take off.”
James, along with Alex Tagliani, is terrific when it comes to interviews. Those guys know what reporters are after when questions start heading in a certain direction. Rather than waiting for them all to be spit out, they pick up on the theme and pretty much let loose.
Take the season that will start Sunday, compared to the one a year ago. In 2018, his teammate at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was fellow Canadian Robbie Wickens; this year, it’s ex-Formula One pilot Marcus Ericsson from Sweden.
“It’s funny, the parallels between the start of 2019 and the start of ’18 are kind of crazy,” Hinchcliffe said. “While Marcus is a rookie to IndyCar, he is by no means a rookie to racing and neither was Robbie. Marcus has five years of F1 experience and that pretty much prepares you for damn near anything.
“Just as Robbie did last year, he’s brought a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of experience. He’s going to push the hell out of me on the track. We’re getting along great, though; the Swedes and the Canadians only hate each other on the ice. Until he and I lace up to play some shinny, I think we’re going to be OK.”
The reference to Wickens was difficult for Hinchcliffe. The young Canadian was a “coming man” in the sport, whose European career had been derailed when other drivers he had beaten moved on to Formula One and he’d wound up racing sedans in a German championship. Hinchcliffe had urged him to make the move to IndyCar and then, in the middle of his rookie season last year, he’d been terribly injured in a crash at the Pocono International Raceway oval in Pennsylvania. The wreck had left him a paraplegic.
When Schmidt Peterson Motorsports launched their 2019 season in Denver, which is the home of Arrow Electronics, their primary sponsor, Wickens attended because he was convalescing at a hospital there. There were three cars at the launch: the No. 5 for Hinchcliffe; the No. 6 for Wickens, which will be held open for him until such time as he returns to racing or informs the team he’s moving on; and the No. 7 for Ericsson. Hinchcliffe was delighted to see his friend there.
“It was great to see him out and about,” the Oakville native who now lives in Zionsville, Ind., said. “A lot of people hadn’t seen him since the accident. so it was very cool.” Then, talking about Wickens’s recovery — he’s shown astounding progress in a short period of time in his determination to walk again, Hinchcliffe said:
“It’s a physical battle but it’s also a mental one. But he’s one of the most tough, determined and stubborn people you would ever want to meet. If anybody is going to get through this, it will be him.”
When Hinchcliffe missed the cut last May at Indianapolis — 35 cars tried for the 33 starting spots and when all was said and done, Hinchcliffe and Pippa Mann were on the outside looking in — there was speculation that Arrow would rethink their sponsorship commitment to the team. There is a feeling that while there are other races in the IndyCar series, the only one that really counts for a sponsor is the Indy 500.
But not only did Arrow hang in, it increased its involvement to where, in 2019, the team is officially known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Not many sponsors would spring back from bitter disappointment and then increase involvement as well as investment.
“It’s a huge vote of confidence in the team,” Hinchcliffe said. “They have doubled down on their partnership with us. They were the first ones to sit down with us after what happened at Indy happened, and they said, ‘Look, we get it. Everybody has a bad day. This isn’t a reflection of the work you’ve done, or the effort you’ve put in. We are behind you 100 per cent.’
“And now they are behind us 200 per cent. It would have been really easy to use that as a way out, but ultimately this program benefits them as well. When we first got together, Arrow Electronics earnings were in the $300-million range and today they are $3 billion and a large part of that success is the validity that Arrow gets for being part of an IndyCar program.
“It really is mutually beneficial from a business side but there’s a passion here to work together and it’s great to be a part of that.”
Hinchcliffe said it’s advantageous to be partners with a technology company because of the expertise and outside-the-box thinking that comes with it.
“IndyCar racing is a very technologically advanced sport,” he said. “At the same time, Arrow’s involved in the kind of groundbreaking technology that changes every day and they are already working in fields that people aren’t going to know about, or be caring about, or using until years from now.
“To have a company with that kind of knowledge and experience in the technology field working with us really opens up opportunities for us. We’ve had engineers come out to the shop, to the races, to look at what we do and we’re the first to put up our hands and say we don’t know what’s possible but we’re not dealing with the cutting edge of technological development that you guys are, so look at what we’re doing and tell us what’s possible.
“We do that and they come back with a bunch of ideas, a bunch of concepts and programs, that we are actively working on behind the scenes to help make the team better on race weekends.”
“As the sport develops, there are fewer and fewer things we can do mechanically on the car. It’s not exactly spec but it’s pretty close to a spec series. So relying on the technological side, the data side, is what a lot of teams have to do. We are an absolute powerhouse in that department.”
Every year around this time, IndyCar’s PR machine kicks into high gear, the drivers get involved on social media and anybody paying attention comes away convinced that the series is on the verge of exploding in popularity. And then it doesn’t. There is a slight increase in TV viewership and some races — other than Indianapolis, which is an attendance and ratings behemoth — have an increase in bums-in-seats. But it is the low series on the totem pole when compared to No. 1 NASCAR.
But Hinchcliffe thinks there will be significant movement upward this year for the series, which includes the Honda Indy Toronto in July.
“I think this will be the biggest year in IndyCar’s recent history, at least during my career,” he said. “We have a stout driver lineup (another F1 driver, Felix Rosenquist, is driving for Chip Ganassi Racing this season, in addition to Eriksson at ASPM), the cars will be awesome, we have a terrific new TV partner in NBC, we have a new title sponsor, which is one of the biggest companies in the world, and two new world-class venues (Circuit of the Americas in Texas and Laguna Seca in California).
“It’s exciting, from my perspective. We want to put on a good show for everyone. I just see it having a lot of momentum and I truly believe we are on our way.”
Good luck, James. We are all pulling for you — and for IndyCar.