I had the chance to speak with James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #27 Andretti Autosport GoDaddy.com car this week. James is set to start Middle Front Row this Sunday in the 96th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, the second Indy 500 of his career. Thanks to the Indycar PR staff, I was able to ask James a few questions during a media scrum held on Wednesday.
For the past few years, the IZOD Indycar Series has used the Shootout to decide pole. In this format, drivers take their first qualifying run as usual. At the end of the qualifying window on Pole Day, the top nine drivers advance to the Shootout. during this hour of special qualifying time, driver are permitted to make as many qualifying runs as they like, with their best four lap session being the time used. Under the traditional Pole Day format, Hinch would be the polesitter, as he set the fastest time going into the Shootout. Ryan Briscoe’s best time in the Shootout was not faster than Hinch’s initial run, but because of the format, Briscoe won pole. I asked Hinch what he thought about the qualifying format, since he would have been on pole under the old system.
“You know what, as I said earlier, racing drivers love thinking that we go racing for us. We don’t. I think the format we have now is incredibly exciting. If it had been the old format, pole would have been set at 2:00 in the afternoon and everybody would have sat around and nobody would have been able to challenge.
As it was, we had a thrilling duel for the pole that came down to the closest margin in history. It would have been tragic to rob fans of that show. I come out on the lesser end of that, which is still second place.
I quite like the shootout format, the fact we have multiple runs at it. I think it adds a new element of excitement to it. At the end of the day we’re here to put on a show.”
Andretti Autosport has a long tradition of its team of drivers having excellent chemistry with each other. Starting with the combination of Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta to today’s lineup of Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe, Andretti seems to breed a “Win together, lose together” spirit amongst everyone in the team. I asked James what he feels is key to the sense of unity on the Andretti Autosport team.
Well, honestly the first conversation I ever had with Michael and everybody at Andretti Autosport, their whole key to building a good race team is starting with good drivers that have good chemistry. It’s something they’ve achieved in the past and something that they feel was maybe missing a little bit the last few seasons.
When they first called me, they really wanted to get to know me a little bit better and see if I would fit in well. You could have the best driving credentials in the world or you could be backed by the biggest sponsor on the planet. If you’re not going to be able to work well with the people on the team, it really is all for nothing.
I’ve always said racing is not about engines, tires, racecars, it’s about people, and the right group of people will be successful, period.
I think in Marco, Ryan and myself, you have three drivers who are young, hungry, very motivated to put in the effort, to work as hard as possible to get this team back up to championship contenders.
The personalities are close enough off track. We’re all good friends. I think that allows us to work so much better together as a group. We push each other so hard. When you’re in a situation like that, it’s hard to not see success because all the right elements are there for it to happen.
I don’t think there’s one specific thing that you can point out that leads to that chemistry working the way it does. It really is the combination of all the people on the team, all the drivers working together, and like I said, all of us pushing together to improve week in and week out.
Hinch’s first trip to Indianapolis didn’t go so well. He started 13th, but finished 29th after he slid high in Turn 3 on lap 99, ending his day. Much has changed since that first trip to the speedway. I asked James what race morning at Indianapolis is like for him, and how he goes about his preparation for such a big race. I also asked if he ever gets a moment to soak up the surroundings a bit.
Well, you know, in terms of preparation on race morning, the team’s very good that we have no commitments that aren’t racing related on Sunday. There’s no quick sponsor appearances, no meet-and-greets, things like that. They let you get to business.
As I said before, it’s a function of trying to treat it like any other race weekend. You go, you’ll talk to the engineers, your teammates. Me being me, I try and keep it as light as possible. Still tell jokes, hang out with the family a little bit before the start of the race like I would anywhere else.
Yeah, it’s very easy to get lost in the moment. And I think one of the few moments that we get to sort of appreciate where we are and what we’re doing is driver introductions when you walk up over the wall and see the stands completely full for the first time all month.
You’re here all month, and you see them, and there’s some people in them some days, Pole Day there’s some people, but there’s nothing like race day. Almost to the same extent, once we get strapped in the cars, do the warmup laps, three by three, which you don’t do anywhere else, you really appreciate you’re at Indy.
You go on the whole track and you see these formerly gray, barren grandstands seething with life, color and movement. It’s a very surreal experience. It gives this track a feeling that it’s alive and you’re right in the heart of it.
You’re by yourself at that point. All the press is done. There’s nothing else you can do but get on and drive. You just take that moment and enjoy it.
Lastly, I got to talk with James a bit about his personality. Following in the footsteps of Eddie Sachs, Hinch is known as a colorful personality. From his “Manica” intro at St. Petersburg to “Baby Face Hinch,” James is always up to some sort of shenanigans in the paddock. Despite his fun loving nature, he’s also known as an absolute beast on the track. His aggressive style and charging spirit brings up comparisons of another famous Canadian who drove the #27 car, Jacques Villeneuve. I asked Hinch if his attitude off the track is key to his success on the track.
I don’t know. I think in the car I’m a very different person than I am out of the car. I try very hard. I worked very hard for a long time to separate those two. There were times where I was probably too lighthearted in the car when I was younger, and there were times when I was too serious out of the car.
Trying to find that balance has been a key to some of my success, just knowing when to flip that switch. If you’re in the lighthearted mode all the time, you’re not taking the racing serious enough. If you’re too serious all the time, you burn out easily, you don’t appreciate where you are, what you’re able to do.
I think having that careful balance is a very important part of what keeps me loving the sport so much.