Coming off Turn 2 during a practice session just before the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, four-time IndyCar Series winner James Hinchcliffe saw his life flash before his eyes.
As safety workers rushed to Hinchcliffe’s destroyed racecar, blood spilled out of his left thigh. He doesn’t remember much from the incident, but what he does know is that it has changed his outlook on life. Quick work from safety officials that day turned a potential tragedy into one where the driver could potentially recover.
Returning to the seat of an IndyCar vehicle in September — a mere four months after his incident at the famed Yard of Bricks — Hinchcliffe began his remarkable comeback. Now, after winning the pole for the 100th Indianapolis 500, Hinchcliffe is all smiles this week. The Ontario native wants to drink some milk with his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team Sunday afternoon, and he is grateful for each moment he has on and off the racetrack.
We spoke with Hinchcliffe during an appearance in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Tuesday, May 26, previewing this weekend’s race, his recovery and a look at his thoughts at competing in NASCAR in the future.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch: Has it sunk in yet that you will be starting first for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500?
James Hinchcliffe: Honestly, not totally, and I’m OK with that. We still have a big job to do on Sunday, and we don’t want to get too caught up in this moment. It is something good. It’s cool to see where we have come within a year. Just to be back at the speedway and compete again in the 500 is great. But to put it in on the pole is awesome.
Wolkin: When you got back to the track a few weeks ago for the road course race, how nervous were you to revisit the site of your near-death experience?
Hinchcliffe: I wasn’t really nervous at all because I have no recollection of the accident itself. So for me, my last memory at the speedway was a good one. I was driving my car and everything was fine. It was just a lot easier. The big day was getting back in a racecar in September, and getting to the speedway was no big deal.
Wolkin: Did you ever think that you don’t want to race anymore after the wreck?
Hinchcliffe: No, I never thought that – not from day one. The only kind of fear that you could say I had was the fear that I wouldn’t be as fast as I was and not compete at the same level. Obviously, even if I was able to drive an IndyCar at 95 percent, that is not good enough at this level. You have to be on the absolute limit, the absolute edge at 100 percent. My only fear – like I said – was not being able to do that again.
Wolkin: Heading into Indianapolis, it’s already an emotional start to the week for you and Sam Schmidt. What are your expectations for Sunday’s race?
Hinchcliffe: I’m trying to put no expectations on the race. The team has done such a great job already up to this point in the month of May. We had a great Angie’s List Grand Prix, finishing on the podium. Obviously, we’ve had a great week leading up to qualifying. There are already a ton of positives to take away from this month. The big one is still out to play for, but we’ve proved that there’s speed in the car. My guys won the Firestone pit award during the grand prix, so we know we’re going to be good in pit lane. We have all of the right ingredients.
What happens, happens. There’s a lot of things that can shake out during the 500. Weather might become an issue. There is supposed to be some rain in the area during the day. I’m going into it with an open mind. We’re going to put our foot to the floor and try to stay in front.
Wolkin: How much would it mean to you to win the 100th edition of the race?
Hinchcliffe: It would mean anything to win any of them; I don’t care if it’s the 79th or 112th. It’s the Indy 500. The fact that it’s the 100th — yeah, it might make for a couple of more news articles and more attention on it — but from the driver’s point of view, Indy is Indy. It doesn’t matter what year you do it.
Wolkin: 300,000 people are expected to be in the stands. Do you feel like there is more pressure on you to perform this weekend?
Hinchcliffe: I don’t think so. This race is so big every year. We put so much pressure on ourselves. When the engines fire, the visors are down and the green flag drops, none of the drivers know what year it is. It doesn’t really matter. It’s all about the race at the moment.
Wolkin: With the new aero package this year, how do you feel that is going to affect the racing?
Hinchcliffe: We’ll see. I think the weather is going to be a bigger indicator — or factor, I should say. These cars are very sensitive to conditions. That track is very sensitive to conditions. It’ll be interesting to see how that part shakes out. The aero this year and the new tire made it a little bit trickier in qualifying. We can only assume that it is going to be a little trickier in race trim as well.
Wolkin: How do you think it is going to affect passing, with the weather obviously being the big factor?
Hinchcliffe: Yeah, that’s kind of it. It is going to be hard to pass cars if you’re in a long line. The guys at the front that have a little more clean air are going to be the ones that have a shot at getting around guys. There is a lot that happens. Tires fall off. Different cars will be strong early in a stint. Different cars will be strong late in a stint. All sorts of things are going to throw us a curveball during the race.
Wolkin: Are you going into this race with a different mentality compared to last year after everything that has happened?
Hinchcliffe: Professionally, no. I’ve been saying that the accident didn’t really change me as a driver. It changed me as a person, certainly. I’m still just as hungry and just as driven as I was before.
Wolkin: How has it changed you as a person?
Hinchcliffe: There are little things in life you don’t take for granted as much. When you have a situation like that where you could lose everything, it is easy to reflect a little bit and realize that some of the things that you think are big problems aren’t really big problems.
Wolkin: NASCAR drivers have tried their hands at IndyCar, and some IndyCar drivers have raced in NASCAR. Have you ever thought about competing in NASCAR?
Hinchcliffe: Yeah, I have, for sure. I would definitely love to do some races. My heart and my passion are with IndyCar, for sure, but it would be fun to try some out. I would like to see what it’s all about. There have been some really good IndyCar drivers that have gone over and made it work, guys like AJ [Allmendinger], Juan [Pablo Montoya] and Sam Hornish. It would be an interesting challenge for sure.
Wolkin: Have you ever discussed things with any team owners in NASCAR?
Hinchcliffe: I have, to try to do one of the road course races. I think that would be a logical place to start. We’d start in the XFINITY Series and not bounce straight into Cup. It’s definitely something that we’ve talked about. We’ve talked to a couple of sponsors about it. I don’t think this year it’s going to happen, but maybe next year.