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Dancing With the Stars yet another life lesson learned for James Hinchcliffe

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Life is about lessons learned, and James Hinchcliffe has had more than his share of life lessons in the last year and a half.

Sure, many will immediately define his racing career by how he almost died in a crash, to triumphantly coming back a year later to earn the pole position for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, before ultimately finishing seventh.

But that’s merely part of an ongoing evolution of how the Canadian IndyCar driver continues to learn about himself as a person.

For example, when the suburban Toronto native was first approached earlier this year to appear in Season 23 of of the hit ABC TV show “Dancing With The Stars,” he was a bit apprehensive.

ABC's "Dancing With The Stars" Season 23 Finale - Arrivals
James Hinchcliffe and Dancing With the Stars partner Sharna Burgess. Photo: Getty Images

But the challenge of doing something he had never done – much like the comeback to racing that many thought he might never be able to do after his crash – proved to be a challenge Hinchcliffe couldn’t pass up.

It’s not surprising. That’s the kind of Type-A personality the self-described “Mayor of Hinchtown” has. He’s always ready and game for new experiences and new life lessons.

Sure, when he joined the DWTS cast, he learned about things like the foxtrot, waltz, rumba and tango.

But more importantly, he continued his ongoing process of learning even more about himself, and how if he could come back from near-tragedy, a mere dance contest would be a piece of cake.

And in a strange twist, Hinchcliffe’s journey to finish runner-up in DWTS actually began with his admission of how he cheated death when he survived a horrific wreck while practicing for the 2015 Indianapolis 500.

Going through a tremendous battle to recover helped the Canadian native not only become a better person, it also helped give him the fortitude to take a chance he might not otherwise take, such as being part of DWTS.

“It all came from a comment that Dr. (Tim) Pohlman (Hinchcliffe’s surgeon) made,” Hinchcliffe said. “He firmly believes there was a point where subconsciously I made a decision to fight for my life.

“In the immediate aftermath of that accident, the chance of survival was very low. A lot of people wouldn’t have made it through. He firmly believes that it was because of some sort of fight inside me that helped him do his job and ultimately get me through that.

“Sharna (Burgess, Hinchcliffe’s partner on DWTS) started asking me questions about that. I obviously have no memory of that. That’s not something that you do consciously. It’s a subconscious thing. So from somewhere in the time from when I lose my memory to when I wake up, that happened, that decision to fight happened.

“(Burgess) saw that was a very, you know, important moment. That’s what she wanted to create. For me there was kind of a gap in the story because I had not really thought about that, whether it was a subconscious or conscious decision. She so beautifully built that part of the story for me.

“Now I have a visual reference to what I think happened and how that went down inside me. It was a very cool process to be a part of.”

Hinchcliffe learned a lot about himself in his Dancing With the Stars foray, among the many life lessons he's experienced, particularly over the last 1 1/2 years.
Hinchcliffe learned a lot about himself in his Dancing With the Stars foray, among the many life lessons he’s experienced, particularly over the last 1 1/2 years.

Hinchcliffe ultimately finished runner-up in the overall DWTS competition to 16-year-old Olympic Gold medal-winning gymnast Laurie Hernandez.

But no matter how he finished, the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver said the experience was much about life as a whole.

While certainly not as serious as recovering from his crash injuries, to put himself in front of millions on TV – and particularly with no prior dancing experience – took a lot for Hinchcliffe to do. And in a unique fashion, it may ultimately make him a better driver, he said.

“I think just being able to overcome the kind of fear, being outside of your comfort zone in front of such a large audience in the room and on TV,” he said.

“It will help anytime I find myself in a situation where I am nervous or anxious about going into a race or making the move or whatever.

“Any kind of opportunity to flex your mental muscles in that sense and have that kind of experience will pay dividends in your own sport.”

While the process of taking a self-professed guy with two left feet and turning him into the Fred Astaire of IndyCar racing was a challenge, it also changed Hinchcliffe’s personality for the better.

“What it’s really done for me is reinforced a belief that I had beforehand, which was that you can do anything you put your mind to,” he said. “I came into this competition obviously with zero experience in the craft, a lot of apprehensions at doing it.

“Once I committed, I focused and put 100 percent of my effort towards it. … To finish runner-up to someone that is an Olympic gymnast I think is a pretty impressive feat for someone who sits for a living.”

In yet another analogy that parallels his recovery from the 2015 career-worst wreck and the resulting love and support from around the world he received, Hinchcliffe received considerable support during his DWTS quest from many of his racing peers, including 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and former DWTS winner Helio Castroneves.

“Honestly, the support from the motorsports world was incredible,” Hinchcliffe said. “Alex and Conor were at the first show. They made it to a couple throughout.

“Charlie Kimball was there (on) the last night. The amount of tweets of support from guys in the IndyCar paddock, guys in the NASCAR paddock, guys overseas, it was overwhelming. It was great to get that feedback and see that, A, they were watching, and B, they were supporting.”

And as for Castroneves, who won DWTS in 2007, Hinchcliffe expects some good-natured ribbing coming up.

“I’m never going to hear the end of this from him, I’m well aware of that,” Hinchcliffe quipped. “That’s fine. He did a tremendous job. He did what he had to do. He was able to walk off with the trophy.

“We were not quite able to do that, but I was at least up at the sharp end, so we can still be proud of the effort.”

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A further illustration of how competing in DWTS mirrored other elements of his life, including his development as a racer, Hinchcliffe gained confidence with each passing week of the dancing competition – even though he still asked himself at times, “How did I get here?”

“The nerves never fully went away,” he said. “You certainly get more confident with the process, knowing what to expect in certain situations. That helps. Ultimately it was all still very new to me, even right through to the end.”

Not only did Hinchcliffe experience a whole new set of life lessons during the nearly three-month run of DWTS, he also experienced a transformation in himself.

“It was a lot of hard work, I won’t lie,” he said. “It was not something that came naturally. (Burgess will) be the first to tell you that every Tuesday morning when we’re starting from scratch, it was pretty rough.

“But by putting in the hours, not being afraid of a little hard work, some long sessions, late nights, repeatedly watching videos trying to improve, it’s amazing what can happen.”

Hinchcliffe came into DWTS thinking it’d probably be a one-and-done situation in more ways than one. He didn’t think he’d get past the first elimination, and yet he made it all the way to the finals before coming up just a bit short.

When the contest was finally over, again, many thought it would be a one-and-done deal for Hinchcliffe. But just like he surprised by taking on the DWTS challenge, he surprised just as much with his response on whether he would try to go through the whole process again in the future.

“It’s funny, when we were about halfway through the competition, I thought to myself, if for whatever reason I was asked to go again, I probably wouldn’t,” he said.

But …

“With what I’ve learned, how far I came as a dancer in that sense, then how close we came to the top spot, I think I probably could be talked into it again,” he said.

As Hinchcliffe puts the DWTS mirror ball in his rearview mirror, he goes forward having made a number of new friends from the show, including competitors who said they will visit him at upcoming races in 2017, including the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 in late May.

Now it’s back to his day job of being a race car driver, looking ahead to offseason testing and then the opening of the new season in March.

“Obviously I put 100 percent of my effort into my day job, into racing,” he said. “There’s no need to re-convince myself that working hard and giving 100 percent is the right way to go about that.

“But certainly not being afraid to kind of tackle new things even within the sport, whether it’s racing different cars in different series, trying to match a teammate in a certain corner with a certain setup. It’s really just about making sure that you give yourself enough credit for what you’re capable of doing.”

Will the whole DWTS experience ultimately make Hinchcliffe a better racer?

“There’s not a whole lot from a physical point of view that translates,” he said. “Maybe my feet will be a little more gentle on the throttle, but that’s about it.

“(But) there were a lot of parallels in the sense in how I wanted to make myself better as a dancer and how I would do the same thing on a race weekend as a driver.”

Yet if he drives victory lane at any of the upcoming 17 IndyCar races in 2017, particularly the Indianapolis 500, you can bet one thing.

He may be driving behind the wheel, but his feet will definitely be dancing in celebration, yet another life lesson learned.

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Butterball, Andretti Autosport extension is all gravy

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #28 Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, practices during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Andretti Autosport and Butterball, a U.S.-based provider of turkey and poultry products, announced a new expansion of their partnership. The newly revamped agreement will see Butterball branding on all four Andretti Autosport entries in 2017.

“Butterball has been a great partner since 2014 and I’m really excited to have them on board again this year,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay. “They were with me when I won the Indianapolis 500 which was a really special moment for everyone involved. Hopefully we can bring them back into victory lane this year, not only at Indy, but throughout the season as well.”

The machines of Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi, and Takuma Sato will feature branding just below the front suspension components. Per the announcement, the placement has created a new nickname for the assembly: “the Butterball Wishbone.”

“Butterball is extremely excited about our sponsorship with Andretti Autosport in 2017,” said Butterball CEO and President Kerry Doughty. “With the addition of the new Butterball Wishbone Sponsorship on all Andretti Autosport Indy cars for the 2017 season, we are expanding the tremendously successful relationship that began with Michael and Ryan in 2014 when we won the Indianapolis 500 in our first season.”

Butterball’s tenure with Andretti Autosport dates back to May 2014, shortly before Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed victory at the Indianapolis 500. Branding has been featured on Hunter-Reay No. 28 entry ever since.

Newgarden completes busy day in Detroit

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Josef Newgarden’s media prowess and charisma was again in full display on Thursday during a series promotional efforts for June’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear.

Specifically, Newgarden was in town for Detroit Grand Prix night at that night’s Pistons-Hornets NBA game.

The day began with Newgarden visiting a handful of Detroit news media outlets, where his most notable venture involved duking it out with Pistons mascot Hooper.

The day continued with Newgarden exploring more of the city, and getting in touch with its rock ‘n roll history.

That, Newgarden ventured to The Palace of Auburn Hills to the big promotional event of day, Detroit Grand Prix night. There, Newgarden was greeted with his own Detroit Pistons jersey and even tried a couple of half-court shots at halftime. However, he did not make any, making it less likely he’ll pursue a basketball career when he decides to hang up his helmet.

For an additional recap Detroit Grand Prix night, visit The Chevrolet’s Detroit Grand Prix twitter @detroitgp.

Entry lists revealed for MRTI Spring Training in Miami

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Kyle Kaiser in Miami, 2015. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The first real good, if not final, looks at the season to come in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires come with next week’s Spring Training, which sees four total days of action at the Homestead-Miami Speedway for all three rungs of the ladder.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires will run February 27 on Homestead-Miami’s 1.5-mile oval and March 2 on the 2.21-mile road course. Meanwhile the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series will run solely on the road course over two back-to-back days, February 28 and March 1.

Indy Lights’ field seems closest to being finalized from this group, while Pro Mazda and USF2000 still have some gaps to fill.

In one other bit, Mazda will announce the teams of competition for its Soul Red-liveried drivers this year, all of whom won Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarships for their next step up this year. That’s why Aaron Telitz (Indy Lights), Anthony Martin (Pro Mazda) and Oliver Askew (USF2000) teams are listed as TBAs.

Anyway, quick notes:

Indy Lights (14 cars

All drivers on the Indy Lights entry list have been officially announced, and as noted, Telitz’s team is the only significant TBA of note. Car numbers are revealed for Zachary Claman De Melo and Matheus Leist at Carlin of 13 and 26 respectively, with the known in advance.

In terms of team breakdown, it’s four each at Carlin and Andretti Autosport (with Colton Herta’s No. 98 car an Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry), Juncos Racing and Belardi Auto Racing each with two official cars and Team Pelfrey the lone one-car entry.

Of the 14 drivers, the field is split exactly in half between seven veterans and seven rookies.

Questions from here are whether one or two more cars not at this test will join the grid at St. Petersburg and push the number back up. Since the debut of the Dallara IL-15 Mazda in 2015, the St. Pete weekend has had 13 cars in 2015 and 16 cars last year, with this one falling in the middle.

Pro Mazda (6 cars)

In what’s very much a survive-and-advance season for Pro Mazda in the final year with its existing car, a small batch of cars come from Team Pelfrey, World Speed Motorsports and the team TBA for Anthony Martin for this test.

Within a 20-to-30-plus, multiple-class series of racing, six cars for one class wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. But six on their own for an independent series is certainly an issue. The number simply has to grow by St. Petersburg to at least eight at a bare minimum, the low-water mark last year, with 10 a significant step forward at this rate (the series had 12 cars at St. Petersburg last year).

USF2000 (22 cars)

Quite by contrast, the new Tatuus USF-17 premieres in USF2000 with 22 cars at this test and the potential of more cars by St. Petersburg (the series had 26 starters last year with two additional withdrawals).

Six returning drivers join 12 rookies and four TBAs on this list, all split among 10 teams. Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay, initially announced as driving for Benik in 2017, is listed in a third Newman Wachs Racing entry for this test.

Juan Pablo Montoya samples Risi Ferrari in Sebring IMSA test

during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.
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One of the best drivers of his generation, Juan Pablo Montoya’s recent run of sampling a diverse amount of machinery continues with his testing debut in the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE at this week’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship test at Sebring International Raceway.

Initially reported by Sportscar365, Montoya received the guest drive opportunity from an old colleague of his when he raced F3000. Team manager Dave “Beaky” Sims planned to put Montoya in for a few laps this afternoon to give him his first proper running in a GTE-spec car.

Montoya, a race winner in Formula 1, IndyCar and NASCAR, two-time Indianapolis 500 champion and past CART and F3000 champion prior to that, got into the low 2:00 range in his handful of laps before turning the car back to Toni Vilander, who will share the car for the March 18 race with Giancarlo Fisichella and James Calado. Times are unofficial because this is a series test.

Montoya’s race plans this year are thus far limited to the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in a fifth Team Penske IndyCar. He won the individual portion of the Race of Champions in Miami last month. He’s been linked to the rumored (by RACER.com and others), if not yet official, Penske Daytona Prototype international (DPi) effort.

A couple social posts from the Colombian’s run are below, including from Vilander, IMSA Radio pit reporter Shea Adam and IMSA timing & scoring provider Al Kamel Systems. More info from this week’s test will follow soon.

@Regrann from @imsa_racing – Juan Pablo Montoya turns a few laps in @risicomp's 488. – #regrann

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