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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.”

Firestone 600 - Practice

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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John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

Photo: Dreyer and Reinbold Racing
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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”