From mid-September to late November last year, James Hinchcliffe lived in Los Angeles.
“The Mayor of Hinchtown’s” full-time residence is in Indianapolis and his home is Oakville, Ontario, just outside Toronto. But it’s L.A. where Hinchcliffe made a visit to the national spotlight over his star turn finishing runner-up on “Dancing with the Stars.”
It’s his star turn at L.A.’s home race on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar, though, where he looks for his next trophy. The streets of Long Beach (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN) have long been a highlight of Hinchcliffe’s career, at a race track where he’s competed for more than a decade.
It was in 2006 that Hinchcliffe made his debut at Long Beach in the Formula Atlantic series, finishing third ahead of eventual fellow IndyCar drivers Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal in fourth and fifth. In 2010, he scored his first Indy Lights race win there from pole.
A year later in 2011, he banked his first career IndyCar top-five finish of fourth with Newman/Haas Racing in just his second start and the following year he made it to his first IndyCar podium in third with Andretti Autosport, trailing race winner Will Power and Pagenaud.
The Long Beach results haven’t been as great since. Crashes took him out of the 2013 and 2014 races, and lackluster 12th and eighth place results have occurred the last two years.
But given the level of continuity and year-to-year improvement from the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hinchcliffe back in the Firestone Fast Six this go-around and back on a podium he knows rather well.
“It’s one of my favorite events of the whole year,” he told NBC Sports. “Indy doesn’t count and Toronto I’m biased, so those are obviously up there. But this place is going on 43 years for a reason.
“The track is amazing. Having hosting F1 and become an IndyCar staple, all the greats have won there. Like you said, I’ve had a bunch of success there. I have a lot of happy memories at that place. It’s usually treated me pretty well. People get behind it so much, and I think it’s second only to Indianapolis.”
Hinchcliffe’s year-to-year progression in qualifying is notable because at St. Petersburg, his first year with SPM, he qualified 16th. That became eighth last year and this year, was third, although a bit had to do with the newer spec Honda power unit at St. Petersburg compared to last year.
Long Beach, too, should trend in the right direction if that form holds. He was 13th on the grid in 2015 and seventh last year. He qualified in the top-10 on the grid the previous three years there too, although in 2012 started 16th as a result of the then-10-spot grid penalties assessed to teams that made pre-race engine changes.
Results aside, and ninth was an unfair result for a very likely podium or potential win had Hinchcliffe not been caught on the wrong side of a Lap 26 caution, the St. Petersburg weekend may have been Hinchcliffe’s best yet with SPM.
“It speaks volumes of efforts of how we’re growing as a group. St. Pete was one of our best weekends,” he said. “The end result wasn’t what we wanted. But we didn’t make any dramatic changes. It went from top-10 in practice, to the Fast Six, then did what we did in the race from what we could control.
“In that sense it just shows we’re growing as a group. Hopefully it’s a trend. Last year there were many races where we had good car and good weekends, but we also had some outliers where we were out to lunch.”
It’s been a busy stint since St. Petersburg for Hinchcliffe. Since the season opener he’s tested a DTM car in Italy, tested his IndyCar at both Barber Motorsports Park and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, and also done advance media for Long Beach.
The Barber test was pivotal, Hinchcliffe said, because of how the team is adapting to a new tire from Firestone this season.
“It was a positive. I’m glad we went because this tire is different,” he said. “We spent a day ‘blowing up’ our Barber setups. But now the new tire threw us a bit for a loop. It was tough to get a grip on. We didn’t use overtake on our fast laps. We’re not worried just yet; I feel like we have some good direction.”
Hinchcliffe also has two continued positive elements in his off-track life. Girlfriend Becky has started attending more races on site, while Hinchcliffe’s brother Christopher has just released his first book, Chasing Checkers.
“She’s amazing. She’s my rock,” Hinchcliffe said of Becky, who’s an actress by trade. “She has a great understanding of what this kind of business is like. There’s a lot of highs and lows; rejections. A lot of crazy schedules and things you have to do, places to go.
“To have someone who is by your side to understand that, as you have a dream career is huge. She was such a big help to me with the show being out in L.A., and me having literally no time on my own. Having her there was tremendous to get through every day.”
As for his brother?
“We’ll see how accomplished (an author) he becomes,” Hinchcliffe laughed. “It’s funny… it’s something Chris put together on his own with observations of me wanting to be a racing driver, and hopefully there’s series. It’s not about me… but it’s about a young Canadian kid who wants to become an IndyCar driver. Some drivers are definitely based on others from my age and I read it and I went, ‘I know who that guy is based on!’
“You know what, when I had a chance to read it… it’s aimed at young adults, it’s not ’50 Shades of Gray.’ I think he did a tremendous job.”
Hinchcliffe will look to do his own tremendous job back in his day job for Round 2 this season, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, as he searches for his first podium of the year and perhaps another win on the famous street circuit.