James Hinchcliffe has occasionally said if he wasn’t a race car driver, he’d be an astronaut – so he clearly has a love of aviation even though his day job involves driving a land speed rocketship, the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
But Hinchcliffe got a taste of the skies in an entirely different way earlier this week, riding shotgun in Kirby Chambliss’ Red Bull airplane. Chambliss, the American veteran pilot, leads the Red Bull Air Race World Championship points standings at the moment.
From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.
But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.
What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.
Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.
“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.
Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.
Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.
Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.
“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.
“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”
The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.
“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.
“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”
If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).
For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.
With his own future beyond the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series yet to be sorted, James Hinchcliffe has instead hailed current team Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for handling turmoil in the team’s second car in an “incredible” manner.
Alas, it hasn’t all gone to plan. Since the break after the Texas race in mid-June, Hinchcliffe, in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, has had three different teammates in the sister No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda and has not had the same teammate for consecutive full race weekends since Detroit and Texas in June.
The instability in the second car has left SPM having unofficially adopted the “TBA” moniker from Dale Coyne Racing – the two teams even poked fun at each other about it on social media earlier this week – but Hinchcliffe said the team has handled a difficult situation well.
“There’s no doubt it’s a bit of a distraction,” Hinchcliffe admitted to NBC Sports. “We say it time and time again. Continuity is one of the keys to success in this sport. A lack of that on the other side of the garage does hurt… but, everyone at SPM has done an incredible job of managing that.
“Luckily Blair (Perschbacher, engineer) and Sebastian worked together in Indy Lights; so they have a relationship there. I’ve worked with Sebastian before. This particular scenario is almost a best-case scenario for when you find yourselves in this position. So, credit to the team and Sebastian for making a less than ideal situation as painless as possible.”
Hinchcliffe and Saavedra have been linked for most of their careers, and now get the second opportunity to work together as teammates.
From both racing in Formula BMW and Indy Lights in their junior open-wheel careers, the two were teammates in 2012 when Hinchcliffe was in his first season at Andretti Autosport and Saavedra drove for Andretti’s Indy Lights team, plus three IndyCar races.
“He ran with Andretti in Lights my first year there and he did a few IndyCar races there, I know Fontana and Sonoma, and a couple other races,” Hinchcliffe recalled.
“I’ve known Seb since he was 18. It’s great to have him part of the team. He did an exceptional job, I think, at Toronto. It was much different than the Toronto than he remembered. It’d been quite a while since he even turned right in IndyCar. He was quick and mistake-free all weekend. Really, it’s ovals he’s done more of the last few seasons. We have no reason to expect him to do anything less than that these next two.”
The 2018 season is a natural topic of conversation for both Hinchcliffe and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. SPM has worked extra hard in preparing the Honda-powered 2018 Dallara universal aero kit, tested by Oriol Servia, which has featured rave reviews.
A free agent at year’s end, it remains to be seen whether Hinchcliffe will re-up with SPM or test the waters elsewhere, but he seems confident about both elements as it sits with four races left in 2017.
“June 1!” Hinchcliffe laughed when asked of a time frame for sorting out his next season plans. “Of course that’s not quite how it goes. There’s a lot of things can be distractions off-track on any given weekend. But at drivers we’re pretty well tuned to block it out and focus on job at hand. That’s what we’ve been doing.
“I think things are going well. There’s no time line necessarily, but I want to get it wrapped up sooner than later. It’s heading in the right direction. So hopefully there will be some news in the not too distant future.”
Heading into Pocono specifically for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Hinchcliffe sits 10th in points and hopeful the team’s pace from last year doesn’t, like at Indianapolis, go missing. Aleshin won the pole and finished second; Hinchcliffe started sixth and finished 10th.
“Indy was a big mystery to us; we’re not sure what caused it,” Hinchcliffe said. “But not unlike Indy, this race could turn into a handling race. (Last year) Hunter-Reay put on more downforce and drove around everybody, and he was still good out front.
“In the 500, we made moves. The outright pace for us might be similar to what we saw. Qualifying might not go as well, but I’m confident we’ll get the car mechanically in a good spot.”
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe has endured a tough run of races since his win at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. In the nine races since then, he has only had three finishes inside the top 10, with two crashes (Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway) and an engine failure (Detroit Race 2) featured in that stretch, in a season that became somewhat defined by bad luck.
However, the Honda Indy Toronto brought about a welcome change, with Hinchcliffe qualifying sixth and then catching a lucky break when he pitted right before a caution flew for Tony Kanaan nosing into the turn 1 tire barriers.
From there, Hinchcliffe cycled back into the top five, where he stayed for the rest of the race to finish third, his second consecutive podium finish in his home race.
“The yellow just came at the right time but we had the pace at the end there,” Hinchcliffe told NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis afterward. “We were catching Alex and Josef in that last stint. The car really came alive on the blacks so big thanks to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, all the guys – great stops — and all the fans in Toronto. I mean the support that we feel each and every year is amazing. You guys are the best! You came even when the weather wasn’t looking awesome and hung out with us and we appreciate it. So thanks to all of you guys. Next year, maybe a couple of spots better.”
What’s more, Hinchcliffe’s podium completes a strong weekend for Canadian drivers across the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.
Red Deer, Alberta native Parker Thompson won both races in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda for a Canadian team, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based Exclusive Autosport, while Montreal, Quebec native Zachary Claman de Melo finished second and third in his outings in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.
Combined, the results of Hinchcliffe, Thompson, and Claman de Melo made it five podiums in five open-wheel races at Toronto, with a Canadian driver on the podium in every race.
“It’s great to get two podiums here in Toronto,” said Claman de Melo following his third-place finish in Race 2. “I’ve raced karts here since I was 8 years old and it’s like my second home. I’ve hit my rhythm, so things are starting to really come together for us now. The speed has always been there but we’re qualifying toward the front now, which makes the racing a lot easier.”
Thompson, meanwhile, was beyond elated to sweep both races in USF2000. “I’m surprised I still have a voice! What a feeling, to get two in ‘TO’ in front of the Canadian fans! I’d say this is unbelievable, but it’s passed that now and into its own new realm,” he revealed in Victory Lane.
For Hinchcliffe, the third-place finish puts him back in the top 10 in the championship, two points ahead of 11th-place Max Chilton.
This weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC) isn’t James Hinchcliffe’s 100th Verizon IndyCar Series start – that came last weekend at Iowa Speedway – but it is an excellent opportunity for him to pick up an elusive first win on home soil.
Consider street courses have been where Hinchcliffe and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has excelled most this season and you have a recipe, in theory, for more success.
Hinchcliffe has started third, fourth and fifth in the four previous street races this year and has led all 47 laps he has this season in three of those four.
He could well have won at St. Petersburg if not for an ill-timed yellow flag, did win at Long Beach and then rebounded from a first-lap spin at Detroit race one to bank his second podium of the year there.
A nice third place last year, in third courtesy of both pace (qualified sixth) and luck (got a lucky yellow) saw him on the podium for the first time in his home race and only fueled the desire to go two better this time around.
“Obviously this is on the top of the list of races we want to win,” Hinchcliffe told NBC Sports. “We got a bit of a taste of it last year, which made us that much hungrier. In the past we had horrible luck. Last year wasn’t just pure pace; we did have a lucky yellow.
“Street courses have been our strength by a significant margin this year. We haven’t been outside top five in quals, and St. Pete would have been a podium if not for the yellow. This track is very different to those. Always has been. Being good at Detroit doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good here. Hopefully you have a good handle on it.”
Hinchcliffe’s season overall has been plagued by bad luck and has seen him drop from a top-three points position down to 12th entering the weekend, which isn’t entirely representative of his pace.
Despite an 8.6 average grid position, Hinchcliffe only has five top-10 results all year – and just two of them in the last eight races after opening ninth, first and sixth out of the gate.
One of them came last week at Iowa, in 10th, which wasn’t bad and something of a nice course correction after getting taken out at both Indianapolis and Texas and having a late race mechanical issue at Detroit race two.
It also featured a highlight reel moment as Hinchcliffe split the gap in a three-wide move getting around Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, a pair of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams drivers. On reflection, Hinchcliffe said the hair-raising move might not have been the smartest.
“It wasn’t my smartest move!” Hinchcliffe laughed. “I tried to make it happen for a while. But big credit to Charlie, who gave us both room.
“I’d been stuck behind TK, and it was kind of a desperate move, but I was lucky we got out of it. It’s one of those things where you chalk it up to experience and move on all good!”
Understandably, the home race for Hinchcliffe packs a year’s worth of pressure and anticipation to perform ahead of his home fans. But just as Hinchcliffe was drawn to the series as a young fan at the Honda Indy in the 1990s, he fully understands the magnitude of being the hometown hero in the motorsports mad country of Canada, and he embraces how important it is to give back.
“Luckily I’m far enough into my career and have done it enough times that I know what’s expected of me, and how to handle the situation in general,” he said. “It’s always exciting to come home. This race made me fall in love with IndyCar and for me it’s a privilege to race in it.
“I think what works really well is having a good team of people. I’m not good at saying no – I want to do everything – so between the team and Fi (Hewitson, Hinchcliffe’s assistant) we have a good support system that helps me out and keeps us on schedule.”
Hinchcliffe’s philanthropic work is also on display during the Honda Indy weekend thanks to his Honda Canada relationship and its partnership with the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Canada. Hinchcliffe explains:
“I get to do a lot of different things throughout this week. But the thing I look forward to the most is with Honda Canada and Make-A-Wish. We do a lot for the organization, we bring a group of kids to the track, and I spend some time with them.
“It’s always the most rewarding thing. There’s no group you’ll get more inspiration from. It’s such a special thing to be a part of that, and give a bit back to those kids
“What we do with the (firesuit) is we put it up at the Honda world exhibit, and then the race suit I race with, that one gets auctioned off. You do every bit you can to help the cause.”
This will be Hinchcliffe’s seventh start in the Honda Indy after past runnings there in Formula Atlantic and Indy Lights previously. His first Honda Indy race, in 2011, came in his rookie season where there was the beginning of the changing of the guard among Canadians – NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy made his final Toronto start and Alex Tagliani made it three Canadians in the field.
That season stands out as one of Hinchcliffe’s ultimate highlights in his 100-start career, because of the magnitude of what it meant going forward to him.
“Certainly winning rookie-of-the-year in 2011 is one of the highlights of my career,” he reflected. “You only get one shot at that, and we missed St. Pete, and we weren’t sure if we’d make it to Brazil and Japan. Both were last-minute deals.
“But we got the result the last race of the season. That was a big rookie class (JR Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball, Ana Beatriz, James Jakes, Sebastian Saavedra). There five other full-time guys. It was a huge achievement.”
Back to this year, Hinchcliffe is confident the luck will turn for the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda as it heads into the final six races of 2017.
“If we keep doing what we’re doing, and not to try do more, or engineer ourselves out of a good place past what we’re capable of doing; we should get these results. We’d done pretty well all season. The results should come back. We didn’t have anything go wrong at Iowa… so it’s nice to not have that hanging over our heads. Keep executing on Sundays and we’ll be back.”