After accident, James Hinchcliffe is on ‘best vacation you never wanted’

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Most of James Hinchcliffe’s days revolve around one big decision:

Spend the majority of the day sitting on the couch or laying in bed.

“It’s very stressful and strenuous, as you can imagine,” Hinchcliffe joked from his Indianapolis home in a Wednesday teleconference.

The rest of the day, the 28-year-old Canadian driver devotes to the recovery process.

Some days involve the self-proclaimed “space nerd” reading science-fiction novels provided by Indy Lights driver and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate Jack Harvey (the latest being “The Martian” by Andy Weir), counting how many steps he takes in a day (“Today I’m up to 2,400, which is slightly below my best of just over 4,000. That was a good day.”), spending time his with his girlfriend, Kirsten Dee, and watching good, old-fashioned television.

“Daytime television sucks in this country,” Hinchcliffe says, later observing, “It’s almost like the best vacation you never wanted.”

When he chooses to sit on his couch, Hinchcliffe doesn’t have to look far for the reminders.

The get-well cards, from friends and fans, across the country, line his mantle and a book shelf.

That’s in addition to the text messages, emails and social media comments he’s received since his wreck four weeks ago.

“I get to sit there and see reminders of people that care about you, people that are wishing you well,” Hinchcliffe said. “For me, part of my motivation to get better is for the people that took time to reach out to me as much as anything else.”

While the messages remind the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver about those who care about his well being, they also serve as a reminder about “how close it was to being a different story.”

According to the Red Cross, the average adult body holds 10 pints of blood at a given time.

In an interview with SportsNet (via the Indianapolis Star), a Canadian sports cable network, Hinchcliffe said he needed about 14 pints of blood while an ambulance carried him the 3.8 miles to IU Health Methodist Hospital from Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 18.

Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Honda had crashed in Turn 3 during practice for the Indianapolis 500.

While the Holmatro Safety Team worked to remove Hinchcliffe from the car, it found a pool of blood beneath him. A wishbone from the underbody suspension connected to the wheels had pierced the tub of his car, and then his upper-left thigh.

“I’m not sure if it’s some sort of defense mechanism or biology taking over,” Hinchcliffe said. “Despite being conscious throughout the whole process, I have mercifully been spared any memory of the accident whatsoever, of the extrication. Even the first couple days at the hospital are a bit of a blur.”

It wasn’t until five days later, hearing first-hand accounts from family members and doctors, that he began to realize how serious things had gotten.

At one point, Hinchcliffe told SportsNet, a doctor would “casually” inform his family “He might not make it.”

Doctors would tell Hinchliffe that if the wishbone had struck him five millimeters in another direction, he might not have survived.

Hinchcliffe said Wednesday when he finally woke up in the ICU, he knew he had been in an accident and that “I was somewhere I probably shouldn’t be.”

Attached to a ventilator, Hinchcliffe could only communicate by writing on paper. That’s how he communicated to team members about the crash and how he asked about when he could race again.

Exercise isn’t a priority in Hinchcliffe’s recovery, not yet.

That will come four to six weeks after he undergoes one last surgery in about two months on his abdomen. Then he’ll be able to work on gaining the 12 pounds of muscle mass he’s lost in the last month.

Right now, he’s permitted to work on his forearm strength so he’ll be ready to grip a steering wheel. He can also use an elliptical machine, which was the first big step in recovery. Other than that, it’s the couch or counting steps.

“Obviously when you have had injuries, you’re not using your legs as much, the more you clot,” Hinchcliffe said. “The fact I had a complete oil change (blood transfusion) makes that more of a risk as well. The chance to get off the blood thinners, alleviate the risk of clots.

“Movement is very good. At the same time you don’t want to overdo anything or aggravate anything. That has been a big challenge, trying to stay active, but at the same time giving the body the rest it needs to recover, making sure you don’t push it too hard.”

Another part of his recovery, at least mentally, is racing.

Since his May 18 crash, the Verizon IndyCar Series has ran four races and Hinchcliffe has been able to watch. He even gave the command to start engines for the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway via the “Big Hoss TV” on the backstretch.

“I think it has helped,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s kind of the sitting down and turning the TV on and watching the race. I love having it to watch. I’ve still been kept as part of the team. I’m still getting the pre and post-race reports. I obviously have a vested interest in it. It does make it a little bit more interesting to watch.”

Hinchcliffe has seen the video of the crash many times and he’s talked with his engineers. He’s also been to his team’s shop, where he looked at the racecar that could have been his last.

All of it in effort to better understand what went wrong.

“It’s equal parts fascinating and terrifying, to be honest,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was literally one of those one in a million situations. The part that failed is a part that we have almost no recorded failures of ever. I know a lot was spoken about mileage of pieces, this, that and the other in the aftermath of the crash. I know a lot of teams changed rockers, whether they were mileaged or not, after my accident.”

But the crash, as dangerous as it was, isn’t deterring him from returning to the car. Hinchcliffe says his determination comes down to how drivers are programmed.

“I think it’s because we’re all absolutely insane, wired wrong,” Hinchcliffe says. “We’re all competitors. This is what we live to do. Despite the fact that something of this nature happened, it’s something that we all acknowledge can happen.”

Hinchcliffe says there’s relief in knowing the crash wasn’t because of driver error. However, it’s also “sobering” to know that something out of your control has such a significant impact on your life.

“That’s the nature of the beast,” Hinchliffe says. “That’s the game we play. We play it willingly.”