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Great memories, great motivation greet Hinchcliffe upon return to L.A.

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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.

LONG BEACH, CA – APRIL 15: (L – R) James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #27 Andretti Autosport Dallara Chevrolet, Will Power of Australia, driver of the #12 Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet, and Simon Pagenaud of France, driver of the #77 Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports Dallara Honda, celebrate with a lap of honor after repectively finishing second, first and third during the IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15, 2012 on the streets of Long Beach, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

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.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Are Saying about Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

Helio Castroneves leads the field early at last year's IndyCar race at Road America. Photo: IndyCar.
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Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (courtesy IndyCar Media Relations):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love? These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Road America is a pretty cool track. It is one of my favorite tracks in the world and my favorite track in the U.S. Last year, I had a great weekend there in Indy Lights, winning the first race as well as the pole position. Each time we work together as a team, we are developing the car and getting quicker. I think we might have a great car for this weekend and I’m looking forward to it.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Road America is one of the coolest tracks in North America. It’s the kind of track that lets you really stretch an Indy car’s legs and really push it. We had a solid test in the Arrow Electronics car there last week, but testing is one thing and racing a whole other, so I’m excited to get there and see what we’ve got.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another. While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. It’s been a great last few races for the team, and it shows we have the speed in the cars we need in order to win and compete at the front. I hope we can keep up the momentum this weekend with the First Data car. It was nice having a weekend off in the schedule, and the team will be refreshed and ready to attack at Road America.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was awesome to have some time off after the long stretch – especially to spend time with my wife and son on Father’s Day. It was really great for me and the rest of the team. It has been quite a whirlwind for everyone since Indianapolis, so it is nice to have the schedule calm down a bit. Texas was a tough one for myself and the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team. It was disappointing but we are ready to bounce back. Road courses are always so much fun and this is definitely one of the most beautiful tracks on the circuit. The fans at Road America are such great INDYCAR fans and I really enjoy meeting them when we’re there. I always look forward to this race and am ready to get back on track there.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I love going to Road America for a number of reasons. It’s a very cool, fast and challenging track. The fan experience is one of the best in America and it’s the closest INDYCAR race to ABC Supply’s headquarters, so I’m expecting to have a lot of support during the weekend.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We tested at Road America and it went well in the end. We didn’t start off the best, but I do think we found a few things that can really help us as we go forward. I am excited for this aero package on a long track like Road America. I think the passing will be great, the cars will look awesome and will be fast! I have spent a ton of time at Road America in my lifetime and just find it to be the best track in this country. I am excited to join my dad and all of my family up there this weekend to enjoy the races just like we always have done growing up! I have always enjoyed the race there and I think that’s why I have had some success. Having said that, a win would mean a ton to me. I would love to get it for my GEHL team this weekend! With GEHL and Manitowoc being so close by, it’s a huge race weekend for us too. I have high hopes for the next eight races. We have had a solid start to the season but no wins. We need wins, we need podiums, and I hope we can make that happen here very soon.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite tracks on the schedule. I have great memories racing there as it’s where I won my first Indy Lights race last season and it’s a circuit I’ve always done well at. We’ve made some great progress so far this year, but have not yet had the chance to show it with a good result aboard our No. 19 Paysafe car. Hopefully, we can change that this weekend and give the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing crew the top result that they deserve.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I’ve been on the simulator twice now learning Road America, which was good as I learned what way everything goes. It looks like it might be quite a tough circuit. There are a couple of blind corners that will be difficult and also some elevation changes. Those always add another element of difficulty into the mix as you have to judge your distance by things other than being able to see where you’re going. It will be nice to get back on a road course after a bumpy street course. Overall, I’m looking forward to Road America. It should be a good challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Road America is always a track I look forward to going to. It’s one of the best venues on our schedule, for sure! I’ve always enjoyed it, ever since I started racing there in Skip Barber, and it’s a great place to drive an Indy car around. It’s the hometown race for our partner Direct Supply and we’re really excited to have them on board. Hopefully, we can get a good finish for them and the whole ECR team.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a nice little break but now I’m fully focused and ready to head to Road America. After having a really great finish at Texas, the entire No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team and I are pumped to go to Road America. It’s one of the most beautiful tracks we get to visit and the racing is also great. I just love road courses. It’s also always great to see so many of our friends from Menards up there, so I’m looking forward to saying hello to a lot of folks. The fans at Road America are some of the best, and I know we’re going to put on a great show there.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “It’s great to come back fully recharged and ready to get after it at the KOHLER Grand Prix. We had a couple of good results earlier this month, and I’m feeling really confident in how this Carlin team is progressing in its maiden Verizon IndyCar Series season. I’ve always enjoyed Road America, since my days in Formula Ford – from the challenges of the course to the camping and fan support, it’s just a classic event on our schedule. I’ve come away with a couple of top-10s here since INDYCAR’s return to the track, and I have full faith in the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet team that we’ll be racing up front on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Road America is a track that has been good to me in the past. My last time there was in 2016 in an Indy Lights car. We set a track record, won the first race and finished third in Race 2. I’m hoping that speed helps us out in the Indy car this weekend. The last two weekends have been good for us, as far as progress as a rookie. We were super competitive at Detroit and ran in the top three at one point in Texas. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that momentum and have a strong finish at Road America to start the second half of the season off strong.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses in the world. I am very excited to be heading there this week as it is also the one track on the schedule that I have a huge amount of history and track time at. We have always had strong pace in Elkhart Lake, but never really gotten a result, so we will be looking to change that this weekend and hopefully close up the gap to the top of the points.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “Road America has always been one of my favorite tracks on the INDYCAR schedule. The DHL team had a strong race here last year, so I’m looking forward to building on that and the momentum we’ve had as a team through the last several races.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We tested at Road America last week and I think the test went well. It was a little confusing as there were two specs of tires and the difference of each was more than expected, but we were able to cover multiple setups and found a good direction.  There were not enough teams to directly compare at the test but we made a good progress, so I believe we should be competitive at Road America. I enjoy driving there so much but I don’t have a strong history at the track. I had a good race in 2016, but an electrical problem blew our race. Road America has a couple of ultra-high-speed corners like the carousel, kink and unsighted Billy Mitchell Bend. They are definitely some of the most challenging corners. The track flows so well and has a combination of a tight bend with a long straight followed by big braking areas that makes a great overtaking opportunity, so the racing is always an exciting one there. That’s one of my favorite parts and the fans are so enthusiastic!  Driving this fast track is just huge fun. Road America is a beautiful, great race course.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “I am very excited for my first Verizon IndyCar Series race this weekend at Road America. We had a great test there last week. I was able to learn a lot about the car and the strong Chevy engine. I am looking forward to getting back in the car on Friday and seeing what we can do this weekend.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “After a much-needed break, I can’t wait to get back to Road America. It’s a track I’ve felt very comfortable with since I started in INDYCAR in 2016 and my results the last two years have shown it with two seventh-place qualifying runs and a top-10 finish last season. The whole Carlin team is really starting to gel and our results just keep improving every race weekend, so I’m hoping we can put together a good run this weekend for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet in Road America and get both cars into the top 10 for both qualifying and the race.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a track I love racing at. I’ve had many race wins in other series there and it is one of my all-time favorite tracks. I’m really looking forward to getting to race there in an Indy car with Harding Racing and hope to have our best result of the year.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses to drive. The fans there are great and it helps make for one of the greatest settings of the year. Each year, we have a team cookout with my crew where we can just relax after a busy month and a half and reset ourselves for the rest of the season. It would be great to walk out of this weekend with a podium finish for the U.S. Concrete team and continue our forward momentum.”