For my next trick: James Hinchcliffe hopes he doesn’t vanish at Barber


If James Hinchcliffe takes the green flag to start Saturday’s virtual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (2:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN or the NBCSN stream here), he will be further ahead than last week’s contest at Watkins Glen International.

Hinchcliffe has missed races before for a variety of reasons. He was severely injured in a crash before the 99th Indianapolis 500 in 2015 and was at Methodist Hospital recovering on race day. He failed to qualify for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 in 2018 and watched the race as a spectator.

But last Sunday, Hinchcliffe and his No. 29 Genesys Honda disappeared from the starting grid of as the IndyCar iRacing Challenge opener before the race ever began.

It literally vanished from the screen. Disappeared without a trace.

Hinchcliffe’s alien abduction could have been a case for the “X Files” or “Unsolved Mysteries.”

“I’ve had cars not start on the grid, and I’ve had throttle pedals stick on the grid, but I’ve never had a car disappear off the face of the earth before the start of a race,” Hinchcliffe told “It reminded me more of St. Pete 2011.

“It was supposed to be the first start of my IndyCar career, but I didn’t have sponsorship yet, so I didn’t have a car. I was there but didn’t have a car.”

The part-time driver at Andretti Autosport can laugh about it now. But he was crestfallen after spending so much time preparing for last Saturday’s race, only to have a technical malfunction keep him from competing in the first race of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge.

Even the NBC Sports crew of announcers including Leigh Diffey, Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell did not know what to make of Hinchcliffe’s disappearance from the screen. The IndyCar on NBC booth will return as the virtual Barber Motorsports Park will be televised Saturday on NBCSN at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Hinchcliffe plans to have his car on the grid and ready to race after iRacing pulled a magic trick last week by making him disappear.

“Yes. I’m very confident we have fixed the issue and the No. 29 Genesys Honda will be on the grid,” Hinchcliffe said Friday night. “How far up the grid? I don’t know, but we’ll be on the grid.

“I don’t know what the issue was, but we had been having small glitches all throughout the week of practice and didn’t think it would lead to what happened. With the changing of the rig, it was an Internet speed connection issue or a buffering issue. We should be in good shape this weekend.”

Hinchcliffe believes part of the problem was the rig he was using last week. He does not have a rig at his home but will be using a more advanced sim rig this weekend thanks to the generosity of an Indianapolis businessman and gaming enthusiast.

“I’ve been very kindly loaned the use of a rig by a buddy of mine in downtown Indianapolis,” Hinchliffe said. “I travel downtown during the day and spend a few hours on it getting ready. I’m on my way to do the Indy 250 tonight.

“It’s at a facility that had just opened called the Paddock Indy Club. They have two high-quality sims there. It got shut down when the state got shut down. They reached out to me after my debacle last weekend and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got two sims and a closed facility. We’ll unlock the door and let you use it.’ ”

Just like everyone else during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has brought nearly all professional sports to a halt, keeping surfaces sanitized is a top priority.

Because Hinchcliffe is using a sim rig at another facility than his home, he has been assured everything has been disinfected as part of social distancing practices.

“It’s been a huge concern,” Hinchcliffe said. “When the owners of the facility reached out to me, they told me it had been closed for over two weeks, and nobody had been inside. They opened the door and sanitized the entire unit. I could tell because the steering wheel was still damp from being wiped when I got there.

“They come back after I leave and re-sanitize it again. I don’t see anyone while I’m there. They come in after I leave and take care of the equipment. I feel comfortable doing what I’m doing.

“My wife is ultra-vigilant on following all the rules and all the instructions and guidelines. Our whole life is Clorox Wipes and Purell bottles. My wife has taken to Clorox wiping down everything that she buys.”

When the NTT IndyCar Series was black-flagged for the start of the season on March 13, it created tremendous uncertainty with the competitors. The burgeoning eSports industry (specifically iRacing) jumped in to fill the void.

It started out as a fun diversion but quickly has become serious business. Many of the NTT IndyCar Series drivers spend 10-12 hours a day practicing on iRacing in their sim rigs.

“I’m in a bit of a different boat because I don’t have a rig at my house,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s a double-edged sword. I’m not able to spend quite as much time on it as the other guys, but the other side of it is I’m not able to spend as much time on it as the other guys.

“It’s nice not having it occupy every waking hour, because know I’m as a competitive guy as the rest of them, but I got to do other things today, too.”

Hinchcliffe admits, he would love to be able to spend enough time to properly prepare for each race. But he is also in the first year of his marriage to his high school prom date, actress Becky Dalton (pictured above).

Harmony at home is just as important to Hinchcliffe as winning a virtual race. But he has seen his fellow IndyCar drivers become immersed in the competition.

“That’s the tough part,” he said. “At first, we thought it would be fun and tide us over and give us something to do it on Saturday. But you can’t just wake up on Saturday and even compete. It does spark that competitive drive.

“That is part of the battle I’m facing. I want to be on it 10 hours a day to get better. I’m watching guys get better by going out there and pounding around. I don’t have the freedom to do it, though.

“Our sport is the one sport on Earth where you are not allowed to practice. We get four days of testing for the entire offseason, and some drivers are doing 10 hours of practice every day. It’s a unique situation for us and the drivers love doing it, but you have to remember, there is life to live and families to take care of.”

The benefits of a full field of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, along with the addition of seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson in a virtual Indy car, has kept auto racing relevant during the pandemic shutdown.

If and when real-world racing resumes, auto racing could benefit by remaining in public view in the eSports world.

“It’s been beneficial for our sport,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s a huge shot in the arm, not just for the sim racing community, but for motorsports as a whole. You can’t give a group of hockey players NHL 2019 and then televise the game. That’s not the same thing. This is much, much closer to real life than any of the other possibilities out there.

“This is huge for us. It’s the only live sporting event happening right now, so hopefully it does get us a few fans.”

The hope is IndyCar and other forms of racing are exposed to a younger audience of gamers. When real racing returns, perhaps they will want to experience IndyCar or NASCAR in real life.

“I think it is two-fold,” Hinchcliffe said. “You will get some attention from the younger crowd, the gaming crowd, and get some people interested in checking out the real thing. You will also get the older sports fan of stick and ball sports watching because it’s something live.

“It’s not a replay of the 1974 Super Bowl, it’s live action with the athletes. Sports fans that are craving some actual live competition can watch this and hopefully we will get some fans out of them.”

For now, Hinchcliffe’s career as a part-time driver and rookie broadcaster for NBC Sports has been delayed. But he intends to return to both, once the season resumes.

“It’s such a bizarre year,” he said. “I was in for a weird year myself, anyway. Now, I’ve brought everyone in with me.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”