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 NBCSports.com. “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.”