TORONTO — You can excuse James Hinchcliffe for speeding along Lake Shore Boulevard and up Ontario Drive en route to a media appearance Monday to promote the upcoming Honda Indy Toronto.
Hinchcliffe is just super stoked for next month’s Verizon IndyCar Series race and any chance the 30-year-old from Oakville, Ont., gets to zip around parts of his hometown street course he can’t pass up.
The Honda Indy Toronto is Hinchcliffe’s “Christmas in July,” but for now he’s waiting (im)patiently through “Advent” and settling for those brief, blazing moments he gets behind the wheel of a sick Honda Civic Type R.
“I look forward to it every year, but every year when I come here for this day it just gets me that much more amped,” Hinchcliffe told Sportsnet. “You’re on the grounds, you see the walls go up and even just doing those two corners in this thing, I’m like, ‘Ah man, I want it to be tomorrow.’”
A lifelong gearhead, Hinchcliffe has attended the Toronto race since he was cruising in a different type of four-wheel mode of transportation as a toddler in a stroller. Meeting his idol Greg Moore stands out as his most cherished moment as a fan, but that’s just one of many Hinchcliffe can recall vividly.
“Honestly my earliest memory is my best friend at the time and me using all of the bars underneath the grandstands as like a jungle gym,” Hinchcliffe said with a laugh. “I was always very fascinated with the cars and all the rest of it, but in between sessions we’d just go horsing around in there and normally got in trouble for it. I remember chasing Mario Andretti through the Enercare Centre, or whatever it was called back then, trying to get his autograph and chasing him on his scooter.
“I obviously remember meeting Greg. I remember one of the PacWest cars back in the day was at the fuelling station and we were able to walk right up to it and get very close to it. One of the mechanics actually pulled the steering wheel off and let me hold the steering wheel. It was the first time I got to hold an IndyCar steering wheel, which was the coolest thing ever. There’s a bunch. I came here every year from when I was 18 months old on so I’ve got a lot of memories here.”
Hinchcliffe raced around the track during his Atlantic Championship and Indy Lights days on his journey to the majors, but it wasn’t until his rookie IndyCar season in 2011 when he had that awestruck moment.
Nice to get some down time in this beautiful city. #HomeSweetHome #5FromThe6 @beckydalts
“It was amazing. That’s what I’d been working on towards for so long,” said Hinchcliffe, who won IndyCar’s Rookie of the Year award that season. “You get the chance to race here in the junior categories and all that stuff and that was obviously very cool, but it was always the goal to be in the main show.”
The 2011 season was also the swan song for Paul Tracy, and Hinchcliffe said one of the really cool things about the Honda Indy Toronto that year in particular was racing side by side with the “Thrill from West Hill” as if the metaphorical torch was passed from one Canadian driver to another when they banged wheels.
“Paul was kind of in that transition period at the end of his career and I got to say I raced against Paul Tracy in Toronto and we even ran into each other just to make it that much better,” Hinchcliffe said. “It made it a full experience in that sense and it was great to be able to get to race against him here because this is his town, he’s the only guy who has won here from Canada and was such a big name here. I mean, I followed him and cheered him on religiously for so long that it was cool to drive against him like that.”
Hinchcliffe has run away with that mantle now as the lone Canadian on the IndyCar grid and his popularity has skyrocketed since his debut. The self-proclaimed “Mayor of Hinchtown” has gone from overseeing a tiny hamlet of fans to a bursting metropolis thanks to his outgoing, media savvy personality, not to mention his runner-up finish last year on Dancing with the Stars.
Still, Hinchcliffe hasn’t forgotten what it was like being on the other side of the fence.
“The population of Hinchtown has grown exponentially, there’s no doubt, and it’s amazing. I was always that guy that was cheering on the Canadian driver and now I’m that Canadian driver and it’s kind of a surreal changing of roles,” he said. “I think back to those days and what it meant to have a guy to cheer for and I want to try and do as well as I can for the fans here to give them somebody to cheer for. You do put on a little bit of extra pressure here because although it pays the same points and prize money and everything else, whatever happens here the emotion is heightened.
“So whether it’s a really good day it feels better, but if it’s a really bad day it feels worse. You’re just hyper-focused on trying to make sure it’s a good day.”
Hinchcliffe’s love of the Honda Indy Toronto hadn’t always been reciprocated until last year when he came in third, the first time he finished on the podium at the race. It was a huge moment for Hinchcliffe and has only driven him to deliver an even better performance this season.
“I’ve had such bad luck here and in the years where something bad didn’t happen we’ve had average cars and average finishes. It hasn’t really been one of our standout events,” said Hinchcliffe, who drives the No. 5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry. “Last year started off really well in the sense that we got into the fast six in qualifying, which I had never done here before, so we were excited for the race. I’ll be the first to admit in the race we missed it. We missed the setup and we were actually going backwards, so we went off strategy and we caught a yellow that really played into what we were trying to do. We got the track position and luckily we made the car better in the pit stops. We were able to hold on and get that podium. It was the first time I really had a proper lucky break in this town, so at that point I was willing to take it to be up on the podium.
“I remember coming around Turn 11 on the last lap and seeing fans in the grandstands standing up. You’re normally only looking at the racetrack and I saw it out of the corner of my eye. It’s just such a cool experience. It really motivates me that little bit more now even to try and win here just seeing how the crowd reacted for a third.”
Hinchcliffe sits 10th in the championship standings although his placement is a tad misleading as a few bad breaks over the past few races have hampered his chances of scoring points. Crashes knocked Hinchcliffe out of the Indianapolis 500 and Texas races while an engine failure punted him from Part 2 of the Detroit doubleheader. Hinchcliffe has had a couple highlights this year, winning at Long Beach and bouncing back from an opening lap spin in the first Detroit race to finish third. If not for those unfortunate early exits Hinchcliffe would be right up in the thick of the title chase with points leader Scott Dixon and defending champ Simon Pagenaud.
“From a performance standpoint it’s been great. The last four races we’ve DNF’d three of them, two of them I got taken out and one of them I had an engine failure,” Hinchcliffe said. “In Texas I honestly thought we had a really good shot to win that race. Indy I thought we were going to pull off a top six or a top seven and Detroit we were around the same place. So three solid finishes and in every single one of those races something went against us. We worked against penalties in pit lane, we worked against the spin in Detroit and managed to bring that back to a podium.
“As a team we’ve been operating really well. When stuff goes wrong we don’t let it get to us. We put our heads down and focus on what we’ve got to do and it’s worked out. I think the effort that we’ve been putting forward as a team has been great, the speed’s been there, and we just need to keep doing that and eventually our luck will change.”
Given that Hinchcliffe’s top two finishes this season have come on street tracks, one may think that should bode well heading into Toronto. Hinchcliffe is still approaching the race with a cautiously optimistic point of view, however.
“We’ve had really good street course cars, qualified in the top five for all four races so far, we’ve won one of them and third in another so it’s been a good run on the street tracks, but Toronto is so unique,” he said. “The amount of different surfaces that we have, some brand new and some I think haven’t been touched since 1986 or when we started. The bumps and everything about it is so difficult to set up a car for and drive around with that setup, so we’ll see. It certainly doesn’t suck having a strong street course car, but that doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to be good here.”