The Interview: James Hinchcliffe

Norman Wong/Sportsnet magazine

Kristina Rutherford chats with IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe.

To do your line of work, do you have to be a little bit, well, crazy?
A lot. While you’re doing it, you don’t think about it. Then you get out of the car, the adrenalin slows down, and the logical side of the brain kicks in again. And you’re like—that’s absolutely insane. Why would any reasonable, level-headed individual strap themselves into one of these rockets and fly around a concrete race track, with 25 other jackasses doing the same thing? You absolutely have to have a screw loose.

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You have to be physically fit to drive a race car. Wait, why are you smiling?
Before you read up for this, did you think drivers were athletes? We work out six days a week. Those G forces that your body’s facing, that takes an incredible amount of muscle. The cars don’t have power steering. Let’s say my car weighs 1,500 lb. Through a corner, 4 Gs weighs four times as much, so it’s closer to 6,000 lb. and all that force comes through the steering. The car’s trying to turn itself into the wall. Hockey’s really intense for your shift; then you sit. We’re flat out for anywhere from two to four hours. Your heart rate gets up there, a buck 60, a buck 70, a buck 80. You need the cardio of a marathon runner.

What’s it like to rip around a corner at 380 km/h?
You feel all your guts go to the right side of your rib cage. There’s so much force on your insides that you have to hold your breath, because if you relax your core and lungs, the forces push the air out of your lungs and you’re not strong enough to inhale until you’re out of the corner. But because a lap [at Iowa Speedway] is only 16 seconds long, more than half of that lap you’re in the corners. If it’s a two-hour race, you’re holding your breath for more than an hour.

What’s going through your mind when you’re about to crash?
It is the biggest sense of helplessness you can possibly imagine. It would be like watching a family member get pushed off a building, and once they’re in the air, you know you can’t do anything.

Have you ever thought a crash would be your last?
We’re really lucky. My mom used to get a lot of crap from other moms when I started racing go-karts. They would say, “How could you let your kid do that? That’s so dangerous.” The worst injury I’ve ever had is when I was go-karting, I separated cartilage between two ribs. And every day one of my friends comes home with a broken leg, twisted ankle, missing tooth. Football, soccer, volleyball, lacrosse—pick a sport, every single one of them had an injury. I had nothing. My mom was like, “Who’s the bad parent?”

Why do you think you’re a fan favourite?
[Laughs] Aaaawkwaaaard! This is when somebody who’s really good at the humble brag would be perfect, and I don’t know how to do that.

I’m inviting you to be pompous. Let’s hear it.
I’ve got one of the coolest jobs in the world. So many people in the business look like they’re pissed off all the time, and I don’t get it. What we’re doing is serious and competition is stressful, but if you can’t detach from that a little bit, you’re actually going to lose your mind. I take my job very seriously, but I’m myself.

You have a new sponsor and newly painted blue-and-white car. Are you going to miss that GoDaddy green?
Oddly, yes. Most people would be like, “Oh, you don’t have to wear bright neon green anymore, lucky you!” Well, yes and no. It was so easy to spot the car. But I’m very excited about United Fiber & Data. It’s a very atypical tech company; the guys in charge are rock stars. They’re the founding members of the band Live.

I wondered why a bunch of tech nerds would sponsor you. But maybe you’re a nerd?
I went to space camp. That’s about as nerdy as it gets.

Will you wear spectacles to better represent your sponsor?
No, but I have recently purchased a pocket protector.

What do you drive on the street?
I’m not one of those guys that spends his money on ridiculous sports cars. The way I see it, I’ve got an even better car to drive on weekends on an actual race track.

You joke, but I almost did. My girlfriend wouldn’t let me. The Honda Odyssey is unbelievable—it’s got three TVs, a vacuum cleaner built into it. We road trip to a lot of the races—talk about comfort! But I drive an Acura MDX. It’s black.

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