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AVONDALE, Ariz.—Greetings from the Valley of the Sun, home of the dry heat. I have come here not for baseball spring training or for the golf or to browse the time-share market. I have come here to race. The start I’ve got coming up this Saturday, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (which you can catch on NBCSN at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time), is going to be huge. Not only is it the first of five (!) oval races on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar, but our series hasn’t run on this one-miler since 2005—when a not insignificant number of my rivals were still in short pants.
For me, growing up a big IndyCar fan, Phoenix always stood out. I remember Nigel Mansell going there, and it was his first time racing ovals. That was a big deal. I remember Jacques Villeneuve had a big accident there. (EDITOR's note: The author spun out and wrecked during the first practice there on Friday, but was not injured.) For whatever reason it was just one of those staple circuits that had some remarkable finishes. On Saturday, I’ll finally get my chance to contribute to this hallowed history.
The opportunity could not have come soon enough. You might say that all of us on the Schmidt Peterson Arrow No. 5 Honda are eager to turn the page after our inauspicious 2016 debut at St. Pete. Nineteenth place certainly wasn’t the fairy tale ending to the weekend that we had wanted—more like a firm reality check that we’re back to racing. Still, I take comfort in the fact that that result didn’t come about because of any mistakes on our end.
We were kind of innocent victims in a first turn contact that cut a tire during the first lap. Otherwise, the car had good pace, and the team did a great job on pit stops. And then just when it seemed as if we might get back on pace with the lead lappers, we unfortunately got caught up in that Turn 4 mess later in the race as well. We just had a day that really didn’t go our way, but (and it pains me to say this because it’s so cliché) that’s racing. I’ve always said that this sport is about focusing on the things you can control and putting out of your mind the things you can’t. Three Sundays ago, we were hit with many things that were outside of our control. But at least we came out of it with our health. In this sport, that’s never a given.
Will Power’s non-concussion scare was yet another reminder of this. The good news is that he came out of that whole episode OK, and that IndyCar safety minders did exactly what they were supposed to do: err on the side of caution—which, really, is no surprise if you’ve really been following this sport. IndyCar has been on the forefront of concussion safety. The impacts we suffer are considerably harder than most other sports in terms of the g-forces. We know it doesn’t take the full force of an IndyCar accident to cause a concussion.
Certainly, we’ve done more in terms of helmet and headrest technology to help dissipate energy than any other sport. We were also the first to introduce ImPACT, the first to introduce baseline testing—the list goes on… And I can personally attest to the significance of those measures. I suffered a huge concussion in my infamous Indy accident and was knocked out by a huge piece of debris the year before. Head injury is an issue that I’m hypersensitive to. I consider myself lucky that I’m not dealing with an organization like the NFL, which remains unnecessarily stubborn about safety equipment technology.
I know they’ve adjusted some of their competition rules to avoid helmet-to-helmet contact and things like that. But the fact of the matter is their helmet technology is so antiquated, and better solutions exist. Yet there’s an aversion to change, which I find absolutely shocking. Their players should find that appalling too and speak up louder than I think they do. Meanwhile, in racing, we have Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeting about donating his brain to CTE research. For the record: I would do it, too. Anything to help the cause. I think it’s a great idea.
But first, I’ve got to wrap my head around Saturday’s race. In our series, we do oval races that are hot—like Texas. We’ve had hot races at Indy and at Fontana. But those are much less physical tracks than short ovals like Phoenix. It’s crazy to think that we were lapping that track in just a fraction over 19 seconds during our spring training session down here in February. We’re experiencing between four and five g’s over half a lap—a tremendous amount of force on the body.
On top of taking take that beating over 250 laps, we also have to make adjustments to our cars. I mean, you’re just so busy over the lap between the dogleg in the back straight there. It takes 50 percent of your straightaway time away from you essentially over the lap. It’s tough to even keep on top of the car and make changes to the roll bar, make changes to the weight jack. All those things, you have so little time to think about them and physically execute them compared to some of the bigger ovals.
This is going to be a very challenging race for us. Qualifying is going to be incredibly important, just because passing might be a bit of a premium—mainly because we haven’t raced there yet to know how things are going to go. During the February test, it was difficult to overtake. I think managing tire degradation, in-laps and out-laps in pit stops, and fuel strategy are going to be some major keys to the race.
So tune in! It’s going to be an exciting contest—perhaps even a prescient one, too. (Apparently, winners have gone on to win the championship nine times.) Certainly all of us on the No. 5 car will be doing our part to make it another one to remember.
James Hinchcliffe is a veteran IndyCar driver and your new best friend. You just don’t know it yet. Check out his website, Hinchtown.com or follow him on Twitter @hinchtown. There could be a round of Hinchtown Hammerdown in it.