IndyCar's James Hinchcliffe: Setbacks have their upsides
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LONG BEACH, Calif. — Hello from the Left Coast, the grandest stage in sports at the moment. In the last few days alone, it has played host to Kobe’s fine NBA farewell and the Golden State Warriors’ historic 73-win season. I can’t think of a better way to cap off the week than with a little IndyCar action—the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which you can catch on NBCSN at 4 p.m. Eastern if you can’t make it out to the 11-turn, 1.968-mile idyll to check out this street race in person. But, really, if you’re in the area and can come out, you should. There’s no place like Long Beach.
This is one of my favorite tracks, my favorite events. When you hold an event 41 times, you get pretty good at hosting it. The track is very well sorted for a street course, which has bred many high quality races. A few of those have been truly special for me. I had my first Indy Lights win (in 2010), my first IndyCar top five (in ’11), my first IndyCar podium (in ’12); I’ve started on the front row (in ’14). I’ve had some good times here, for sure. And I could use a few more after a weekend to forget in Phoenix.
Where to start … Two Fridays ago. We here on the Schmidt Peterson No. 5 Arrow team went into the weekend with what we thought was a solid package after the open test in February. The plan for the practice was to simulate qualifying in our Honda machine—a fairly standard opening move on oval circuits. But on lap three of that run, after adapting to some minor understeer in the car to that point, I lost it in the middle of Turns 1 and 2 and hit the wall hard. (Don’t worry. I’m fine.)
We had some new aero bits on the car that we found out, after the fact, had produced wind tunnel results that didn’t match up with what was actually happening on the track. Wind tunnel testing is an imperfect science; we understand that. It was just an unfortunate set of circumstances. But we weren’t the only ones to get turned around by these new pieces. About 10 minutes before I wiped out, Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato endured a similar event. (He came out of his OK, too.)
My crash definitely put our team on the back foot—the worst way to start out that two-day event where track time is limited. We missed qualifying and had to start the race from the back of the grid as a result. But our guys did an incredible job getting the car back out for the last half of the day. I mean, no amount of praise for this effort feels like enough for our team—sort of a phoenix in itself, rising from the ashes time and again. Due to the hot conditions and a couple of other unfortunately timed things, we were a couple of crew guys down. We lost a guy to dehydration, and another when a piece of metal got stuck in his knee and prompted a hospital visit to treat an infection. We were so shorthanded that we had to call my dad in for relief! Luckily, Papa Hinch (photo, left) was hanging out and more than happy to pick up the slack.
As for the race, we were obviously hoping to make up a little bit of ground. We knew it was going to be tough because from what we had seen in practice, passing was going to be a challenge. What’s more, when the race started, we had an issue with the front wing that took us a solid two pit stops to work out. By that point, we’re running around on the tail end of the lead lap. What’s worse, during the second round of stops, we ended up catching a really bad yellow while two laps down. After that, we were just along for the ride. Even though we got the car to a much better place by the end of the race, we were out of moves to make. Our 18th-place finish isn’t indicative of the effort we put forth or the speed we genuinely thought we had in the car.
From there, it was back to Indianapolis for a test—of metal and mettle, you might say. It was my first return trip to the Speedway since my big accident last May. Comfortingly, the most dramatic part of the day was probably the drive up that morning. Once I got there, I immediately fell back in the routine of what we always do—week in, week out—regardless of the track, regardless of whether we’re testing or racing. It’s not like the first laps were any harder or had given me any more trepidation or anything like that. The irony that had me chuckling was Turn 3, the scene of the crime, was actually the first corner I got through flat as I was getting up to speed. Everybody was probably thinking about it 10 times more than I was, which is fine for me.
I acknowledge and accept that until we get through the race, it’s going to be a story. I welcome it. The fact that so many people wanted to help me tell the story is something I’m very appreciative of. Some really good things have come out of the whole situation, like the safety enhancements made to the Indy cars and some new initiatives my team is undertaking with blood donation. (We’re gonna have some exciting details on that pretty soon.) So it’s hard to look at everything in a negative light. But the thing for me is that we want to put on a good enough show and produce the type of result that gets people talking about our performance from June 1 onward.
But before that, we have to get through Long Beach, which (fingers crossed) hews to form and does not disappoint. As ever, qualifying is going to be important here—though you can take some risks with race strategy if qualifying doesn’t go well because there are going to be yellow flags. That’s an inevitability at Long Beach. You can play those to your advantage if you’re not running up front. We see it every year. This race is all about paying attention, adapting and executing.
There’s a lot of time to be gained in Turn 1—a big brake zone that’s the best passing opportunity on the track. Turn 5? That’s a completely different sort of deal because you’re crashing into these massive curbs. How the car absorbs those curbs, how it lands off the curbs—there’s a tremendous amount of lap time there and beyond on the ensuing straightaway, where there’s another ripe passing opportunity before turn six. And then of course you’ve got the famous hairpin, the slowest corner of the entire season for us. That means you’re spending the most time in it because you’re traveling so slowly through it. Any small gain in speed in a corner like that has massive effects on the stopwatch.
So this figures to be a fun one. Our team is rested, ready and looking forward to our time in the sun.
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.