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INDIANAPOLIS — Welcome to the Circle City, my hometown for the last seven years. Everyone here has been in the Christmas spirit since the calendar clicked over to May. That’s because we’re getting closer and closer to racing’s high holy holiday, the Indianapolis 500—which promises to be bigger and better than ever when the Verizon IndyCar Series runs through it for the 100th time on Memorial Day weekend. Of course there are plenty of boxes to tick on the to-do list before we get to May 29, not least of them being this Saturday’s race—the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, which you can catch at 3:30 p.m. Eastern on ABC. For those of you who are coming into town for the festivities, let me apologize in advance for the overpowering friendliness you’re likely to encounter upon arrival. We’re a very excited bunch.
The vibe at the Schmidt Peterson shop has remained no less upbeat in the two weeks we’ve been back from our last race, the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama. For the second straight race the No. 5 Arrow Honda was good right off the truck, which makes the job over the course of the weekend so much easier. We can focus more on getting more out of the package, getting the most out of me.
I was definitely a little frustrated after qualifying eighth. I probably left a tenth out there, which would’ve been enough to get us into the Firestone Fast 6. But a lot of guys could say the same in terms of woulda-coulda-shoulda. Getting a perfect lap at Barber Motorsports Park is just so difficult.
Nonetheless, it was a decent result and set us up well for the race. I had a couple of good battles—especially with Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan. On our team’s second pit cycle, Kanaan beat us back out to the track and we just didn’t have enough to get around him. (It’s tough to pass at Barber, too.) That’s kinda what separated our good day from being a great day. Still, the result—a sixth-place finish, our highest so far this season—was strong all around. The guys were unbelievable in the pits; we had a couple of smokin’ stops. Even though at the end of the day I think we had more pace in the car than a sixth place, it’s nice to know we have it. As long as we can keep rolling off the trailer like that, we can put ourselves in position to start fighting for podiums.
Since that race we’ve had a couple of weeks of downtime that was anything but. The Verizon IndyCar Series made headlines after announcing that this year’s Boston race is off the schedule, but another date in China might be in the cards for after the season. I’ll address the Boston news first. It’s tough to lose a city with that much prominence. More than anything, I’m disappointed for the IndyCar fans in the northeast who were looking forward to having a race in their backyard. That said, we’ll see what the series comes up with in terms of finding a replacement. I know there have been some discussions going on for some time. I’m not worried about having a cool racetrack to go to. That’s the good news. We’ll put on a good show wherever we go. Boston’s loss will be some other city’s gain. (Editor's note: That other "city" will be Watkins Glen, NY, which IndyCar has selected as the site of the replacement race.)
As far as China, I’m gonna wait until I’m actually on a plane. That’s not a judgment on the series at all. It’s just that I raced in China myself (in a bygone series called A1 Grand Prix) and know how hard it is for any racing series to stage an event there. But like I said, I’ll happily race an IndyCar anywhere in the world, any day of the week. But I’m not gonna start counting my chickens on that one until I’m sitting in seat 37F or whatever on my way to Beijing with a cocktail to take the edge off of a long, cramped flight.
Speaking of cocktails, last Friday was the release party for The Bricks IPA, a fresh beer I stirred up in conjunction with the Indy-based Flat12 brewery. It’s different from my regular pour, Hammerdown—which is a pilsner-style beer for light, easy drinking. The Bricks is meant to pay homage to the 100th Indy. We threw in centennial hops, used milk sugar for a bit of body, aimed for an IBU of 100. It’s hoppy, it’s bitter—seemingly not unlike the Brickyard some days.
The finished product, I think, is something that we all can be pretty happy with and proud of. (Shout-out to brewmaster Sean Manahan!) Last Friday’s release party was great, too. We had a racing simulator set up there for fans to challenge me. At the end of the night Conor Daly, the Dale Coyne Racing pilot and my good friend, showed up. I’m happy to report that despite his many more hours spent video gaming in life, I managed to wax him in that racing game—Project CARS. He was very upset. But that’s not going to stop me from bragging about this as much as I can.
This Friday, before the Indy GP, I’m joining forces with Methodist Health Foundation, the Indy Family Foundation Festival on Main, the Red Cross and Dallara for the Hinchcliffe Hundred Blood Drive. From 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. we’ll be taking all donations, with a goal of reaching 100 units. There will be giveaways, and I’ll be stopping by after I’m through with my on-track activities—which, of course, I’m looking forward to as well.
This’ll be our third year running the Indy GP, a race that you could say brings out an element of senioritis in us drivers. On the one hand you’ve got the biggest race of the year, the 500, looming over the horizon. On the other hand you can’t overlook the GP, which is worth the same amount of points and prize money as any every other race but the 500. We need to make sure we’re not letting one slip through the cracks in terms of preparation and being in the right place mentally. So it’s a challenge, but one that we’re slowly getting used to.
The same goes for the circuit itself—a 14-turn, 2.4-mile puzzle that rates among the more fun race tracks to solve. The performance that we can get out of the cars there is awesome. Because we have to trim down the long straightaways (the transition from the last turn to the first, the other straight between Turns 7 and 8), it makes some of the fast corners there (the esses of Turns 8, 9 and 10) a bit more of a challenge. For example, you can come off Turn 14 (a.k.a. Turn 1 on the oval circuit) thinking it’s pretty straightforward—and on new tires, by yourself, it is. But when it starts getting late in the day and maybe your tires are spinning and you’re running in dirty air, that easy flat out corner becomes quite a handful. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Because of the long straightaways, the Indy GP is tough on fuel mileage. I think we saw with the inaugural how Simon Pagenaud, the IndyCar series points leader who used to be my teammate before he drove for Team Penske, won in 2014. Fuel came into play last year as well. You might say we have extra incentive to get to the podium this weekend.
Shaken by the wildfires that have devastated Alberta and the city of Fort McMurray in particular, I’ve decided to donate any winnings from the GP to the Canadian Red Cross for the relief effort. We’ve got a lot of friends and colleagues out there. Rick Peterson, the co-owner of my team, is based in that part of the world. It was too big a deal for me to sit around. So I’m gonna do what I do best—go fast. And when I’ve got someplace to be, you don’t want to be in my way.
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.