James Hinchcliffe: Special feeling to race on my home turf
TORONTO—Greetings, all. Hinch here, checking in from the coolest city in North America: my hometown. Of course this visit isn’t just an occasion to catch up with family and friends. As it happens, me and my boys in the Verizon IndyCar Series will be racing through the streets all weekend. The main event, the Honda Indy Toronto, goes down on Sunday. American viewers are highly encouraged to tune in to CNBC at 2:30 p.m. for all the action, from the green flag to the checkers. As for my fellow Canadians? Live attendance isn’t just strongly suggested. Call it a patriotic duty. As ever, this is going to be a happening and if you can’t make it live you can watch on SN360.
It’s been a happening since at least 1988, my first ever race. I can’t say I remember a ton from that weekend—not because I enjoyed a few too many Hinchtown Hammerdown-like products, but because I was just 18 months old at the time. As for the many visits that would come after that, those have stayed with me. My dad, a big car buff, is the one who hooked me early. I remember being under the grandstands as a kid, playing monkey bars. I remember chasing drivers down for autographs as they zipped around on their scooters. It was Christmas in July.
As I got older, I developed a deeper appreciation and understanding of the actual racing. I watched Michael Andretti win, like, a million races here. I saw our home soil boy, Paul Tracy, win here in 2003—which was very cool. By that point, I was racing and had aspirations of doing exactly what he did. It’s funny to think back and look at all the different stages of my life through this weekend. I’m telling ya, it’s gonna be special.
As for last weekend, well, that was kinda déjà vu all over again. Iowa isn’t just a short oval track, it’s a short weekend boiled down to two days with a grand total of four sessions. All of them went well except for qualifying, which always puts us on the back foot heading into the race. My Schmidt Peterson teammates and I struggled to correct an issue with our No. 5 Arrow machine and, as a result, we wound up starting at the very back of the field yet again. What’s even more frustrating is that we had the problem all sorted out by the following practice. It’s unfortunate because the car had great pace, and we would’ve loved to show as much in qualifying. But at the same time, we could at least rest assured that we had a good car—one that would allow us to move up as long as we stayed out of trouble, played things smart and maybe got lucky with a yellow flag or two.
As for the race itself, we acquitted ourselves well. No, we didn’t get our timely yellow and also fell a few laps down (which happens on short tracks). But we did pick off some cars and clawed our way to ninth place—not a bad result at all considering how dominant my buddy Josef Newgarden was all day. That’s the thing about IndyCar. In a series as competitive as this, very small advantages show up big on the racetrack. When you nail it on a short track, it’s huge. When I won at Iowa in 2013, we led 226 of 250 laps. Granted, Iowa was a slightly shorter race back then, but that performance compares favorably to what Josef was able to achieve last Sunday. It was just one of those days where everything kinda came together. And he just had one of those days, which is no surprise. He and his team, Ed Carpenter Racing, were very good there last year—led a bunch of laps, etc. Whether Josef, or any of us for that matter, has enough to catch up with Penske’s Simon Pagenaud in the championship race remains to be seen.
Talk about a guy nailing it. Simon hasn’t had a bad weekend all year. What’s more, his good days are really great days that see him win races on the trot. You don’t want to say he’s due for some adversity, but how can you not at least think it? Past frontrunners never fail to stumble in this series. Last year, we saw another Penske racer, Juan Pablo Montoya, endure a couple of bad weekends at Iowa and Mid-Ohio—which allowed Ganassi’s Scott Dixon to sneak past and beat him to the championship in a tiebreaker. Very rarely do you see someone lock it down before the last race at Sonoma. Things have a weird way of working out. The racing gods seem to level everything before we get back to Cali—just to keep everyone on their toes.
This weekend is another opportunity to gain some ground on Simon. Toronto’s 11-turn, 1.786-mile street circuit is as tough to tame as any. The tightest action should be down the back straight along Lake Shore going into Turn 3, where we transition from the fastest part of the track to the slowest corner.
The brake zone there in particular always makes for interesting racing. The slight kink in the back straight is forever tempting us drives to stake creative defensive lines. Blocking is a persistent issue. You may see some controversy, you may see some contact—you’ll definitely see a whole lot of passing down. So, yeah, keep your eyes on that area and the new pit lane layout, which is now on the left side of the track down by the last complex (Turns 9, 10 and 11). It gives the track a different look and feel than it’s had in the past. But I expect we’ll figure our way through.
We have momentum on our side, after all. Sure, we got off to another creaky start last week, but we finished strong. My teammate, Mikhail Aleshin, finished even stronger, in fifth place—a result that resonated throughout the team. And to be racing this week in Canada, at my scrapbook circuit of all places, on top of that? If that doesn’t have the makings of a winning weekend, I don’t know what does.
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 some Hinchtown Hammerdown in it for you.