LEXINGTON, Ohio—Hey guys and gals. Hinch here, writing from Buckeye country. After taking a bit of time off, the IndyCar Series gets back to business this Sunday with the running of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. It goes green at 2:45 p.m. E.T. and airs on CNBC. You don’t wanna miss it.
The last time we corresponded, me and my mates on the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson machine were gearing up for my hometown race in Toronto. If you haven’t heard, I came in third. It was a huge result, equaling the season-best effort I posted in the Indy Grand Prix back in May. And it was satisfying on so many levels. Until that moment, my streak of bad luck in T.O. was staggering. I’ve had an engine blow up on me while running for a win, a throttle linkage give out before another race even started. In six years of trying, I never finished better than eighth there.
It seemed like I’d be in for a struggle again this year. The configuration of the track was changed for the first time in around three decades, which threw everyone for a loop on day one. The following morning, we opened the next practice session on a tire strategy that didn’t pay off and sunk like a stone down the time charts. But, to my team’s enormous credit, we rebounded in time for qualifying and secured sixth position—the top Honda in the field. For our plucky crew, which had endured the additional misfortune of starting the last two races from the very back of the pack, to get that high up the grid was huge.
Early in the race, I had some good wheel-to-wheel battles with Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya, Carpenter’s Josef Newgarden and my own teammate, Mikhail Aleshin—who’s afraid of absolutely nothing. (Actually, I think he’s afraid of less than nothing. If there was a way to do that, Mikhail would do it.) But then something fluky happened after our first pit stop that disrupted the balance of the car, which caused us to fall down the order. I mean, we were really struggling to keep pace.
At this point, we had to gamble and pit again, earlier than normal, for fuel and tires. The bet was that Toronto, a street circuit that has a tendency bring out yellow flags, would hew to form and allow us to maximize our efficiency play. You could see the strategy pay off as we cycled back up to the sharp end of the field.
As laps went by, the efficiency conversations became more intense. My guys were not only giving me the fuel numbers I had to hit, but also telling me where other drivers who were on our same strategy play were. One guy whose name came up a lot was Ganassi’s Tony Kanaan, who led a chunk of laps and slotted in just behind me after a late pit stop for fuel only. I thought for sure he was gonna pass me again because I was saving like crazy.
The fuel number was changing every lap or two depending on how well I was doing each lap. (I mean, it’s amazing how my right foot can affect the MPGs in these racecars.) I didn’t have enough gas to defend. As it happened, TK didn’t have enough grip to catch me. Then suddenly, as I’m about running on fumes, the yellow flag comes out with four laps to go after Montoya and Foyt’s Jack Hawksworth crash.
It sets up a restart with two laps to go that had me so nervous. I’m in third position, on no fuel. TK’s just behind, breathing down my neck. And behind him is Foyt’s Takuma Sato, who may well have a better car than us both. The green waves, and we get a great launch behind the Penske cars of Will Power and Hélio Castroneves and gap Tony pretty easily to hold on for a podium finish. Finally, I can say I’ve had some good luck at Toronto. I can also say we had a great after party with family and friends as well. It meant so much to be able to give a community that’s been so supportive of my career something to cheer for.
Speaking of things to cheer for, on Sunday night, after you’re done cheering for me in this weekend’s IndyCar race, be sure to save some of your voice for me, TK, Hélio, Will and my bud Conor Daly as we play Family Feud! We’ll be taking on SI Swimsuit models Nina Agdal, Samantha Hoopes, Tanya Mityushina, Robyn Lawley and Hannah Ferguson. The episode airs at 8 p.m. E.T., and it’s super funny. TK and I went into it as huge fans of the show. And so we took it pretty seriously. We were explaining the rules to the other guys, trying to make sure everyone was as briefed as possible—which is always a challenge with Hélio. Just like at the drivers’ meeting, he was asking questions after the topic had already been discussed. It was a lot of fun. Steve Harvey is a great host and just as hilarious in person as he comes across on TV. You’ve gotta see how it plays out.
As for our Sunday matinee, that’s going to be tough. You don’t see a lot of wheel-to-wheel action at Mid-Ohio. It’s a tough track to pass on. Still, the flow of that place is so nice—very Road America-esc, Laguna Seca-esc. Just a beautiful, natural terrain road course. The hotspots to watch, so to speak, aren’t the same as maybe a traditional street circuit or some of the other road courses we get to. If I’m attending as a fan, I’m parking up in Turn 5 in the sort of natural stadium section there, coming off the back straight through Turn 4, up the hill into 5, down the hill into 6 than off the distance through 7 and 8. It’s a super impressive place to watch an IndyCar go because you really see the art in the sport: the incredible speeds through, the sudden braking, the tires clawing through the corners—and all as the elevation changes throughout.
Strategywise, it’ll be a track position race for us. It’s how I led my first IndyCar laps there as a rookie in 2011 and how I landed on the podium the last time I was here, in 2014. I think we can get there again this week, especially now that I’ve got a little luck on my side.
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.