LONG POND, Pa. — Hey, everyone. Hinch here, writing again (finally!) after another long but welcome pause in the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. Now we hit the home stretch, a four-race sprint to the finish that’ll unfold in less than a month’s time. It all starts Sunday with the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, a 200-lap feature that frays equipment and nerves like no other. Be sure to catch it at 3 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN if you can’t make it up here in person (which I always strongly encourage).
But before we get into this weekend, let me catch you up on some of the things that have happened since I last checked in. First, there was the race at Mid-Ohio, a bit of a roller coaster weekend all around for my Schmidt Peterson teammates and our No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda machine. Practice started smoothly enough. But then in qualifying, the clouds moved in, and the plot thickened. Anticipating rain, we made a gamble on tires that got us all the way up to second on the grid for a time.
Ultimately, we settled into ninth position, a result that had us feeling pretty confident going into the race. But then right as we set off, for a combination of different reasons, we lost the balance in the car and fell back a ways. What’s worse, we were caught out by an early yellow, which dropped us farther down—to damn near last. Adding insult to injury, when we did finally get the opportunity to come in for service, I was caught speeding in pit lane and was sent to the very end of the line as a consequence.
Thankfully, the Mid-Ohio race is long—long enough for us to overcome what was shaping up to a Murphy’s Law kind of a day. By the second set of stops, after making big changes to the tire pressure and the front wing, the balance returned. As the laps wore on, we outraced some guys and capitalized on others’ mistakes. All that grinding got us back into the top 10 by the last pit cycle. With a bit more effort, we crossed the finish line fifth. If you had told me that, after running last with a little more than half the distance of the race to go, we’d pull out a top five, I would’ve called you crazy. But it just goes to show that you can’t give up. More often than not, perseverance, good work in the pits and smart decisions on the track will win the day.
While we’re on the subject of winning, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the dominant performance that my four IndyCar driver cohorts and I had against a team of SI swimsuit models a few weeks back on Celebrity Family Feud. It’s funny: We’re so used to beating up on each other. But put us in a situation where we’ve gotta work together, and we’ll make it happen. Tony Kanaan and I went into show as the biggest fans. We knew all the rules, the strategy and briefed the rest of our team—Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Conor Daly—on the dos and don’ts. We had a good mix of people in terms of how they thought and the answers they gave. I mean, Will, who doesn’t have much of a filter on his dirty mind, definitely got some answers that I didn’t expect to be up on the board. But, hey, they polled America and he was right. So good on him.
The reward for our victory was $25,000 to our charity of choice—the Indy Family Foundation, which is near and dear to the hearts of everyone in our community. The Indy Family Foundation helps people in motor sports, regardless of the sanctioning body, who find themselves in financial need because of illness, injury or death. It’s unfortunate that we have to have something like this, but we all acknowledge and accept the very real risks that come with this sport. We were reminded of this at last year race at Pocono, when my dear friend Justin Wilson died in a freak on-track accident. And we were reminded of this yet again when Bryan Clauson died in a Sprint car race a couple of weeks ago.
Bryan might not have been a full-time Indy driver, but he was definitely one of the boys. One of my favorite conversations with him was ultimately one of our last ones. It was at a Firestone event that we all do during the Month of May. When I was seated next to him during an autograph session, I just had so many questions for him about his attempt to run 200 races in a year—an effort he called Chasing 200. Hearing how he was going about it was just so fascinating to me. I mean, we all love driving racecars; no doubt about that. But I don’t think there are many guys in the IndyCar paddock that would be able to go out there and do it for potentially 200 nights a year.
He was telling me these stories about driving six nights in one state, packing up the motorhome and driving to some other state, racing six more nights, driving the motorhome somewhere else… I mean, that’s a grueling schedule no matter how much you love your job. There’s a reason why no one’s done it. Yet he described all this with such ease. He wasn’t worried about it. There were almost no parts of the journey that he wasn’t looking forward to. It was a lofty goal to be sure, but I admired so much the drive he had in him to try and get it done.
That he’d even agree to run a program like that is just incredible—no matter how much you love racing. Everybody needs time to recharge. But at the end of the day, he didn’t. He just loved it that much. That’s a rare quality, for sure. To keep his memory, and his mission, alive, we’ll be running a “Still Chasing 200” sticker with Bryan’s initials and number (88) on the nose of our No. 5 machine at Pocono.
Now, about that race: It’s probably the most difficult oval that we go to just because of the difference in radius and banking between Turns 1 (14 degrees), 2 (8 degrees) and 3 (6 degrees). Getting an Indy car to feel good on a high bank and a flat track over the same lap is no mean feat—which is why Pocono is a track that can bite you. Turn 1, especially, can be very challenging. I’ve crashed there before and seen some big hits there. Same goes for Turn 3, as far accidents in qualifying and during the race. It’s a very, very tough track whether you’re by yourself or in traffic. And, oh by the way, it’s 500 miles long.
Still, I think, like most 500-mile races, it’s easy to forget that patience is the key. We learned that lesson yet again at Mid-Ohio—which, while a long race, is still a good deal shorter than this one. (Five hundred miles is a long, long day.) It’s comforting to know that if we don’t have the best car or if we make a mistake on pit road, we can recover. With Bryan on my nose this week, giving me extra incentive to keep it clean, I’ll be biding my time in hopes of enjoying one more celebration with him.
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.