Friday September 2nd, 2016

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Folks. Hinch here, writing from the lovely Finger Lakes region. They don’t lack for great scenery up here. The feature you’re gonna want to check out first is IndyCar’s Grand Prix at The Glen—a 60-lap screamer around an 11-turn, 3.37-mile course that’s as iconic as they come. The green flag waves Sunday, at 2:37 p.m. Eastern. You of course can catch all the action here in the flesh, or plug into NBCSN. Either way, you will be entertained.

Before I get into why, let’s backtrack a few weeks. Let me catch you up on what’s happened since the last time I touched base with you, right before our race at Pocono—which turned out to be a solid weekend for the overall Schmidt Peterson crew. My teammate, Mikhail Aleshin ended up P1 and P2 in the first practice; Mikhail held his position through qualifying while I dropped to sixth—a reasonable starting spot. We didn’t have the pace in our No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda machine that Mikhail had in No. 7 car. (He did a great job. Everybody on his crew deserved that pole.)

As we settled into the race, I didn’t have the best balance to start. But if there’s an upside to the streak of rough starts we endured earlier this season, it’s that you can tune a car that doesn’t start awesome on pit lane. So we did and were able to maintain fifth, sixth place. But then at about lap 125, 130, somewhere in there, one of the screws on the right side engine cover came loose and created not only drag, but—because of the way it disturbed the air flow—made my car incredibly loose.

It’s about the worst problem you could have at Pocono, a long track that makes for short pit windows. Since we really couldn’t afford to come in too, too early to address the problem, we suffered for a couple laps as I labored to keep the car off the wall. When our pit window finally opened, we spent it furiously tacking Bear Bond to the afflicted area. When that’s happening during a green flag pit stop, you know your race has kinda gone sideways. We lost a bunch of time in that sequence, which knocked us quite a bit down the order. But eventually the car came back to us a little bit, enough for us to rally up to tenth for the finish.

From there, it was on to Texas, to complete a weather-shortened race we had started already started. The stretch of time—77 days, in fact—that had passed between the final attempt made for some fun one-liners. My favorite is still the fact that Gabby Chaves, last year’s rookie of the year, was 22 when he started the race and 23 when he finished.

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It doesn’t matter if it’s one day between flags or 170. It doesn’t matter that I was leading the race at the time. As soon as you have to pack up and leave a racetrack, the rhythm is ruined. The back and forth made the structure of the weekend very challenging for teams. The conditions were different, and our practice time was limited. And yet, the team, to its immense credit, picked up right where we left off. The car was an absolute rocket ship. We had some really good battles with Ryan Hunter-Reay and Hélio Castroneves, made some pretty clean green-flag pit stops, built on our lead to the point of putting some cars a lap or two down. I mean, we were untouchable.

But then after the final pit stop, the yellows started. And as is always the case, cautions breed cautions. We had really put a lot of effort into building a car that was going to be good on the long runs. Taking care of our tires was key. The guys who do it best are the ones who wind up standing on the podium with a cowboy hat and a pair of six shooters in his hands. So that’s what we did, and did well by a good margin, and did despite being vulnerable in the short run to guys who had better off-the-line pace. We were beating guys like Ed Carpenter and Tony Kanaan.

Cut to nine laps to go. Tony and Graham Rahal pit for tires. We don’t because we’ve taken good care of our rubber, enough that we feel like we can still maintain our lead. It really came down to timing, crossing the line every lap. Tony was on there on the line inside of me, which kept us a nose ahead. The whole thing was working out. But then Graham showed up and ruined it. He was able to clear Tony and, down the back straight, get a full draft for the first time. (Up until that point, they were side-by-side down the back straight.) Meanwhile, I was doing the best I could to get even half a draft.

Once Graham was able to clear Tony, he could sneak right up behind me. And with the momentum he had, he could’ve picked, high, middle or low. He was getting by no matter what. In the end, he pipped me by a nose, by eight one-thousandths of a second after I had dominated for 188 laps. It was a heartbreaker, a tough pill to swallow for sure. My first words over the radio are not repeatable.

Still, once all of that frustration settled down and I laid down that night and thought about it, those last nine laps were an absolute blast. The fans got to see all the elements: desperate tire management, the ebb and flow of a race, and a flat out dash to the finish. Races don’t come much better. [Editor’s note: After that mad dash, IndyCar levied a $20,000 fine against Schmidt Peterson and docked Hinchcliffe 25 points for an infraction found in postrace inspection.]

What’s more, I couldn’t be bitter. Not long after that race, we announced that I’ll be joining the cast of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars this season. How’d that happen? Well, it’s kind of a funny story. When we were filming Celebrity Family Feud earlier this year, one of the production-side people from Dancing approached IndyCar afterward and said, “Hey, who’s this Hinchcliffe kid? We’re interested.” They brought a couple of us out to a taping, right after the Long Beach race. I got to meet a couple of the pros, some of the contestants, the staff and see the process of how they put together a live show. It got me thinking.

Anyway, for a good while, there’s only radio silence. And then a phone call. “Look, here’s the offer. You wanna come do it?” I only had about 48 hours to decide whether I wanted to put everything, my life, on hold for the next three months to commit to this. During that period, I solicited Hélio, a former Mirrorball trophy winner, for his perspective. He said he had a blast doing it. (What’s more, there’s no doubt it propelled him to a whole new level of renown outside of the sporting world.) His positive experience helped me make the call. Ultimately, it feels right. This isn’t the kind of opportunity that comes around very often, and I’m all about taking on new challenges. So wish me luck—and don’t forget to rock the vote!

Tony Kanaan at Watkins Glen
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

OK, back to the matter at hand, Watkins Glen. After our test session there back in June, a chance to reacclimatize after not running the track for six years, none of us on the grid are quite sure where we fall in the pecking order. It’s a very unique track. Tires can make a huge difference. And yet it’s tough to know how much of a difference without that greater sense of clarity. So we’re all kinda holding our breath and waiting for first practice, to see how that shakes out.

As for the track itself, no doubt passing is gonna be at a premium—because it’s so fast. (There isn't a corner that won’t be spectacular to watch.) The laps are gonna be long, which means small pit windows again. The lack of latitude for side-by-side racing usually means lower chances of cautions, which would then put more emphasis on qualifying and track position. Saturday will go a long ways toward dictating Sunday. Here’s hoping I get to end mine by taking in the scenery from the podium. 

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

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