Young, talented and energetic, James Hinchcliffe embodies IndyCar's next generation. The second-year driver from Toronto has the personality to appeal to the younger audience but races with the determination that impresses the traditional fan. He displayed that driving ability with Newman-Haas Racing last year, earning Rookie of the Year honors. With Patrick's exit, team owner Michael Andretti wanted to find a driver who was not only fast on the track but also a captivating personality out of the car, befitting the team's sponsor. He seems to have found that in Hinchcliffe.
"The headlines have said, 'Hinchcliffe replacing Danica in the GoDaddy car,'" Hinchcliffe said. "I'm replacing her in the seat in driving it [the car]. I don't think in any way we're going to say that I'm trying to replace Danica. What she did and what GoDaddy did with her was so unique and special -- they did a good job with it. I'm kind of lucky that I'm coming in [in] a bit of a different position, being a guy rather than a woman in a male-dominated sport. Now they have a whole 'nother set of opportunities."
Although the "GoDaddy Girl" is gone, expect to see Hinchcliffe promoted by the company and utilized in its advertising campaign. That means continued exposure for the IndyCar Series.
"What is so cool about working with this company is you've seen what they've done with Danica and Jillian," Hinchcliffe said. "Those are two very visible, public figures. If we have another driver in IndyCar that can sort of reach that level that would be great for the sport as a whole."
Because auto racing depends on proper funding from a sponsor to compete, personality is as important to financial success as performance on the racetrack. Patrick obviously had that personality as a media star, but her driving success fell far below the interest generated by her persona. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon also had that memorable personality and had signed a contract with Andretti to take over Patrick's ride on the morning of his tragic death at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Andretti took his time to review his options following Wheldon's death before deciding Hinchcliffe was the right driver.
"Obviously GoDaddy had a lot of say, as well, in who they wanted to represent their product," Andretti said. "They were very high on James right away when we brought up his name. Personality is going to be important, as well, for that because they are a little edgy and fun. I think James can be that way."
The effervescent driver from Toronto likes to have fun and has a unique personality. That made him a perfect fit for the type of image the sponsor portrays.
"I'm excited to get a chance to work with a company that likes to be a little bit edgy, pushes the boundaries," Hinchcliffe said. "I've never been an inside-the-box kind of guy. Anybody that goes to Hinchtown.com can see that. That's why we created that in the first place, to get my personality out there a little bit, to be a little different and stand out. Ultimately with GoDaddy it's a bit of a match made in heaven."
To see Hinchcliffe's true personality, visit Hinchtown -- the driver's interactive virtual community where he's the mayor.
"Hinchtown got started because I was at the point of my career where I needed to build a proper website, and I looked around at a bunch of other drivers websites to see what I liked and didn't like," he said. "Whether it was IndyCar drivers, Formula 1 drivers or NASCAR drivers, I looked at them all and realized I didn't like any of them because they were all exactly the same. We came up with a different concept, so this idea of an Internet town was born and making me the self-proclaimed mayor of it was a natural progression. It's a little bit off the wall at first and maybe people didn't totally understand and I got some funny looks, but it has grown into a cool tool. The fans really enjoy it, and it allows me to get my personality up there a little bit and give the fans an insight into the life of an IndyCar driver."
Hinchtown attracts plenty of tourists even if it doesn't have the hustle and bustle of Toronto or the charm of Montreal.
"We launched the new version, 6G, at the start of 2011, and we pull in tens of thousands a month," Hinchcliffe said. "It's getting good traffic and as long as we keep good content up there ... it's something that is going to keep growing and [we're going to] stay on top of and have some fun with."
While Hinchcliffe hopes to ignite his career at Andretti Autosport after showing flashes of promise last season, it might be a good idea to keep him away from blowtorches, bonfires or books of matches. He admits to playing with fire.
"I'm a pyromaniac, which is probably something that is a little bit alarming considering fire is a driver's worst fear," he said. "I started a lighter collection when I was 12, and some people may have noticed that on the back of every single one of my helmets is a little Zippo and that is because of that. I started this collection with all sorts of lighters -- old lighters, new lighters, lighters that somebody showed you. My collection has close to 80 or 90 lighters from different time periods. I have them from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s; [I have] table lighters, things that you don't know are lighters until somebody shows you they are lighters. I'm not quite sure where the fascination started, but it's a weird thing that I've got going on and that is why I have a lighter on the back of my helmet."
At 25, Hinchcliffe promises to be a playful complement to an Andretti Autosport lineup that includes Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti. The team owner hopes to add a fourth driver before the season.
Hinchcliffe is an important addition because he is a young driver in a series that is developing and creating the next wave of IndyCar fans.
"He's an example of the young talent we have, [and we're] trying to develop, get him to be a major personality for the series because I think it's very important to have drivers that stand out in that way [and] are promotable and stuff," Andretti said. "I think it's all important for IndyCar."
"I think it's an endorsement for the Road to Indy, as well," Hinchcliffe said, referring to IndyCar's developmental series. "I came through a bunch of categories there, through Indy Lights. ... Like I said, it proves the value in that ladder system. I think it shows that young drivers really need to get into that program as quickly as possible if IndyCar is their goal."
Hinchcliffe also continues the impressive legacy of Canadian IndyCar drivers, including Jacques Villeneuve, who won both the Indianapolis 500 and the CART championship in 1995 before leaving for a successful Formula 1 career that included the 1997 world championship; Paul Tracy the "Thrill from West Hill" in the 1990s and 2000s; and 2011 Indianapolis 500 pole winner Alex Tagliani.
IndyCar is very popular in Canada, and two of the most successful events on the schedule are July street races in Toronto and Edmonton.
"Canada is such an important market for our series," Andretti said. "We have such great fans up there, passionate fans. It's great to have a strong Canadian driver, I think, in our series. It's even better for us to have him on our race team because I think there's a potential for sponsorship growth, as well."
So the Mayor of Hinchtown is ready to spread some Canadian diplomacy and wave the maple leaf flag throughout 2012.
"The fans in Canada are phenomenal. They love open-wheel racing, IndyCar racing," Hinchcliffe said. "I grew up going to the races in Toronto. I think I've been to all but two of them in my life. It's a great market for the series. For me, it's great to be here and be a part of that. Hopefully we can keep Canada interested, and having the Canadian fan base to grow with some of the things we have planned. I really like it."
But no matter what Hinchcliffe brings to the table, he'll have, as he said, some "big heels to fill."