IndyCar's James Hinchcliffe: Hoping for the best at ‘tricky’ Belle Isle
DETROIT — Hey, folks. James (a.k.a. The Mayor) here, writing to you from the Motor City, the latest stop on the Verizon IndyCar series. That’s right, the season did not end with last week’s thrilling Indianapolis 500. This weekend, there’s yet another race—a double-header, no less. So tune in for the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit, a 140-lap extravaganza set around a 14-turn, 2.35-mile street course on lovely Belle Isle. ABC’s coverage of the race will start at 3:30 p.m. ET. This info will probably be a bit redundant to those of you who caught the many promos for this upcoming race during the broadcast of last weekend’s race—which was, shall we say, a moving experience. My mom in particular got pretty swept up in it.
Before green flag, right as I was about to settle into the Speedway grid for those eight minutes of helmeted peace I was telling you guys about in last week’s video-only edition of the column, I gathered up my parents for pre-race hugs and, well, my mom kind of teared up afterward. Knowing Mom as I do, I kind of assumed that would be an emotional moment for her. At the risk of sounding like a bad son, I’m already full business at that point. Normally, I get a big hug before I get in the car, but hers was a little bigger this time. Part of that is the inherent fear that she has of me racing. But part of it was also the pride of what we accomplished the week before—by landing on the pole a year after my accident, and everything that’s gone on in between. I imagine for a lot of the race she was a little bit of a wreck.
Me? I had a good time—especially in the early laps, which I spent battling for the lead with my good buddy Ryan Hunter-Reay. Just so you know, we didn’t plan that. But what I love so much about running with guys like him is we don’t have to talk about trading places. We very much understood what the other was trying to accomplish, we’re game to help each other out and had boatloads of fun doing it. For both of us to have cars that were strong enough to allow us to do that was such a privilege. Granted, our races didn’t end the way we had hoped. (Seeing his run essentially ended after a pit road accident, which also collected his Andretti teammate Townsend Bell, was especially unfortunate.) But I told him, in a post-race text message, that the first hundred laps were some of the most fun I’ve had in an IndyCar. Ryan—who, mind you, won the race back in 2014, wrote then something to the effect of: “Moments like that are memories I’ll hold forever.”
Even the less-than-ideal moments I had on the racetrack stand out for the resiliency that my Schmidt Peterson crew showed in the face of them. Certainly, our first pit stop, which dropped us a fair way down the order, didn’t go according to plan. But we kept our heads about us. We knew that was Stop 1 in a 500-mile race, and that the No. 5 Arrow car was quick. Between some far better pit stops, a great race car and some nifty driving by me—we found our way back into the lead before finishing seventh. Not only is that my best finish at the Brickyard in four years, it also rounded out a huge day for Honda—which was long overdue for redemption.
For last two years or so, Honda had been the hunter to Chevrolet’s hunted. Going into the 500, Honda had not landed a driver on pole in something like 30 races. No group had been more adamant about the urgency to improve than us drivers. Yet at the beginning of this year, even as we struggled, Honda told us that Indy was their focus, that they had big things coming, good things coming in the pipeline. We wanted to believe them. It wasn’t until we got to the Speedway, popped in their new engines and started running that we were like, Alright. We’re in this fight. Then it all came together: My team snapped the Honda pole drought, and Honda got back in Victory Lane with a rookie driver—Alexander Rossi, who, after some furious hypermiling, is now a sought-after media darling. (Incidentally, I managed to snag him as a guest this week on my podcast, “The Mayor on Air with James Hinchcliffe.” Subscribe on iTunes!)
What’s more, Honda got a one-two finish with Rossi and his Andretti Autosport teammate Carlos Muñoz, who operated on a more conventional fuel strategy while Alexander ran completely out of gas at the finish. Honda was covered both ways. Yeah, Chevy had some quick guys out there: Penske’s Hélio Castroneves and Ganassi’s Tony Kanaan had awesome runs; Carpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden did a tremendous job. But the Hondas were definitely the class of the field.
Indy wasn’t a fluke performance either. Honda has resurfaced among the Firestone Fast Six this week at Belle Isle. I’ll be leading the charge once again, from the fourth position this time—or just in front of Muñoz, who won the top of last year’s doubleheader. Winning is a hard thing to do here. Belle Isle is one of the most physical street circuits just because of the bumps. It is easily the bumpiest track on the circuit. After a bumpy street track on a hot June day normally you have four or five days to recover—to hydrate, to let the blisters on your hands heal—before getting back into a racecar. But the Duel’s back-to-back race schedule doesn’t afford us that luxury. We have to be fit enough to get right back in the racecar. We have to hydrate overnight for a race that you’d typically spend three days hydrating for. Part of the strategy for being fit enough and prepared enough for this race is making sure that during the madness of media week and post-qualifying at Indy, you’re still fitting in the training that you need and normally would be doing if you were just at home by yourself. (It took me three years to really figure this out.) Needless to say, it’s difficult to keep your workouts going while you’re: a) traveling around the country like crazy for a slew of media appearances, and b) preparing for the biggest race of the year.
Belle Isle, meanwhile, has a different reputation. It’s a tricky little track. The Turn 1-2 complex is one of the fastest corners you’ll see on a street circuit all year. Down into Turn 3, you’ve got your biggest opportunity for passing—soon after a long straightaway. The end of the back straight going into Turn 7, because that straightaway isn’t exactly straight, leads to some pretty creative lines when trying to defend or advance positions.
With good weather in the forecast, the opportunities for our team aren’t just ripe on the track. Thanks to our strong effort during the month of May (to recap: we got our first podium of the year, third place, at the Indy GP; then landed on pole for the 500 and finished seventh), we now stand fifth in points—which puts us firmly in the championship hunt. The only reason we’re up there is because we stopped worrying about the two disastrous races we had to start the season. We stopped caring about the title race. Honestly. I didn’t look at points until after qualifying at Indy, which was almost a race win’s worth of points.
Clearly, we work best when we keep our focus narrow—on just doing the best job that we can week in and week out. If we can keep that mindset, keep knocking out these strong finishes and not get caught up in other people’s mistakes. Man, I don’t even want to think about what a moving experience that could be.
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.