FORT WORTH, Texas — Howdy y’all. James here, writing to you from the Lone Star State. Cowboy country. Of course, I’m not in town for just any ol’ rodeo. No, I’ll be mounting up for the third oval race on the Verizon IndyCar series schedule—the Firestone 600, which you can catch on Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN. Frankly, I can’t wait to get back in the saddle—especially after the rough ride our Schmidt Peterson team had last weekend in Detroit.
Let’s say this off the bat: Having to race a double-header right after the Indianapolis 500, our biggest race of the season, is a big ask. It’s hard on everybody—the crews, the officials, the safety teams. It’s hard on the drivers. For me, there was an added degree of difficulty because I obviously missed the race last year. There were some updates to the track that I had to familiarize myself with.
My Schmidt Peterson crew? They did another great job prepping our No. 5 Arrow machine for last Saturday’s race. We were top five in the first practice and felt pretty good rolling into qualifying—where we eventually settled onto the outside of Row 2, in fourth position.
After the green flag dropped, we got a nice race going. My guys were great in the pits. Pace was really good on track. But then we had a mechanical failure on the back of the car that lost me a bit of rear grip, which put us into the tires in Turn 7. A huge bummer, but credit to my guys: They fixed the car and got me back out on the road. Granted, 18th isn’t where we hoped to finish, but it could’ve been so much worse if they hadn’t come to the rescue. And anyway, we figured we could make up the difference in last Sunday’s race.
Well, that didn’t really go according to plan. In the second qualifying session, we kinda got caught out. Right as we were just finding our stride and gaining speed, it started raining, so we ducked into the pits—too early, as it turns out. Soon after, the rain kinda stopped, and a couple of guys clocked good laps right at the end of the session. Still, we weren’t too devastated about it for two reasons: 1) we had a good selection of tires for the race; and 2) we saw one of my buddy’s, Dale Coyne’s Conor Daly, rally from 20th position to the second step on the rostrum just the day before. We figured if we played our tire strategy right, played the fuel game a little bit, made some moves on track, we could move up.
But that all went out the window on Turn 1 of Lap 1. There were just a bunch of guys trying to get through. While navigating the most outside line, I was hit by a car that was avoiding another car—that, I think, was avoiding another car—and ended up in the wall with terminal damage to my car. There is no worse feeling than going out that early, especially after the race we had not 24 hours before. The exasperation level was sky high. I said some things on TV that I shouldn’t have. These things happen in the heat of the moment.
It was a rare red mist moment for me. But understand: I wasn’t mad at any of the drivers involved—like Andretti’s Carlos Muñoz, whom I regrettably singled out for blame. Really, what you saw and heard was the frustration of Saturday rolling into Sunday morning and then exploding on Sunday afternoon. The big mistake I made was opening my mouth before I actually saw the replay.
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Coming to the green, Carlos was crowding me a little bit—a bizarre move for him. When we ended up touching, it seemed to me like a carryover of that unnecessarily aggressive behavior. When I saw the replay, however, it was clear that he was running out of road. He got hit, maybe pushed by Ganassi’s Charlie Kimball—who I think was trying to avoid the Foyt car in front of him? I’m not entirely sure. Either way, it was a racing deal, and I broke the golden rule of—like I said—opening my mouth before seeing the replay. So let that be a lesson to you kids.
While we’re at it, here’s another takeaway for you: I don’t hold grudges. I know there’s a not insignificant portion of the IndyCar fan base that wishes there was more tension among us drivers, and there certainly are guys who dislike some more than others. And I get it. I think having heroes and villains is awesome in sport. It’s healthy. But holding grudges is just not my personality.
It’s the quickest way I could distract myself from my actual job. I’ve got way too many things going on during a race weekend to dedicate any extra mental energy on what was ultimately an on-track misunderstanding. At some point in your IndyCar career, you’re going to run into or be run into by every guy out there. That’s just the nature of the game. My approach is to hug things out. It’s easy for me to hug things out. Never in my career have I had a guy that has, on multiple occasions, made bonehead moves that ended up kicking me out of a race. I’ve been fortunate in that the quality of drivers in IndyCar is quite high. That includes Carlos, who'll start this weekend's race from the pole. So, yeah, we’re back to being cool. Nothing more to see or say here. On to Texas.
This week, we’re back to oval speed—which means you’ve gotta flick that switch in your brain again. The training takes another bit of a turn because Texas in June is not the coolest place on Earth. Even though Saturday’s race is a night feature, the humidity and ambient heat still figures to be pretty high. So hydration will be huge. In the days leading up to the race, I tried to include some heat training just to get my body a bit more prepared.
The race itself is always a huge challenge. Since we came out with the DW12 chassis and the new aero rules, we’ve seen a very different kind of race at Texas than we had seen up to 2011. It’s very challenging for the drivers. The tire falloff in particular is dramatic, which means you’ve gotta be really smart about how hard to push and when. You have to drive a certain way and set up the car a certain way to take care of the tires. Last year the two cars that put on the most downforce—Ganassi’s Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan—walked away with first and second place, respectively.
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What’s more, there’s no base formula for achieving ideal grip on this 1-½ miler—not when you’ve got three solid racing lines to choose from. Each one presents its own challenge. Up top in Lane Three, it’s very bumpy. If you’re down on the bottom, in Lane 1, you suffer from the most aggressive roll into and out of the 24-degree banking. If you’re going to thrive in this race, you’re going to have to run in every lane. You want to have the traction for a side-by-side battle in Lanes 1 and 2, or the aero to draft both of those guys and go around them on the high side. That’s what makes this race so fun. Opportunities to get ahead abound.
It’s just so tempting to stick your foot to the floor and run around flat out at the start of a stint on fresh tires. But that strategy could unravel more than just rubber. In all likelihood, the driver who wins will be the one who exercises the most self-control. After venting so much frustration last week, who’s better positioned to do just that than me?
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.