When the Verizon IndyCar Series arrives at Watkins Glen International the IndyCar Grand Prix at The Glen on Labor Day weekend, James Hinchcliffe is hoping that the series fans from Western New York will cheer him on, based on his large IndyCar popularity and despite the fact that he has a rival hockey allegiance.
Hinchcliffe, 30, a Toronto native, is a Maple Leafs fan, who are the longtime NHL rival of the Buffalo Sabres. Hinchcliffe, nicknamed "The Mayor of Hinchtown," drives the No. 5 Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports Honda on the IndyCar circuit. He is considered one of the more personable and popular drivers currently in the IndyCar paddock.
"Growing up in Ontario and especially the Toronto area it's tough not to have gotten roped into the hockey thing a little bit," Hinchcliffe said. "It's much tougher to follow since I've moved down to Indianapolis but no doubt we're all pretty big Leaf supporters in our household. It's always nice seeing a few Canadian flags in the grandstands at The Glen too. Watkins Glen is like a second home race for me, second only naturally to the event in Toronto."
Hinchcliffe finished a strong third in his home race, the recent Honda Indy Toronto on July 16.
In last season's IndyCar race at The Glen, Hinchcliffe finished 18th out of 22 cars but that did not represent how truly competitive he was on The Glen's 3.45 mile course. Hinchcliffe was running second behind the leader and eventual race winner Scott Dixon before he ran out of fuel on the last lap just two corners from the checkered flag.
"It was a tricky one for us," Hinchliffe said. "We had an issue in qualifying and had to start way further back in the grid then we should have. Honestly it was one of our best races of the year. We raced our way up into P2 and we just came up short on fuel with two corners to go so that 18th place result didn't actually explain what really happened to us. Hopefully we can go there this year and have a similar kind of pace but be able to seal the deal."
The qualifying issue that Hinchcliffe was referring to involved a penalty that was handed down from IndyCar officials during the first round of group qualifying. According to those officials they deemed that Hinchcliffe was interfering with the other cars on track and his qualifying time was disallowed.
While 2016 was Hinchcliffe's first career IndyCar start at The Glen it was not his first time behind the wheel there. In his formative racing years, Hinchcliffe campaigned twice at The Glen in Indy Lights.
"I raced at The Glen in Indy Lights in 2009 and 2010 before coming to IndyCar," Hinchcliffe said.
Hinchcliffe has won five career IndyCar races since his rookie campaign in 2011. He won earlier this season at Long Beach. In 2013 he was victorious at St. Petersburg, Fla., Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Iowa. In 2015, he was triumphant in Louisiana.
His career is also punctuated by a devastating crash while practicing for the 2015 Indianapolis 500 when he almost bled to death. Hinchcliffe's car suffered a mechanical failure that saw it crash head-on into the third turn wall. A suspension piece pierced the fiberglass tub and embedded itself in Hinchcliffe's left thigh. Only the quick work of the safety crew and a quick decision to get him to an area hospital prevented him from bleeding to death.
While many would have considered finding an alternative way to make a living, not Hinchcliffe. He recovered and returned to the sport and won the 2016 Indy 500 pole at the track that nearly took his life a year earlier.
"There was no other way to do this for me," Hinchcliffe said. "I was born crazy so there's no reason for that to change. When you have an accident the first thing that all of us want to do when we're in that situation is know when can they get us back into a race car. It was obviously a very tough situation. I was very fortunate to come out of it not just alive but able to still do what I love doing which is to drive Indy cars.
"When we came back to Indy a year later after the accident and got the pole I think it was a team effort from the word go and as much as everyone likes to think it was me that went through that accident our race team is a big family and we all suffered through it in different ways. So to come back a year later and put forth the effort that we did to get the pole for the race and leading a bunch of laps it really was a combination of a lot of hard work and a lot of heart from everyone at Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports."
Hinchcliffe is gifted with two quick feet to help accelerate and brake his car on track but they recently became very needed on the dance floor when Hinchcliffe finished in the runner-up spot in a 2016 edition of ABC television's "Dancing with the Stars." Fellow Indy Car star Helio Castroneves also appeared on the program several years earlier.
"It wasn't certainly something I had planned," Hinchcliffe said of his dancing opportunity. "It came about through our appearance on 'Celebrity Family Feud.' IndyCar had a team on the show back in February 2016 and it got someone at ABC watching and that's how the call came. I was very hesitant to do it at first but I sat down with Helio for a little while and he talked me into it. It went decently well. I think I surprised a lot of people, myself included."
Hinchtown also has his own craft beer on the market, Hinchtown Hammer Down, based in Indianapolis.
"I'll see if I can sneak some on my bus and bring it to Watkins Glen," Hinchcliffe said laughing. "I'll see."
Hinchcliffe finished 11th Sunday at Mid-Ohio.