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Mental toughness helps James Hinchcliffe put Indy 500 failure in rearview

(via Sportsnet) – James Hinchcliffe doesn’t mince words about not qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 as much as he’d like to focus on any positives from a terrible situation.

The 31-year-old IndyCar driver from Oakville, Ont., said it was a “very dark couple days” after he missed the cut in last month’s running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Hinchcliffe made a pitstop home this past Friday to promote the upcoming Honda Indy Toronto and spoke candidly about how his mental training has helped him move on and maintain the charm that has made the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Hinchtown” one of the most popular drivers in the series.

“I’ve had times in my career where, especially when things aren’t going well, it’s really easy to get caught up in that, get into a funk and get into a dark place and it happens to athletes all the time,” Hinchcliffe said. “One of the important things, and it’s a cliché term and can apply to many different things, but there’s the saying that the worst day at my job is still better than the best day at most jobs. At the end of the day, man, we’re racing cars for a living. We are so, so lucky to do what we do and yes, there’s a lot of crap that goes along with it, there’s a lot of stuff you have to deal with you don’t want to deal with but that’s the price we pay to get to do what we do on Sundays.

“I was always very appreciative of that fact and appreciative of the position I was in and I always promised myself I was never going to take it all too seriously and let 20 years of my life, the best 20 years of your life, go by just being miserable all of the time because you’re 1/10th off in Corner 6. You’ve got to balance it and I know I’m the kind of the guy that can get into those bad places and I’ve got to make sure I keep myself up because I drive better when I’m happy. Some guys drive better angry, that’s a fact, but I’m not that guy. … I’ve always tried really hard to just keep things in perspective. We’re driving race cars here. This is a pretty sweet deal.”

It all stems from Hinchcliffe’s early days working with a mental coach to help him compartmentalize his emotions and not let distractions get the better of him. It actually worked too well as it also began to impact his life outside of racing.

“I got so well-versed at doing that that it actually affected personal relationships because I would be able to block things out that should have affected me more, so my reaction to certain situations in my personal life was not what a normal person would have and that really perturbed some people in my life,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was weird. I’m like, ‘I don’t get why everybody is still so upset,’ because I programmed myself for years to not get upset about stuff or I’ll give myself like 60 seconds to be upset about something and then like gone, what’s next, because that’s how you have to be in the car.”

Hinchcliffe’s ability to distance himself aided him during his long road to recovery from his near-fatal crash during practice for the Indy 500 in 2015. He said the key part was that he had no memory of the accident enabling him to focus on returning to the cockpit and getting back to work.

“From the minute I woke up I knew to disassociate anything I was going through or feeling,” Hinchcliffe said. “The pain, the rehab, any of stuff, that was totally disassociated with racing. It wasn’t attached to the car. In my head, it didn’t happen in a race car. In my head, it just happened. It doesn’t matter how it happened, it’s irrelevant. I didn’t want my mind to associate pain with driving a race car.”

This season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Hinchcliffe’s Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew with several key personnel changes, including the addition of longtime pal Robert Wickens as his new teammate, plus figuring out the new universal aero kit for the car.

Still, Hinchcliffe rolled out to his strongest start to a season in years sitting fifth in the championship standings prior to the Indy 500. Points were worth double at the Brickyard and combined with a subpar showing the following weekend at the doubleheader in Detroit saw Hinchcliffe slip to 11th. Although his championship chances haven’t been dashed completely (there’s always still a chance until he’s mathematically eliminated) it has put his team into a can’t-lose situation during the second half of the season where they’re now more willing to gamble.

“We’re no longer points racing, we can take bigger risks,” Hinchcliffe said. “As a team, we can now split strategies. Robbie’s right up there [in seventh], he’s doing very well, if we’re a position where it can kind of go two ways, they’ll probably take the bigger risk on my car and I’m totally OK with that. If that means our fifth turns into a 12th but on the odd day if that fifth turns into a first, we’re going for wins at this point. I think that’s what is going to make the difference in our season because wins pay.”

That outlook already paid dividends with a fourth-place finish earlier this month at Texas Motor Speedway. It proved to be the right remedy to erase any lingering negative thoughts from Indy even if the weekend itself didn’t start off ideally.

“We struggled with speed the same way that we did at Indy,” he said. “Saturday at Texas was honestly a really tough day. It was kind of like deja vu and everyone was getting a little annoyed at the situation, to be fair, but then on Saturday night, the car came alive, the team came alive … we took care of the Firestones [tires] as well as anybody and to pull off a good result like that at a track pretty similar to Indy in a lot of ways was a huge boost for everybody. For us, it may have been three weeks on the calendar but Indy was a lifetime ago as far as what we’re thinking about. Our eyes are forward, we’re not even worried about that now.”

Hinchcliffe is also looking ahead to the Honda Indy Toronto and putting on another show for his hometown crowd following back-to-back third-place finishes at the Exhibition Place street circuit. That string of success is like a double-edged sword now though as expectations have risen to take the next step.

“We’ve been two years on the podium and all right, third is great but first is better,” Hinchcliffe said. “On the other hand though, it takes a bit of pressure off because for years I was just struggling for results at this race. We had no luck, we often didn’t have great cars, and Paul Tracy ran into me, whatever the reason was. … I was just so desperate for a result here in a lot of ways and now that we’ve done it and we’ve backed it up, it kind of takes a little bit of pressure off but at the same time now there’s been a trend of better results, so you want to keep that up and keep that going.”

The new aero kit is another wrench in the plan and means all expectations are out the door until the team arrives at the track next month.

“We’re figuring out new things every single time we unload somewhere, so no one knows what exactly to expect,” Hinchcliffe said. “Hopefully, what we’ve learned over the last few seasons that have helped us make that jump into podium contention will transfer and translate and we can be strong again.”

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