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Hinchcliffe on the magic and mysteries of Indy

(via Motorsport.com) – Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ established star James Hinchcliffe has gone through almost every possible emotion at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He’s therefore in the perfect position to explain why this temple of speed is so special. David Malsher reports.

The highs and lows of racing are amplified at the iconic 2.5-mile oval in Speedway, Indiana, as if the word ‘mild’ and its synonyms have fallen into disuse on IMS territory. Here, everything is extreme because no one can be nonchalant about average laps speeds of more than 225mph, just as no one can remain indifferent to the mystique of the place. This has become sacred ground over the course of 102 Indianapolis 500s.

But if a win means more at Indy than anywhere else, equally a failure in the Memorial Day Weekend classic hurts more. Even finishing second there will trigger the what-might-have-been blues in the mind of a frustrated runner-up: How could I have changed the outcome?

“There’s not a race in the world where second place is more meaningless than this one,” remarked a current IndyCar driver a few years ago. “It’s win or nothing.”

He could almost be speaking on behalf of every racer who’s ever finished second in the 500. And if you think this outlook might have shifted slightly when IndyCar made the race worth double the points of a ‘regular’ round in the championship, think again. No one goes into the Indianapolis 500 thinking about points.

James Hinchcliffe first competed in the 500 in 2011, driving for the legendary but now defunct Newman/Haas Racing team, and competed in the Freedom 100, the Indy Lights support race at IMS, in ’09 and ’10. However, he first attended the 500 in 2008 and was struck even then by the majesty of the event.

“I grew up an IndyCar fan,” he tells Motorsport.com, “and I’d watched however many Indy 500s, and so I always knew it was a huge deal. Being Canadian, one of my earliest standout memories was watching Jacques Villeneuve win in 1995, and I just remember being completely enamored with everything Indy.

“When I first attended in ’08 just to experience it, I said, ‘Man, I thought I understood the 500 but this is something else. Now I get it.’ Then the following year, when I was in Indy Lights, I was actually living in Indianapolis and I got to see the activities over the entire month of May, as well as racing on Carb Day [Carburetion Day, the Friday before the 500]. I thought, ‘Last year, I thought I got it, but I didn’t. Now I get it.’

“Fast forward two years and I’m part of the big show… and once again I say to myself, ‘Two years ago I thought I got it, but I didn’t. Now I get it…’

“There’s nothing like it and it’s so hard to put into words for people. The track has so much history, the race has so much history, and when people talk about the tradition, it all sounds regurgitated at this point, but that’s only because it’s true! Every driver, I think, gets that special feeling when they drive through the tunnel and arrive inside the track. It’s the possibility of adding your name to the list of winners and having your face on the Borg-Warner Trophy that is so alluring to everybody. You know when you unload the car at the start of the two weeks of practice that anything is possible, and any one of the 33 cars that start that race could end up in Victory Lane. It’s that air of possibility that makes it so different from everywhere else.”

That said, there are some teams and drivers who go into the race hoping to be a leading contender, but not expecting it. James himself cites his 2011 rookie campaign as one such. He qualified 13th on the 33-car grid, but retired at half-distance after making contact with a wall.

“I think in that first year I was just so thrilled to be there,” he recalls. “It was my first oval race in an IndyCar, and I was just taking it all in, so I didn’t go in with that thought of winning. I was the awestruck kid in a candy store.

“But funnily enough, that was one of those 500s that reminds you that the underdog can triumph. We saw a guy almost win it as a rookie [JR Hildebrand] and that kind of reset things for everyone, because through history, in between the wins that you could kind of predict, there have also been upsets and surprise Indy winners. You look at a guy like Michael Andretti who led so many times there and never won it, and you look at the trials and tribulations that Tony Kanaan went through before he ended up in Victory Lane. Literally anything can happen. There have been guys who should have won it and didn’t, winners who perhaps shouldn’t have earned it on that particular occasion but deserved it on other occasions and missed out. There’s just something about the 500 that can be cruel but can also throw out shock results.”

Moving to Andretti Autosport for three years changed Indy for Hinchcliffe, because now he was with a team that had won there before. He felt the burden of expectation, not just from others but also from his own desire to do justice to both a strong car and his talent.

“Yes, the team’s record there, plus another year of experience for me, ramped up the pressure,” he says. “It was time to get down to business, to try and win the Indy 500. And sure enough, I qualified on the front row for two of the three years I was with Michael’s team, and I was there for Ryan Hunter-Reay’s win for the team in 2014. So although I didn’t land a big result [sixth in 2012], I learned from the inside what made them successful at the Speedway, so when I joined Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, I brought that knowledge and experience.”

This team and driver pairing found success in only their second race together, but their luck ran out in May. A component failure during practice the day after qualifying for the 500 spat the #5 car into the wall at the Speedway’s third turn, James incurring an injury that caused a life-threatening loss of blood. Fast response work by IndyCar’s Safety Team and by the staff at IU Health Methodist Hospital saved his life, but he was out for the rest of the season. Hinch, being a true racer, doesn’t dwell on that but instead describes what he experienced while lapping at IMS that year.

“I think we had focused a lot on our racecar that month,” he recalls, “so we hadn’t qualified that well, but I wasn’t panicking because 2014 had been a big lesson for me. This is what I mean about bringing knowledge from your experiences with another team.

“When you go to Indy with a multi-car entry, you get a sense very early on that there’s a distinct pecking order among the cars – it’s unintentional, but it’s not quite luck of the draw. You can have four or five cars built by the same guys, running the same equipment, identical in every regard and running the same trim level, and yet they will be in the same order on the speed charts – without the aid of a tow – every day. There’s just something about how the cars are fitted together whereby some microscopic differences will set the order of the cars for the entire time you’re there.

“In 2014 at Indy, Ryan [Hunter-Reay] was always the fifth of the five Andretti cars on pure no-tow pace when you could make direct comparisons, which was immensely frustrating for him, and he wound up 19th on the grid. But whenever we went out in packs, to do mock race runs and practice getting tows from our teammates and others, Ryan was passing any and every car around him. We’d all been fixated on the fact that his car had been the slowest of the five when running on its own, but I remember noticing how amazingly good his car was in traffic. And sure enough, come race day, he drove his way to the front and went on to win the Indy 500.

“So when I joined Arrow SPM, that was my mindset. I felt like we didn’t have a great qualifying car, but we focused on developing it in race trim, and so we ended up with a good car in the ‘dirty air’ caused by traffic. So in my head, I was planning to just ‘Hunter-Reay it’ on race day! Obviously the accident made that a moot point but it would have been interesting to see how it turned out.”

No one will forget what happened on Hinchcliffe’s return to the Brickyard the following May, but call him Ironman or Magician and he’ll spurn the epithet. He insists that it didn’t take nerves of steel to climb back into his Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and start lapping competitively.

He explains: “What most people ignore is that not only had I been back in a car the previous September [at Road America], by the time we got to Indy I had already done the first five races of 2016 and one of those had been an oval [ISM Raceway in Phoenix, AZ). Not only that, I had even been through a crash on that oval during testing! We had literally checked all the boxes of ‘firsts’ since the accident by the time we started practice for the 500, so that’s why I wasn’t at all nervous about driving there again. Heading to Indy that May I felt the same as I always do heading to Indy in May – excited.

“I guess it’s inevitable that many people were talking about what happened to us the prior year, but we didn’t waste any time or energy on it. That felt way back in the past, and we were just trying to do the best job in the present and for the future.”

When one talks about that Pole Day, it’s wise to avoid terms like ‘destiny calling’ or ‘the hand of fate’: that denigrates the efforts made by Arrow SPM’s leaders, engineers, mechanics and drivers to improve their collective performance at the Speedway. So let’s just say there was something spellbinding about the fact that Hinchcliffe’s four-lap run at an average speed of 230.760mph sent him to the top of the charts. For those trackside, it was another unforgettable Indy moment – 156.0063 seconds, to be precise – of redemption for both team and driver.

Three years later, on being asked at what point of the day he felt he was fast enough to take pole, Hinch replies: “Er… exiting Turn 2 of the cool-down lap!

“Honestly though, we’d had a decent practice week but it wasn’t until we got to Fast Friday [when the turbos are turned up from 1.3-bar to 1.4-bar boost pressure, in preparation for qualifying weekend] that things started really clicking into place. The team’s preparation had been great and we thought we’d have a strong shot at being in the Firestone Fast Nine segment of qualifying but we weren’t sure of how high up because again we had channeled most of our energy into having a great car for the race.

“But then in Saturday practice, we went out and set fastest time which was a bit of a surprise. The tweaks the team had made were working well, but again you wonder if maybe you got a lucky gust of wind down one of the straights or something of that nature. Anyway, the running order would mean we would be last on track for the pole shootout, and we’d just go out and see what we had over the four laps.

“Josef [Newgarden, then at Ed Carpenter Racing] had set one great opening lap – 231.5mph – and three other pretty strong ones so he was sitting on top of the speed charts with an average speed of 230.700mph when I headed out. On my dashboard I see that our opening lap is 230.8mph so I think, ‘OK, we’re not going to be on pole but we should still have a good spot on the grid.’ I wasn’t too stressed about it; I was focused on keeping the car out of the wall! An IndyCar never runs more free of downforce than in Indy qualifying because you’re trying to eliminate drag, so you always have your hands full on a pole run.

“Then my second lap was faster than my first and I thought, ‘Well that’s different. Maybe we do have a shot at this because I’m still ahead of Josef’s average,’ and then my third lap was about the same as my first. That’s when I really believed we could do it, but when I crossed the line to complete the run, I saw on that fourth lap I’d lost a little bit of speed. Heading into Turn 1 on my cool-down lap, my head was full of numbers because I was doing the math, trying to add up my lap speeds and divide by four to figure out my average.

“Then my radio came on and Robert Gue [Arrow SPM’s R&D engineer, previously strategist on the #5 car] tried to tell me something and all I could hear was noise. But that noise was full of screams and cheers, so that’s when I knew that we’d done it.”

While James won’t talk about conquering demons or any such nonsense, he will allow that the sense of satisfaction derived from P1 was coated with an extra layer of emotion on top of the overwhelming pride at taking pole for the biggest race in the world.

“Honestly, it was so satisfying for our whole group,” he comments. “People tend to forget that what I’d been through the year before was not something that I did alone. It sounds like a cliché but everybody on that race team was like family and they’d all been affected by the accident; it took a toll on everybody. So to come back to that place and show the world, ‘This is what we’re capable of,’ was very gratifying for them. There’s a sense of real pride in being able to say that you built the fastest car around Indianapolis Motor Speedway on any given year, so it felt a really sweet comeback for all involved.”

Indy has been less kind to the #5 Arrow SPM-Honda entry since then. Hinch went on to finish seventh in the race that year; in 2017 he was an innocent party in someone else’s accident in the final stint of the race; and last year a bizarre sequence of events saw him bumped off the grid altogether.

“We know what happened that day and why, we learned from it and put practices in place to try and eliminate the possibility of it happening again,” is how James sums up the team’s remedial work. “That’s all you can do, right? You can’t change what has happened. Again, it’s a case of focusing forward, learning from the bad experiences and taking steps to ensure they don’t occur again.

“And anyway,” he adds wryly, “that was never going to be my worst day at Indy, was it?”

Indeed. As stated in the introduction to this story, Hinchcliffe is an IndyCar driver who has been through almost every possible emotion at the Speedway. Almost, but not quite – and the exception is obvious.

“Yeah, it’s slightly crazy isn’t it?” he agrees. “Winning is the only milestone I have left there! But Indianapolis doesn’t owe anybody anything and that’s part of the allure of the place. I believe Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is a team capable of getting the job done, I believe I am capable of getting the job done and providing we execute and Lady Luck doesn’t go against us – I’m not asking that she works for us, but just not work against us! – then I think we stand as good a chance as any group out there.”

Last week, Robert Wickens explained how he and Hinchcliffe can help familiarize their rookie Arrow SPM teammate Marcus Ericsson with oval racing, but no one could possibly prepare him for the Indianapolis 500 as an event and the extreme emotions it can evoke. That said, Marcus could try asking James all about it…

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