James Hinchcliffe remains upbeat for 2019 IndyCar season
There are years in life filled with trials and tribulations, when people actually look forward to the end of that year and the promise of a new beginning in a new year. That is the case with NTT IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe.
Consider that in 2018, he was primed to contend for a championship with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Hinchcliffe’s boyhood friend from Canada, Robert Wickens, was his rookie teammate. The two pals were reunited again and were looking forward to a season of fun and competition.
That was before the hits started coming.
First, Hinchcliffe failed to make the 33-car field for the 102nd Indianapolis 500. His first qualification attempt was too slow to make the race, and after he was bumped from the lineup, his car didn’t get through the tech line in time to make another run to get into the field.
It was stunning that the former Indy 500 pole winner did not make the field. Hinchcliffe did the right thing by not buying his way into the field with a car that made the lineup.
On Race Day at the Indianapolis 500, Hinchcliffe was a spectator.
"The reality set in pretty hard when everyone else was on track and we weren’t," Hinchcliffe said. "It was tough, but adversity applies directly to that situation. We went through our best stretch of the season right after that. We know what we would and wouldn’t do differently when we got back to Indy this year."
He achieved a bit of redemption when he drove to victory in the Iowa Corn 350 at Iowa Speedway on July 8.
Then came the biggest blow of all: Wickens suffered serious injuries that left him paralyzed from the waist down in a horrendous crash at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 19. Hinchcliffe’s best friend continues to make progress and hopes to one day walk again. Then, maybe he can begin a racing comeback.
Add it all up, and Hinchcliffe had good reason to want to move into 2019 and put 2018 in his rearview mirror.
"Thank God that year is over," Hinchcliffe told Autoweek. "2018 was very much a roller coaster for our team specifically. Any time you go through adversity like that, whether it is what happened at Indy or what happened with Robbie, there is a huge element of team bonding that comes out of that. I think the group grows stronger and grows closer whenever you face those situations.
"As a result, we are a stronger and closer group than we have ever been. Everyone on the team is excited to hit the track this weekend, and we are excited to see where it all shakes out."
Hinchcliffe pays regular visits to Wickens at his rehabilitation facility in Colorado. Wickens continues to make remarkable progress from his bruised spinal cord injury and has regularly documented his progress on social media.
"I love it because he lives it every day and doesn’t see the progress like I do when I see him every two to three weeks," Hinchcliffe said. "It’s always funny seeing his reaction to my reactions to the things he can do when I come back. It’s been great for me.
"It’s been massively therapeutic for me to get out there as much as I have and see him. He’s driven as all get-out and is pushing himself harder than he should be. It’s paying off, and he is going to keep doing that. We are excited to see him back at a racetrack as soon as possible."
Hinchcliffe has had his own experiences with comebacks.
In 2015, Hinchcliffe nearly lost his life when he crashed in practice for the Indianapolis 500. Hinchcliffe crashed in the third turn at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a suspension road speared the driver’s lower body. He nearly bled to death on the track but was saved by Mike Yates of the Holmatro Safety Team, who was able to keep the driver alive until emergency surgery could be performed at IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
The types of injuries, however, are completely different so it is hard to determine when, or if, Wickens can return to racing.
"That’s the $1 million question," Hinchcliffe said. "That’s a tough one even for medical professionals to answer, unfortunately. That’s the big difference between what I went through and what I was going through. Mine was a pretty clear end result that I was going to be fine; it was just going to take some time. With Robbie, there are still a lot of question marks. The progress he has made is far and above where any normal person would be at this stage in his recovery, which is still half as far as where he would like to be at this stage because he is a racing driver.
"He is fully committed to getting back in a race car one way or another and I fully believe he will do it. The time frame to me is irrelevant and I try to tell him that, too. It doesn’t matter if it is in six months of in 16 months. He is young enough, he is good enough, he will get back in a car and be successful again. Just heal properly and get back in a race car when he can."
Throughout the ups and downs, the pain and misery that Hinchcliffe has experienced in his racing career -- especially after at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- and then what happened to Wickens, it would be easy for the driver from Oakville, Ontario, to pause and reflect on why he remains committed to auto racing.
That thought never enters his mind.
“We’re wired differently,” Hinchcliffe said. “We’re wired wrong. It never once made me pause and consider my own career. There were days I thought, ‘I wish I had not convinced him to come to IndyCar.’ Guess what? He was going to come whether I said anything about it or not.
“You get over that stuff quick. I’m doing what I want to do, and Robbie is doing what he wants to do."
Hinchcliffe has never lost his sense of humor, even on the topic of his own near-fatal injury in 2015. During the NHL All-Star Weekend in San Jose, California, last month, Hinchcliffe was on NHL player “PK Subban’s All-Star Special” on NBC Sports Network.
“I survived a 4-foot rod going through my lower body,” Hinchcliffe quipped. “PK Subban was no problem.”