As he wheeled the golf cart to a press conference, James Hinchcliffe smiled. It’s no secret that he is looking forward to this weekend in Florida.
“I’m excited,” he told POPULAR OPENWHEEL. “I’m very thankful that I’m here to do it and excited to get going. It’s been 10 months out of competition for me, and that’s what fuels us – is the racing.”
James Hinchcliffe was set to continue a successful season after winning the second race of last year, the Grand Prix of Louisiana.
Then the crash happened, and everything changed.
On May 18, Hinchcliffe sustained injuries when his IndyCar made right-side contact with the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier during practice. A piece of the car’s suspension pierced the cockpit and went into his leg. He was transported to IU Health Methodist Hospital, and underwent upper left thigh and pelvic surgery the same day.
The Oakville, Ontario native doesn’t remember the crash. In his mind, one minute he was driving the racecar, and the next memory is lying in a hospital bed. Though since then, he has pieced the events together.
“Like I said, for me, it didn’t happen,” he stated. “I didn’t live any of it, as far as I’m concerned, and I was looking around at my hospital room at my mother, girlfriend, and friends, and everybody looked like they’d been through hell. Like, they looked like they had this really bad experience, and I’m like, ‘Why are you looking so bummed out?’ I kind of struggled with it a little bit.”
The process of remembering started off casual, with a couple of people sharing their stories. Once Hinchcliffe heard those stories, he wanted to learn more and continue to piece it together.
He spoke with the medical staff at the track and the surgeon at the hospital. He said he and the doctor have become good friends, going out to dinner sometimes and discussing the crash.
“I want to know what happened, from the car mechanical point of view to the extraction of how they got me out of the car, to how they fixed it – things like that,” he explained. “I talked to friends and family about how it affected them. My parents were out of the country at the time, so I asked how it affected them. While they were sitting on a beach, they got a phone call that said, ‘We’ve got a plane waiting at the airport for you because we don’t know if James is going to make it through the night’.”
Hearing all the stories allowed him to “make it more real” in his mind and gave him a much bigger appreciation of his survival.
Through his recovery, the self-proclaimed mayor of Hinchtown said he received overwhelming support, ranging from those who came to visit to the messages sent via different social media channels.
“I know how busy people are and time is the most valuable asset,” he commented. “So for the amount of people that took time to reach out to me, friends, people I never met, fans, people from around the world – it was very motivating. If you’re having a bad day, sitting on the couch, nothing to do, the rest of it was a little easy as you looked at the mantel and saw all the cards.”
When he was cleared to travel, Hinchcliffe attended races, spending time with his team. It was the first season for him at SPM, so he wanted to continue working on the team chemistry, he said. Attending meetings at the shop, debriefing at the track and sitting on the pit box during races offered a new perspective.
“There was definitely some things that I saw that I feel will help me moving forward, a lot from how decisions were made on the pit stand,” he explained. “You just have this voice in your head in the car. You don’t know how it got there. You just take it as correct and move on. Now being able to see the process will be an advantage, for sure.”
Everything came together for Hinchcliffe when he tested for the first time since the accident. Going into that October weekend at Road America, he admits there was some hesitation about whether he’d be able to perform at a high enough level.
“I knew I was physically able to drive a car, but being able to drive at 95% versus 100% is a big difference, and that’s a mental thing,” he said. “That was something that I wouldn’t be able to know till I got back to the racecar. So for that first test, there was a little apprehension at the back of my mind whether I could perform at the level that I needed to perform at.”
He took part in other tests since then, including testing alongside fellow competitors at both Phoenix International Raceway and Sebring Raceway.
“The test went really well,” he said. “Obviously, it was everybody’s first time out there at Phoenix. It’s a tricky little race track for sure, and it’s going to be interesting. We’re still learning about the new aero kits, how to get the most out of those, and what to do to make them work well.
“Then we went down to Sebring and had another very positive test. It was nice having a little more comparison there. It was still a private test, but I think there were 15 cars there, something like that. It was nice to get a bit of a benchmark and see where we’re at.”
Stay tuned for part two on Saturday as we look forward to this weekend’s race at St. Petersburg, and more.
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