26 May 2011

An Interview with James Hinchcliffe

One of the most entertaining drivers in Gasoline Alley, James Hinchcliffe is making his rookie debut in the Indianapolis 500, qualifying as the second-best rookie in the field. The Canadian sits on the inside of Row 5. I had a chance to catch up with the Newman/Haas driver during media day at IMS:

(On drivers he has turned to for advice):
If I were to single a guy out, it would be Dario. He and I share a mutual sponsor [TW Steel], so we got to do a lot of events together and I got to know him a little bit and he’s been super cool this year. And he has been surprisingly open and very willing to help.

(On Dario’s advice):
It’s just the little things. It’s helping me deal with the jump up to Indycars and the whole the different aspect of these races versus Lights races and the car. He was actually at one of my first tests at Sebring and he stood trackside and was watching and came up and talked to me for a little bit afterwards and it’s just been cool. More than anything I’ll just sit there and listen to his stories and his experiences here and I pick stuff up from that and just bank it.

(On driving at IMS for the first time in an Indycar):
It was funny, my first timed lap during rookie orientation was big lift, super cautious, just getting  around the track for the first time, I looked down at my dash and realized that that lap was faster than any qualifying lap in Indy Lights I’d ever done. All of the sudden, I was thinking to myself how much I’d lifted and how cautious I’d been going in the corners and thought ‘Alright, this thing is pretty quick. This is going to be interesting, to tack on 35 miles an hour on to that.’

My first, fully flat out lap around here is something I’ll remember for a long time. And that first and only qualifying attempt that I did, those four laps will stick in my memory for quite a long time.

(On the differences between Indy Lights and IndyCar):
I found myself death-gripping the wheel a couple times over the month, but you sort of get used to it and back that off real quick, because that doesn’t help. When you’re here in a Lights car, the place feels big. It feels like a very big race track. In this car, it feels like this place was built for an Indycar, which it was, so it’s a very challenging track in these cars.

Maybe it’s more appropriate to say these cars were built for this track rather than this track was built for these cars. I think it’s a much different experience; the track gives you so much more back when you’re in the Indycar. You get so much more feedback from the car and from the track than you do in the Lights car. The walls come out at you a lot faster and the racing is a lot different and the running in traffic is a lot different.

(On running in traffic):
It’s tough in practice; you might be able to orchestrate two or three cars, but it’s a whole lot different than 32 cars. And then the swirl effect, because everyone is out there at the same time, the air is never clean – even up front it’s not clean after 10 laps, so Sunday is going to be a very big learning experience, we’re going to be very cautious the first quarter of the race and get a feel for the racing, get a feel for what the car is doing, what I’m doing, what everybody else is doing.
There’s a lot of people that can give me a lot of advice, but at the end of the day, nobody can learn for you, and that’s what the first half of the race is going to be about, is learning everything that happens.

(On double-file restarts):
I’ve never done single-file restarts here, so it’s tough for me to give too much of an opinion. You speak to the more experienced guys and they certainly have some concerns, and when you hear those concerns, they certainly have some validity. I think it’s a very difficult place to pull it off because of the nature of the race track in that it’s very much a one groove track. It’s not Texas, it’s not Kentucky, it’s not these 1.5-mile tracks where we run side-by-side, lap after lap, where it’s not an issue.

This track is very narrow at 220 mph, and you cannot run side-by-side. It felt so big at first (in Indy Lights), and it becomes very narrow at those speeds. At the end of the day, I don’t think we have a hope in Hades of getting them taken away, so I think everybody needs to accept that they’re happening and drivers need to respect the situation that we’re in and respect that it’s a very dangerous proposition and that you have to be there at the end to win. Short of a restart 10 laps from the end, if you’re going for a kamikaze pass, it’s probably not going to work out too well for you.

I think everyone understands how long this race is and patience is the theme of the event. If you ask all the experienced drivers from all the way back to Rutherford up to Dario, they all told me the same thing: “You’ve got to be patient, don’t force the issue, let the race come to you.” But I mean with 10 laps to go in the Indy 500, eventually that runs out, you run out of time.

So if there’s a late restart, it is going to be manic.

(On his favorite 500s):
The Spin N’ Win has got to be up there. But then, Jacques winning hits me personally, close to home. 2002 was a race I’ll never forget. But then also, I got the incredible opportunity to commentate on the race last year with Mike King up in the booth. And watching Dario do what he did last year was awesome. It’s very rarely that you have a day where everything is so hooked up that you have a day like he did, and he had it on the best Sunday all year to have it, and it was master class, watching him do that race. And again, I had a very unique perspective of it, being up on the ninth floor of the Pagoda, so that one is one I’ll remember for a while. There’s so many – there’s been 94 and every one of them has a story behind it.

(On his emotions come Sunday): I think it will be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. It’s going to be incredible to be standing on the grid and just looking around and seeing all the people there and appreciating the fact that we’re about to go race in the Indy 500. It’s a tough thing to put into words. 

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