Oakville native and Indycar racer James Hinchcliffe has been having a pretty good year. Heading into this weekend’s Indy 500, he’s won two of the four races in the Indycar season so far, the most recent in Sao Paolo by overtaking Takuma Sato on the last turn of the last lap before the checkered flag. It’s made him an early favorite for the series championship – a lead he’d like to maintain when he races in the Honda Indy double header in Toronto this July, which would make up for the engine trouble that took him out of last year’s race on the 28th lap.
Hinchcliffe is a fan favorite, and not only in Toronto. Quick-witted and articulate, he’s one of the most media-savvy racecar drivers working today, which has raised his profile in the sport spectacularly since he took over from Danica Patrick in the GoDaddy-sponsored car last year. He’s been helped by an altar ego – the Mayor of Hinchtown – that he created to give race announcers a catchy nickname for the young driver.
It’s a brilliant piece of self-marketing, but he wears it lightly, using his website to both publicize his racing and poke fun at himself. He was in town earlier this week with fellow Canadian Indycar driver Alex Tagliani to publicize the upcoming Honda Indy, and I asked him a few questions.
The Mayor of Hinchtown is having a pretty good year – the mayor of Toronto, not so much. Do you have any advice for Rob Ford, one mayor to another?
"Build your own city and make yourself the mayor of that one, so you really can't get in trouble."
Every Torontonian has a theory about how to fix the city – we all like to argue about transit and development and roads. Do you have any ideas about how to make the city work better?
"Stop building condos downtown and adding people to the whole mess! It always floors me every time I come home, there's a couple of new buildings going up, and I don't know where these people are going to go. It's getting bad, but there are people that get paid a lot of money who have a lot more experience who make these decisions. I'm glad that's not a problem I have to solve."
There’s a small but vocal minority who’d like to move the Honda Indy out of the Exhibition grounds to Mosport, maybe even ban it altogether. Do you have anything to say to those people?
"I think it's a pretty narrow-minded view because the amount of revenue that it generates for the city is huge - the economic impact is large. So if we inconvenience your commute to work for two days, it's pretty selfish to throw out a whole event that generates a lot of revenue for the city, jobs for people, opportunities for people, and exposure for a city that does such a good job of putting on events."
Toronto is one of three stops on the Indy calendar this season with a double header race – two races, two days in a row. What do drivers like yourself think about this – will it be racing heaven or hell?
"This will be hell for various reasons. One is that normally at the end of a race the car gets completely torn apart, you get a week to put it back together, and the crew has their shop with all their tools and resources; now those guys are going to have to do the same preparation, overnight, at the racetrack, with a fraction of the resources and an even smaller fraction of the time."
"From the driver's point of view, after a street race especially, Monday morning we're all exhausted because we get beat up, it's bumpy, you've got blisters on your hands, you're dehydrated, you're sore from the general physical stress of the race, you're mentally exhausted - now we're going to have to get up and do it all again the next day, and that's never been done before, and a lot of us don't know what to expect, so there's a lot of extra preparation going in, especially on the physical side, to make sure you're as sharp on Sunday as you were on Saturday."
You’re heading into the Indy 500 this weekend, which is probably the most famous auto race in the America, perhaps the world. What’s the big deal with Indy – why do people who don’t normally race in Indycar try to get on the starting grid for this race? How is it different for someone like you, who races Indycar for the rest of the season?
"I think it only changes for the guy who wins - everything else stays the same. The guy who wins the race will forever be known as 'Indy 500 winner so and so.' The thing about it is you can't replicate history. You can't buy history. You can build the most expensive, fanciest, flashiest racetrack in the world, and yeah it'll be great, but it's not going to be Indy, because you cannot get that anywhere else. That is why it's so special to us, that's why everybody wants to win it, and basically, you win Indy, it's immortality."
What was your first car?
"Mini Cooper S."
"Ten over. In Oakville. I was furious. I said 'follow me onto the highway and book me for doing something awesome - I need a story.' I was seventeen."
What’s your dream car?
"It's a tie. The Chevy Corvette ZR1 because, bang for the buck, it's just incredible. And an Audi R8 - I just love the look of that car. I think it's gorgeous - and four wheel drive is awesome."
What’s your daily driver?
"I drive a Chevy Tahoe."
What’s your favorite stretch of road in the world?
"I can tell you my least favorite stretch of road - that's the 401 between here and Montreal. Mind-numbing. Just the worst. I don't know about my favorite. There have been some pretty amazing back roads - my dad's from England, and rural England has some awesome two-lane roads that are basically rally stages, that are so much fun to drive."
Favorite racing movie?