This is a comeback story.
This story first appeared in the May 25, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
It was just one year ago that James Hinchcliffe was on a practice run for the Indianapolis 500 when his car hit the wall and a suspension wishbone came loose and impaled him, resulting in massive blood loss, a broken pelvis and a brush with death.
It was thanks to a fast-acting safety crew at the track and surgeons in Indiana that he survived.
After a grueling rehab, the 29-year-old Toronto native is back. He made his return in March and will climb behind the wheel of his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda car for the 100th running of the storied race on May 29. He even won the pole position after averaging 230.76 mph in a qualifying race.
Hinchcliffe said there was “never a question” he would return to racing, a sport he has been passionate about since he was a child.
“I never thought twice about it,” he said. “When you get into this sport, you blindly accept the risk and carry on with the job. It was unfortunate but at least I was able to get behind the wheel again.”
This year will mark Hinchcliffe’s fifth time at the Indy 500, and he believes he’s got as good a chance as anyone to take home the Borg-Warner Trophy, which he calls the “coolest in sports” because the winner’s face actually gets carved into it.
“I don’t go to bed without drinking milk and dreaming of my face on that trophy,” he said.
Although the anniversary will raise the hype around the race this year, Hinchcliffe said it doesn’t impact him much. “Every year, this is the biggest race in the world. Because it’s the 100th running, there’s more prestige, but it’s not much different from inside the car.”
The Indy 500 is definitely one of Hinchcliffe’s favorite races, along with the Honda Indy Toronto, which allows him to go back home and relive “what helped me fall in love with motor racing.”
Hinchcliffe got his first go-cart for his ninth birthday and didn’t think of it as a potential career. But at 14, “I had reached a level that was competitive, so we said, let’s see where this takes us.”
It took him far. Before the 2015 crash, he won four races and has a net worth of nearly $30 million.
Today, it’s the competition that appeals to him most, he said. “It’s kind of addicting, managing an inanimate object where you and the car become one.”
It’s also more grueling than it looks. “The cars have no power steering and create so much down force. People don’t realize how physical it really is to muscle a car around corners with 3G and 4G force. You’re working so hard for two to four straight hours and your heart rate is up the whole time. You need the cardio endurance of a marathon runner.”
When Hinchcliffe is not in the gym training or driving at speeds in excess of 200 mph, he’s connecting with his fans. He has 67,000 followers on Twitter, 17,000 on Instagram and 15,000 on Facebook and has created a fictitious town called Hinchtown, where he serves as the mayor.
Unlike other sports, where athletes’ faces are front and center, with race-car drivers “all you see is a helmet and a car,” he said. “And if you win, you might get a 30-second interview. Social media allows me to connect with the fans.
“As a kid, if I could have sent my hero a tweet and there was the chance that he might write back, it would have been a game-changer.”
Outside of the track, Hinchcliffe said he likes to “disconnect,” and enjoys the beach — “getting in the water, being quiet. Our lives are so frantic, it’s great to be slow-paced with no cell phones and just be an observer once in a while.”
In terms of his personal style, Hinchcliffe seeks comfort and is a professed fan of flannel shirts. “I’m from Canada, so that goes without saying,” he said with a laugh. But he has also “gained an appreciation for fashion” lately, wearing slim-fit suits on more-formal occasions and sportswear brands such as Ben Sherman, Scotch & Soda and Frank & Oak when he’s more casual.
Spyder is one of his sponsors, so he has “quite the collection of Spyder gear,” he said. “They have a new line of activewear, so I’ll spend a lot of time in that.”
Hinchcliffe said he’d welcome a deal with a fashion brand or timepiece company. “I’m a big watch guy, so a collaboration would be cool.”
He’ll be getting a firsthand taste this week when he walks in his first fashion show in a mall in Indianapolis prior to the race.
Next month, he’ll be wearing his racing gear when he and his teammates from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports face off against a bevy of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models on Celebrity Family Feud.
“That was really fun, but I can’t tell you who won. That would be against the rules.”