Q and A with James Hinchcliffe
James is currently third in the IZOD IndyCar Series points standings and scored his first podium finish at Long Beach last month. He's the only driver to finish in the top six in every race this season and qualified in the middle of the front row for the 96th Indianapolis 500 on Saturday.
James, talk about your season so far. I guess it's just like you drew it up when you signed with Andretti Autosport.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It certainly has been a good start. We came into the season not knowing a lot of expect with these new cars and an engine war again, me with a new team.
Huge credit to the Andretti Autosport team because that effort has resulted in good results on the racetrack. Like you say, we've had good qualifying and then pretty decent race results up to this point in the season, street courses, road courses, and now qualifying-wise an oval as well.
It's just great to see the efforts everybody has put in is equaling the results on the racetrack.
Q. Talk about this Sunday's race. It's been a rain-free month of May. You've had plenty of opportunity to be on the course in the IZOD IndyCar Series car. What kind of race do you expect on Sunday?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Again, it's a race of unknowns. This is the first time anybody will run this car for a full race distance on an oval. With the heat we're expecting on Sunday, that throws a question mark into the mix. We just don't know how this car is going to race.
As much as we try to run around in packs in practice, when you have all 33 cars on track running flat out and racing properly, it's a very different game than what you see during practice, even though we'll see on Carb Day.
You're going to have to be flexible on your strategy, you're going to have to adjust the car at pit stops and inside the cockpit, stay ahead of the changing conditions. That's sort of the nature of this race just because of how long it is.
Q. The last Canadian to win the Indianapolis 500, the only one actually, was Jacques Villeneuve who ironically drove the No. 27 car to the win. What would it mean for you to bring home a win in Indianapolis?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I mean, it's beyond words. That's a tough thing to describe. But obviously this is the biggest race of our calendar. This is the one that everybody wants to win.
We're starting on the front row, starting in a good position with the Go Daddy car for the drop of the green. But there are 500 very long miles that we have to finish after that and hopefully we can be there at the end.
Q. James, one thing that I found interesting this month is that car kind of had its own identity because of the driver in it. It seems you've taken over the identity of that car. You've drawn fans all month. Now it's like the Go Daddy car is your car. When people see it, they now think James Hinchcliffe. How has that transition happened in this series?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: No, it's been great. Obviously jumping into this ride, you're following a very big act, probably the biggest act in IndyCar. I think it was important to try and make it our own a little bit.
Obviously, what Go Daddy and Danica did was tremendous not only for themselves, but for our whole sport. Coming into it, there's going to be parallels drawn, comparisons made. It wasn't a super, super conscious decision to try to make it our own. But I just sort of approached it like I've approached any other season, embraced having a sponsor like Go Daddy onboard.
You are supportive of the whacky personality that I can be sometimes and they don't try to hold me back, which is great. It's something that I think some of the fans have been able to relate to and attract some attention.
From my point of view, it's cool now. I get a lot less people yelling out Danica like I did in St. Pete and a lot more people calling out 'Hinch', which is cool.
Q. Are you surprised about the amount of fans you get around your pit area? You're probably mobbed by more people than a lot of the other drivers that are here, even people that have been in the sport a lot longer.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Well, I mean, it's always a surprise. I don't know why anybody would want my autograph. I just like driving racecars.
It's always a very cool thing because well before I ever sat behind the wheel of a car, I was a kid with a card and a Sharpie trying to get a driver's autograph. Now being on the other side of the fence is, you know, very humbling and sort of a very cool experience. It's an element of the sport that I really enjoy.
At the end of the day, as much as racecar drivers like to think we do this week in and week out, to be us, to be racecar drivers, it's got nothing to do with that, it's all about the fans. It's why we have the opportunity to show up every Sunday and have the coolest job in the world.
It's something I really enjoy. It's been great to see there's fans out here obviously supporting the Go Daddy car.
Q. James, I want to ask you about last year. This race was kind of a downer for you, a low point. If you look at the differences now, you're coming in on a high, you're on the front row. Obviously you don't want the same thing to happen as did last year. Talk about the significance of this race for the season happening now. A good result here is really going to make a huge difference.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Yes, certainly last year for me was a learning year through and through, from the start to the finish, obviously including the Indy 500. I learned a very valuable lesson about Indy as a lot of rookies do. I think that experience will serve me well.
Certainly with where we are sitting in the championship and the season that we've had to date, a good result here is as important for the big picture as it is for wanting to do well at the Indy 500.
So to be starting on the front row, obviously we know we've got competitive cars, all the Andretti Autosport cars, great to see. Hopefully we can take the experience and the knowledge earned and learned the hard way last year and just try to apply that to a good result. Not only to say we had a good day at the Indy 500, but also there's a championship position we're fighting for.
Q. It strikes me that Chevy seems to have a fuel mileage advantage. This is obviously a fuel mileage race. Talk a little bit about that. Is that going to play into your favor? Does that affect the way the strategy is going to work on Sunday?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It's tough to say because we haven't really seen what people's fuel mileage is yet at this track. Certainly there was proof that we had the upper hand in that area over the first few races on road and street courses. The way the engines operate, the power level we're at, there's a lot of different elements involved here at Indianapolis.
That's not going to be something we can really assess until the race starts.
I think that goes into what I said early about having to be flexible. We're going to be learning a lot about what each car and each team has in their back pocket as the race unfolds.
Up to this point, Chevy has been tremendous to work with, done a tremendous job, not only all month, but over the first four races of the season.
We're going to keep our heads down, and if we find ourselves in a position where we're making better mileage, that's going to be big in this race. It often turns into a fuel mileage race.
Q. When you're sitting in the middle of the front row looking down that straightaway, do you have any idea what is going to be going through your mind or do you have time to think?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I'm going to be looking left and thinking, Damn, I wish I was there (laughter).
No, it's great to be able to have a clear view into turn one. The biggest thing is to just try to forget it's the Indy 500 and try to treat it like any other race, put the visor down and get on with the job.
Q. You're on the front row of the grid for the biggest race of the season. From a mindset standpoint, do you feel any more pressure here or are you able to handle it as you would any other race on the calendar?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I think honestly that's one of the big tricks of Indianapolis, is you really have to try to treat it like any other race. Because at the end of the day, this is not only the biggest race on our schedule, it's the biggest race in the world. As soon as you start thinking about that and appreciating that fact before you get in the racecar, I think it really puts your head in a different place. That's not necessarily the place you want to be.
It's not the way I want to approach my race on Sunday. I want to get on with the job we've been doing as a team and try to continue that momentum.
A big element of it, yeah, is to try to push that as far out of your mind as possible.
Q. What do you see as the key for you to win the 500?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Again, I just think it's going to be about, you know, adapting, being flexible with your strategy, adjusting the car as the track changes. Although we haven't had rain while we were running, we did have a big downpour on Sunday night. Some of the rubber will be washed away now. We have an Indy Lights race before us. We have this Carb Day. We'll have the hottest day we've had all month on Sunday.
Setups are going to be a little bit of a shot in the dark because you don't have, you know, decades worth of data to rely on and go back to and try and nail this setup as perfectly as possible. It's going to be about compromise and it's going to be about adaptation.
Q. James, the qualifying procedure. Under the old method in the month of May, you would be sitting on pole today. Do you think there needs to be any tweaks to the qualifying procedure?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: You know what, as I said earlier, racing drivers love thinking that we go racing for us. We don't. I think the format we have now is incredibly exciting. If it had been the old format, pole would have been set at 2:00 in the afternoon and everybody would have sat around and nobody would have been able to challenge.
As it was, we had a thrilling duel for the pole that came down to the closest margin in history. It would have been tragic to rob fans of that show. I come out on the lesser end of that, which is still second place.
I quite like the shootout format, the fact we have multiple runs at it. I think it adds a new element of excitement to it. At the end of the day we're here to put on a show.
Q. You, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti seem to follow in a team of drivers that have great chemistry together. What do you think is the key to y'all having the unity you have?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Well, honestly the first conversation I ever had with Michael and everybody at Andretti Autosport, their whole key to building a good race team is starting with good drivers that have good chemistry. It's something they've achieved in the past and something that they feel was maybe missing a little bit the last few seasons.
When they first called me, they really wanted to get to know me a little bit better and see if I would fit in well. You could have the best driving credentials in the world or you could be backed by the biggest sponsor on the planet. If you're not going to be able to work well with the people on the team, it really is all for nothing.
I've always said racing is not about engines, tires, racecars, it's about people, and the right group of people will be successful, period.
I think in Marco, Ryan and myself, you have three drivers who are young, hungry, very motivated to put in the effort, to work as hard as possible to get this team back up to championship contenders.
The personalities are close enough off track. We're all good friends. I think that allows us to work so much better together as a group. We push each other so hard. When you're in a situation like that, it's hard to not see success because all the right elements are there for it to happen.
I don't think there's one specific thing that you can point out that leads to that chemistry working the way it does. It really is the combination of all the people on the team, all the drivers working together, and like I said, all of us pushing together to improve week in and week out.
Q. There's a lot of events that go on before the 500, from sponsor dinners, autograph sessions, a lot of time between now and the race. I think you're even hosting the fashion show. How do you balance the time between the sponsor appearances and getting the job done on track?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Yeah, there's no doubt it's a fine line and a careful balance. But with the format here at Indy, having qualifying wrapped up on Sunday, not have to be on track again until Friday, and only for an hour at that, it's almost good they keep us busy. It takes your mind off the race a little bit.
We've been at the track for so long. We pounded around so many laps in practice, it is actually important to disconnect a little bit and let yourself recharge and regroup for tackling a 500-mile race.
It takes a huge amount of cooperation from the team. We have a tremendous PR staff. Ryann Rigsby helps take care of me, she's the best in the business. She makes sure I'm at as many appearances as I can be at, and appreciate at the end of the day we have to go out there and do a good job on Sunday.
Like I said, it's nice to get away from the racetrack a couple days, do some media stuff, some appearances, then when it's time, when it comes to Sunday, it's all racing, it's all business.
Q. James, there seems to be a lot of fan interest in the idea that some driver might try to race both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in NASCAR. Every year there seems to be speculation about who might try to do that, Ironman kind of test. Do you think that's a thing that's good for both series? Do you think perhaps one day you might see yourself trying that?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: You know, I'll never say never to anything. Obviously to do that, it would have to be the right situation on the other side of things to feel that you're competitive and prepared. To just show up to the Coca-Cola 600, assume you're going to do well, is a pretty bold move.
I'm a competitive person. I wouldn't want to do that unless I'd been prepared properly and felt like I could manage it.
It's a cool challenge. Every driver likes challenges. That's why we do this. We're all competitive. We want to prove that we're the best.
But it is a big ask. I certainly am not against anyone else doing it. I'm definitely glad if anyone were to do it, they race against us first when they're fresh and we're not the secondary one on that. I know how tired you are after doing even. Well, for me, it was the Indy 250 last year, and even then I was tired. So I can only imagine after 500 miles, then have only a few hours' break and do other six. It's a daunting task.
But like I said, if the situation is right, if I felt I could be competitive in both series, I'd do it. I'm certainly hoping other people would be doing it, as well.
Q. James, aside from the weather and where you're starting, what are some of the differences for yourself in terms of the experience? Are you looking over at ROP, at the rookie luncheon, thinking, I'm not there anymore?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: The biggest difference is really just the weather. We've been on track every single day, whereas last year we have so many rain days, so much downtime, it actually made the month feel a lot longer.
Here we almost feel like we're running out of time. You're always working, on track, debriefing, always on top of everything.
But I think knowing what's coming day-to-day is a good advantage. I think you can mentally prepare a lot better just knowing what Community Day is like, knowing what Carb Day is like, knowing what race morning is like.
Last year these were all new experiences. People try to tell you, you can see on a PR schedule where you're going to be, but some of these things are unique experiences. Until you actually go through them, you don't know what to expect.
More than anything, I feel mentally more prepared having had the experience of the month last year.
Q. Shortly after Ryan Briscoe won the pole, Penske said Andretti Autosport established itself as the team to beat. What does it feel like when a guy that has won this race as many times as him has already kind of pegged you, Andretti Autosport, as the guys that he's going to be up there fighting with on Sunday?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I think that makes him a very perceptive person. If you look at how all our cars have been running, it's clear this team has done a complete 180 from what happened here last year. They were so hurt from last year, they were dedicated to make sure it never happened again. To see Andretti Autosport cars second, third, and fourth on the grid, I think it says a lot about the hard work that's been going on the last six months in the shop to get these cars ready for Indy.
I think you should ask that question to Michael because that's a tremendous point of pride as a team owner when a guy as successful as Roger Penske says your team is the one to keep your eye on.
At the end of the day, Roger has won this race a lot of times. He knows how to do it from the front, the back, the middle. You really can't count out anybody on Sunday because of the nature of this race.
Q. We saw how fast your car was on Saturday. How comfortable are you with it in race trim?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: You know, when we stopped doing race trim before getting into the qualifying mode, we put a car away on Wednesday that I was very, very happy with. On Sunday, the track had changed quite a bit. The weather was a little bit closer to how it's going to be on race day. We were a little less happy.
There's still a little work to do on Carb Day. We obviously had some time to think about it, have had some time to really pour over the data. Another draw back about not having down days, we haven't been able to sift through all the data quite as thoroughly as we would have liked.
I certainly wasn't as happy on Sunday as I was last Wednesday. But I'm very, very confident that we'll be able to put something together that's going to be a competitive racecar.
Q. I was wondering how you feel with regards to your car package this year compared to last year and how much more you feel there is to come from both yourself as a driver and also in terms of the car during the rest of the season.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Well, certainly, I mean, it's a strong package. The car, when we first got it, it actually didn't really suit me. It wasn't my favorite thing to drive. Between the work that Dallara has done, obviously a lot of work from the team, a tremendous amount of work from Chevrolet, as well, now I and everybody at Andretti Autosports has a competitive package. The car is much more suited me than it was when we first got out there.
Again, it's a huge testament to all the hard work of everybody back at the shop.
We'll have to see sort of how this race unfolds. I mean, I didn't have a ton of experience in the old car. But certainly the situation that I'm in in general, just with the car and the team and everybody, is a big step forward from last year.
The experience plays into a part of that. Again, just the infrastructure at Andretti Autosport, the resources they have, it's a tremendous position to be in. I think there's definitely more confidence in the experience and the atmosphere that we've got. Hopefully this just translates to get results for the rest of the year.
Q. James, it seems almost the highlight of your year is the red gloves. Can you talk about that a little bit. We know how it happened. Yourself personally, how do you feel about that, being able to do that? Any plans for them to be in your car for the race?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a very emotional thing for me, because Greg's my hero. More than anything, to have been approached by somebody who knew him very well and was very good friends with him and his family to do that, it was beyond an honor. To have even been considered worthy of being able to take his gloves around for a couple laps at the Speedway was a very, very touching thing. I'm incredibly grateful I got to do that.
Yeah, it's just one of the coolest things I've had the chance to do. That will be a hard thing to top. It's certainly something I'll remember for a long time.
In terms of where the gloves go for now, I think they did their job in qualifying. He helped me get a good run and a starting spot. We'll leave it at that. We'll leave the record intact. He's had his qualifying runs now. He's in the race as far as I'm concerned. I think that's a good place to leave it.
Q. You mentioned this is your second time around at Indy, how you've learned from last year what to expect, how things work. What is race morning for you like at Indy and how do you go about preparing for a race like that? Do you ever get a moment to kind of stop and appreciate what it is you're doing?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Well, you know, in terms of preparation on race morning, the team's very good that we have no commitments that aren't racing related on Sunday. There's no quick sponsor appearances, no meet-and-greets, things like that. They let you get to business.
As I said before, it's a function of trying to treat it like any other race weekend. You go, you'll talk to the engineers, your teammates. Me being me, I try and keep it as light as possible. Still tell jokes, hang out with the family a little bit before the start of the race like I would anywhere else.
Yeah, it's very easy to get lost in the moment. And I think one of the few moments that we get to sort of appreciate where we are and what we're doing is driver introductions when you walk up over the wall and see the stands completely full for the first time all month.
You're here all month, and you see them, and there's some people in them some days, Pole Day there's some people, but there's nothing like race day. Almost to the same extent, once we get strapped in the cars, do the warm-up laps, three by three, which you don't do anywhere else, you really appreciate you're at Indy.
You go on the whole track and you see these formerly gray, barren grandstands seething with life, color and movement. It's a very surreal experience. It gives this track a feeling that it's alive and you're right in the heart of it.
You're by yourself at that point. All the press is done. There's nothing else you can do but get on and drive. You just take that moment and enjoy it.
Q. We know you're an intense driver with a lighthearted personality. Do you think your personality is a key to your success on the track?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I don't know. I think in the car I'm a very different person than I am out of the car. I try very hard. I worked very hard for a long time to separate those two. There were times where I was probably too lighthearted in the car when I was younger, and there were times when I was too serious out of the car.
Trying to find that balance has been a key to some of my success, just knowing when to flip that switch. If you're in the lighthearted mode all the time, you're not taking the racing serious enough. If you're too serious all the time, you burn out easily, you don't appreciate where you are, what you're able to do.
I think having that careful balance is a very important part of what keeps me loving the sport so much.
THE MODERATOR: Seeing as there are no further questions, we'll thank James for his time today and wish you luck in the 96th Indianapolis 500.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Thank you.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, everybody, for joining us today.
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