Q & A: James Hinchcliffe on his first IndyCar season
James Hinchcliffe, the 2011 IndyCar Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year award winner, enjoyed a stellar debut season in North America's premier open-wheel racing category. The 24-year-old Canadian piloted the No. 06 Sprott Inc. Newman/Haas Racing entry to numerous top-10 finishes, including three season-best fourth-place finishes at Long Beach, Loudon and Kentucky.
|Newman/Haas driver James Hinchcliffe|
Placing 12th overall in the final point standings, James collected rookie honors despite missing the opening round of the season at St. Petersburg. The Toronto-born racer looks back on an eventful year.
Q: IndyCar Rookie of the Year – what does that title mean to you?
James Hinchcliffe: “It means quite a bit. It was obviously the goal from the start of the year, but from the start we were on the back foot after missing St. Pete. The team was super motivated to try and still end up on top, and I think that it says a lot about the effort we put up. It's cool because it's the only title you can just go for one time. The only downside is now some people are calling me Roy Hinchcliffe! I had a lot of fun battling with JR, and I want to congratulate him on a really strong year.”
Q: Was it a natural progression for you to move up into the IndyCar Series? What, if any, were the key differences – other than speed, over your previous racing experiences?
JH: “The jump up felt right. I think my time in the junior ranks really served me well. For sure the biggest adjustment was the level of competition in the series. If you don't get the absolute maximum out of yourself, the car, the tires at all times, you will be left behind. The racing was incredible. The team really helped me prepare well for that. On top of that, I really underestimated the amount of work off track! This being an IndyCar driver really is a full-time gig!”
Q: You had season-long support from Eric Sprott and Sprott Inc. A Canadian racer with a Canadian partner on the side of the car – describe the benefits to both parties.
JH: “It was honestly a dream come true. Getting my break in IndyCar with a Canadian sponsor was the perfect scenario. Sprott was an incredible partner because they were new to motorsports but immediately saw the potential our relationship could have. They operate in a fast-paced industry and so do we. They have been a large part of our success this year and I personally owe them a huge debt for helping me make this step up. I hope to be involved with Sprott for many years.”
Q: Newman/Haas Racing doesn't typically hire rookie drivers. How did your relationship develop over the season and was there any pressure racing for one of motorsports marquee teams?
JH: “Of course there was pressure! There would have been pressure with any team, but knowing that I was getting the chance to run with a championship-winning team added quite a bit. Like you said, they don't often hire rookies and so I really wanted to live up to their expectations and prove that they made the right choice. Their faith in me was huge and that gave me a lot of confidence. We had an instant chemistry and really grew stronger every race weekend. I have a great relationship with every single member on the team, and that means a lot to me.”
Q: You've obviously laid down a solid marker in terms of establishing your presence in IndyCar. What are your options currently for the 2012 season?
JH: “Well, I recently got a call from Domino's looking for a quick pizza delivery driver! Seriously though, it's been very humbling to see the amount of interest there has been for 2012. Obviously, next year is going to be a big challenge for all the teams and drivers with the new car, and so having teams willing to bet their season on you is flattering. But there is still work to be done to make it all happen.”
Q: Describe your 2011 teammate Oriol Servia in three words?
JH: “Intelligent. Committed. Rapid. If I were allowed to add a fourth word it would be espresso.”
Q: You only had a couple of opportunities to race directly against Dan Wheldon in IndyCar. Can you share your experiences with Dan on and off track?
JH: “My first on-track experience with Dan was during Indy this year. He was so open to giving advice and helping me out. I always knew that if I had a question, Dan would answer it. He gave me a lot of good advice throughout May and it meant a lot that he always had time for me. Off track, luckily, I knew Dan better. I had been seeing him around the track and at events ever since I got to Lights in 2009.
“I remember a brilliant night with him after the awards banquet last year in Homestead. But I also got to race against him in a charity go-kart race that Graham [Rahal] set up on the Wednesday of the Vegas week. He wasn't even scheduled to come, but heard about it at the autograph session and is always willing to help out a good cause. We ended up having a great battle the last few laps with Mike Conway, Brian Clauson and a few guys.
“Banging wheels and bumping, it was hilarious. I was crying in my helmet I was laughing so hard, and most of it was instigated by Dan! At the end, we got out of the karts and he pulled off his helmet and was wearing that devious, million dollar smile. I'll never forget that. I am so happy he came that night. It is my last personal memory of him.”
Q: You've been nominated for the Rookie of the Year award at the prestigious Autosport Awards, being held in London next month, and RACER's David Malsher placed you sixth overall in his top 10 analysis. How do you view such recognition?
JH: “With disbelief, mainly! But it's good to see that all my bribe money is paying off! It is just weird to see my name up there with those guys. I have been a fan of racing much longer than I've been a driver, and so it is in some ways surreal to be recognized like that. But it is also incredibly satisfying. As a team, we were proud of what we accomplished this year. Even without any outside mention. Having respected people in the industry acknowledge a good effort is a very welcome cherry on top.”
Q: We know with the introduction of the new Dallara IndyCar chassis, named the DW12, that it's going to be a busy off-season with testing. In addition to those test duties, what else do you have lined up over the next couple of months?
JH: “Well I can't wait to get my hands on a DW12! Developing a new car has been one of the things about reaching the top level that I dreamed about. I love that challenge. Sadly I have to wait until the New Year to drive one, so until then I am keeping busy.
“I spent some time in England on vacation visiting family. Then I'll be heading to Vegas for a conference, back to England for the Autosport Awards and hopefully an outing in the Dan Wheldon Memorial kart race currently being organized, then finally I'll be competing in the Granja Viana 500 race in Brazil! I am looking forward to all of it!”
Q: Finally, what or who surprised you the most from your rookie year in the IZOD IndyCar Series?
JH: “Wow, good question! I would have to say just the entire Indy 500 experience. You hear so much going into it for the first time, but nothing, and I mean nothing, prepares you. The whole month, start to finish is just the most incredible event. I'll always remember my first Indy 500 and I'll always look forward to my next.”