Hinchcliffe promoting IndyCar series on DWTS

James Hinchcliffe
James Hinchcliffe

For 20 years, James Hinchcliffe has been in the driver’s seat, competing in karts, Formula and IndyCar series. He nearly died last year in a crash during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500, returning this year to win the pole and finish seventh in the legendary race.

But that didn’t prepare the 29-year-old Canadian for his current nerve-wracking endeavor – competing in the televised elimination contest “Dancing With the Stars." He was surprised to start out doing well, tied for first after the first dance writes Donna Beth Wellenman of the Martinez News Gazette.

“I never danced in any appropriate way before," he said with a chuckle Saturday before participating Sunday in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the finale of the IndyCar season. No, he never has danced with a girlfriend, “nor am I likely to."

In the end, he is hoping that his appearance on the television program will give IndyCar racing a wider audience.

The racing series, for which he drives the No. 5 Schmidt Peterson Honda, is helping him do that.

“I’ve got to say, IndyCar deserves a ton of credit for the amount of effort they’ve put behind this campaign, for lack of a better term," he said. Since the competition is, in part, a popularity contest, “we’ve morphed it to look like a mock campaign, given the time of year," he said.

His website has a “Decision 2016" page, offering readers the choice between the Republican Party, the Democrat Party or, marked with a red check, the Dance Party, paired with the slogan, “Vote 4 Hinch!" Fans can buy merchandise with the same encouragement from that same page.

“We have campaign shirts, buttons, yard signs, the whole bit. I think it’s working, because analytics show that after the first week, ‘Hashtag TeamStopAndGo’ was the most talked about team name."

He also knows how to promote. Hinchcliffe is the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Hinchtown." He created Hinchtown tongue in cheek,as his Internet presence for his website and social media pages. Even his racing merchandising being sold in Sonoma Raceway stores has Hinchtown references, along with the branding of his sponsor, Arrow Electronics, and his manufacturer, Honda.

His coach in the ballroom dancing series is Sharna Burgess, who was paired last year with NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown. She also spent the fifth week of the previous season with eventual winner Nyle DiMarco for the week that required participants to change partners.

Just as Hinchcliffe is learning to appreciate Burgess’s creativity, ability to choreograph and teach him a dance in short order, the dancer has started to appreciate the racing world and the athleticism of its drivers.

She got her first look at IndyCar racing in Fort Worth, at Texas Motor Speedway. Then it was on to Sonoma raceway, where she was given a ride around the intricate road course in a two-seat version of a race car.

Hinchcliffe isn’t the first IndyCar driver to compete on the dance floor. His predecessor, Helio Castroneves, who won the fifth season, has given him a few pointers about what to expect and how to get through the coming weeks.

But Hinchcliffe conceded he has found the early weeks of the contest nervewracking. Burgess helped reduce the tension during his first appearance, a foxtrot to Zayde Wolf’s “Live Life," by making him laugh.

“We were joking literally right up until the count came down. We almost missed the start of the song because we were cracking jokes on the dance floor," he said.

He barely remembers his inaugural performance. “I just remember the ending and thinking, ‘That actually went pretty well.’ I was floored by the scores and the judges’ comments. Couldn’t have gone any better!"

In fact, he and Burgess found themselves tied for the top spot after the debut. But the driver was worried about the next go-round, since preparing for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma kept him away from rehearsals.

James Hinchcliffe with partner/coach Sharna Burgess finished near the top the first two weeks of Dancing with the Stars.
James Hinchcliffe with partner/coach Sharna Burgess finished near the top the first two weeks of Dancing with the Stars.
Plus, it’s a challenging Latin dance, the paso doble inspired by bullfighting matadors. Hinchcliffe joked, calling it everything from “Casa Lupe" and “Nacho Libre" to “Chalupa Batman."

“I keep getting it wrong!" he said. But then, he’s been a little busy preparing for the Grand Prix.

He rehearsed the Latin dance two days before arriving in California to focus on racing. While at Sonoma, he focused on multiple practice sessions and qualifying. During Saturday’s laps around the track, something broke in his car, and he had to be towed back to the garage.

Sunday he raced in the Grand Prix of Sonoma, the final race of the series. He finished 12th in the race and 13th in season points.

Then Hinchcliffe flew back Sunday night to appear Monday on the dance show. His competitors had been practicing all week long.

If racing has taken time away from his dance practice, Hinchcliffe is discovering it also gives him a few advantages.

First, he can concentrate and has the physical strength to drive a race car for three hours at a time. In contrast, sprinters and football players have much shorter periods of physical intensity and focus – perhaps as short at 10 seconds, he said.

Burgess told him she’s noticed something else as well, “how receptive I am to small inputs," he said.

“When you’re driving in a racecar, the racecar is talking to you. Every part of your body is getting some sort of input from the racecar. Everything that’s touching the car – your back, your bum, your head, your legs, your hands – everything is getting some sort of input. We are making instantaneous, very minute adjustments based on what the car is doing," he said.

“Dance, you can do the same," he said. Although as the male he is considered to be the lead dancer of the two, “let’s be real," he said. “She’s driving this car. She said that when she does something to try and adjust me or taps me on my elbow or shoulder, she said not only do I recognize it and feel it, I adjust instantly."

He said that’s been “a huge asset" on the dance floor. Burgess told him the only partner who compares in reaction to Hinchcliffe is DiMarco, who won despite being deaf and unable to hear the beat of the music.

Hinchcliffe has participated in other television programs, including a version of “Family Feud." That’s where producers spotted him and tapped him for “Dancing With the Stars."

No matter how this competition ends, Hinchcliffe said he’s glad he’s participating. But it’s not for personal reasons. It’s all for IndyCar racing.

“I’m such a fan of this sport. I have been since I was a kid. I’m now in a super-fortunate position to be involved in it and essentially in a sense to be a spokesperson for it," he said.

“Really, for me, it’s about spreading the message. This is my family. This is my sport," he said. “I don’t know anyone that comes that doesn’t enjoy their time here. That just benefits everyone here and everyone that I love and I work with." That’s why he’s gone on other television shows as well.

“I want to tell the story. I want to show people how cool this sport really is. Any opportunity I get to do that, I’m all in." Donna Beth Wellenman/Martinez News Gazette

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