Verizon IndyCar Series driver James Hinchcliffe won over the judges and wowed TV viewers in his debut performance on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" on Sept 12.
The 29-year old Canadian, driver of the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, and his professional dance partner Sharna Burgess performed a foxtrot to the song "Live Life" by Zayde Wolf – a fitting choice to highlight Hinchcliffe's attitude in his recovery and return to racing following a 2015 crash during practice for the Indianapolis 500.
The duo was the second of 13 competing couples, made up of celebrities paired with professional dancers, to take to the stage on the opening show of Season 23. Their efforts earned three ratings of "8" and another of "7" on a 10-point scale for a sum score of 31 to make them the surprise early favorite.
Among the celebrities competing in this edition of the show are former NFL player Calvin Johnson, better known as "Megatron," Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, rapper Vanilla Ice, singer-songwriter Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds and Maureen McCormick from "The Brady Bunch" TV series.
Hinchcliffe and Burgess remained in the lead until the final couple, Olympic gold-medal gymnast Laurie Hernandez and pro partner Val Chmerkovskiy, tied them for the highest combined score from the four judges.
"First lap, first class," was how judge Bruno Tonioli summed up the Hinchcliffe-Burgess performance.
Friends and fellow Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Conor Daly and 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi were part of the studio audience to lend their support to Hinchcliffe, who looked cool and collected throughout the dance.
"It was awesome to be here," Rossi said. "We're all very proud of him. I definitely think he's going to go very far on the show."
Daly, Hinchcliffe's roommate, added, "James, as a driver, he's a winner. We know he was nervous but he went for the lead and he took it and shared the pole with Laurie Hernandez. He's going to win this thing."
Judge Julianne Hough, the former dancer who teamed with three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves to win Season 5 competition in 2007, was complimentary of Hinchcliffe – even though she was the only judge to not rate him with a score of "8."
"That was an absolute calm, graceful, smooth, beautiful breath of fresh air," said Hough. "If we are all smart right now, we need to keep an eye on you."
Fellow judge Len Goodman admitted he wasn't sure what to expect from "a guy who drives a car for a living," but the Brit was impressed by the Canadian's foxtrot.
"James, I'm telling you that was knockout, it really was," Goodman said. "That was terrific."
The combination of judges' scores along with fan voting results determines which couples remain on the show in succeeding weeks and who is eliminated. Results of the fan vote will be revealed on the next "Dancing with the Stars" live episode on Sept. 19, with one of the 13 couples to be eliminated from competition on Sept 20. The winner will be crowned and presented the Mirror Ball Trophy on Nov. 22.
"Tonight was shocking I think in a few ways, but obviously it was an incredible night," said Hinchcliffe, who was surprised but very pleased with their performance. "For us to come out second, I was a bit nervous to go early, but on the other hand it was kind of nice to get it out of the way. We've been practicing so hard working on that routine. Sharna is an incredible teacher and an incredible choreographer and that I think really showed. The dance went off better than we could have expected. The judges' scores and comments were better than anyone could have expected for Night 1. We're just over the moon with how it came together."
Hinchcliffe also weighed in on the shocking incident that occurred during the latter part of the live broadcast involving protesters and fellow DWTS competitor Lochte.
"It's very unfortunate. He's come here to dance. He's come here to show a different side of himself. To have something like that happen, it puts a damper on the evening but I think he's handling it pretty well and, if anything, it just might make him bounce back even stronger in Week 2."
Hinchcliffe and Burgess squeezed in workouts over the past two weeks between Verizon IndyCar Series races at Texas Motor Speedway and Watkins Glen International. They will continue to train this week through Thursday, when Hinchcliffe will to head to Northern California to trade his dancing shoes for race boots as he returns to the cockpit of the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, that runs Sept. 16-18.
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