Q&A with James Hinchcliffe at Road America

Hinchcliffe gets ready to get back in the car
Hinchcliffe gets ready to get back in the car

Interview conducted by Dave Kallmann of the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal

Elkhart Lake— Canadian IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe met with reporters after half a day of testing Monday at Road America. The session marked his first time on track since he suffered life-threatening injuries in a crash May 18 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Here is a transcript:

Q. You were the first guy out. I take it that was no accident.

A.Well, I may have been a little keener than some of the other guys. But no, we wanted to get to work as soon as possible. It's a brand-new track for us, and so there's a lot of work to get done. No point in sitting around watching the track warm up.

Q. What were the last couple of nights like and what was this morning like?

A. Amazingly I slept really well last night. I didn't think was gonna. I thought I was going to be too nervous and too excited. But I got a great night's sleep, which was perfect. Exactly what you need before a day in an Indy car. Pulled up here this morning. When we went out for the install lap, everything seemed kind of weird. I hadn't done all these procedural things for a long time. I wasn't sure if I was hitting the right buttons and doing the right things. But we got through that, and once they unleashed me and let me put the hammer down a bit, it all kind of came flowing back pretty quick. And this track is unreal. It's my favorite one in the country, so to get to come back here and throttle an Indy car around this place is awesome.

Q. First lap around this place, what went through your mind?

A.Just how good it was to be back. Not only in an Indy car, but at Road America. This is one of those proper, good ol' fashioned road courses, and to get to run around here in one of these things is such a privilege. I was just taking it all in. It was pretty exciting.

Q. What sort of benchmarks did you have to clear to be able to get back in the cockpit?

A. A lot of it is just kind of based on healing. Doctors, to their credit, they left a lot of it in my hands. They don't know how I feel. They could tell you that medically speaking everything should be healed, kind of thing, but at the end of the day it really came down to how I was feeling, how I was feeling in the gym, things like that. I was honest with myself. I wasn't going to to lie just go get back in the car sooner. I wanted to make sure when I was back I was back for good. The first couple of runs, absolutely no ill effects whatsoever. Nothing's leaking. So I think we're all good to go.

Q. Can you provide some details as far as what you had to do during your rehabilitation period?

A.The first phase was really just the healing part. We had to get all the wounds closed. We had to get that second surgery out of the way. From that point on, the rehab just came down to getting my strength back, my stamina back, my flexibility back. You have no idea how much flexibility you lose sitting on a couch for 2 ½ months. And so that was some of the most painful stuff, getting back to the gym and starting essentially from scratch. That much time off, you lose everything. There were times it was incredibly frustrating. Last time I was in the gym I could do X, and now I can only do, like, X divided by 10. As a competitor, that was a big struggle. But I knew I had to build up to it slowly, and it did take time. And there's still probably some work to do, but I got to admit, I feel great in the car. I think I'm further ahead than I thought I was, which is just awesome.

Q. How many hours a day, how many days a week?

A. Every day. And it really depends. When I started, it was an hour a day. I got to a point where I was doing four hours a day. I just wanted to get back into it and focus on getting healthy and fit as quickly as possible.

Hinchcliffe at speed
Hinchcliffe at speed

Q. Did you have any anxieties when you were sitting in the car, getting strapped in?

A. I did a little bit, but then I looked down and checked my shoes and remembered that the right one is go and the left one stop, and then everything was fine. No, honestly it was great. Leaving pit lane for the first time and going through all the procedures, that was one thing we didn't go over again before I got in the car, but it all came back really quick and it feels like I never left.

Q. Where do you feel like you are as a driver, having half a day back in the car after four months out?

A. It's amazing how quick it comes back. There's still a couple of places on track that we're just figuring out, me as a driver, us as a team, us as a series. I'm sure there are a lot of people feeling the same thing. It's amazing how quickly, especially doing the high-speed stuff, corners like the Carousel, corners like Turn 1, I thought it might take a little longer to get on pace with the other guys, but at the end of the morning we're right up there. That's a good feeling.

Q. You said this is your favorite track. What separates it from other permanent road courses; why is it your favorite track?

A. The size of it is part of it. We race on a lot of tracks that are a lot of fun to drive in an Indy car, but this one lets you really stretch the legs a bit. It lets you trim the thing out. Big brake zones. Really fast corners. It's got a little bit of everything, and the scenery around here is just beautiful. The racing I've experienced here in my career has always been the best, and so for me this is always one of the favorites for sure.

Q. And you're going to be a rookie next year, as far as running an Indy car.

A.But we all are, with the exception of some of the old guys. At least half of the field is going to be rookies as far as in an Indy car. I can't wait to see how these things race here. I hope it is a good race, because everything else that I've raced here, the actual wheel-to-wheel has been awesome. I really hope that we can put on a good show.

Q. You were here in a sports car last year. Does that help you in terms of getting familiar with the track and how maybe an Indy car will react to certain things?

A. The sports car and Indy car are quite a bit different, but having been around the track last year helps. Anytime you get seat time at a racetrack, it's going to be positive, right? Getting that chance to blow the dust off of my Road America notebook and add a couple more notes is going to be beneficial in moving forward.

Q. It's only been a half-day, but have you accomplished what you wanted to accomplish here?

A. In a lot of ways, yeah. The afternoon kind of turns back into a normal test day. We'll be a frustrated bunch of engineers and a driver by the end of the day because you always feel like you could have done more or accomplished more. But for the main goals personally, for me, we've checked all the boxes. I feel good in the car, I feel fit in the car, the speed seems to be there and so there's not a whole lot else I can ask for personally. It's like any other test day.

Q. Did you have any anxiety getting back in the car after going through your accident and then seeing the unfortunate situation with Justin (Wilson, who died in August)?

A.It's crazy. We're wired wrong. We're not right in the head, racing drivers in general. I probably should have felt more anxiety than I did. But it's what we do. It's our lives, it's our passion and nothing was going to keep me out of that car today. Absolutely nothing.

Q. Your injury occurred when you were adjusting to a new family at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Are there any ways specifically they've been showing you support . . . leading up to your first laps?

A. It's incredible. I feel like even though we were getting our working relationship sorted out, what happened brought us a whole lot closer. I've been in the shop an awful lot the last couple months, once I was mobile again. And I've been at the races, supporting the team on the engineering stand, hanging out with the guys in the garage. From Day 1, their support was absolutely unwavering. It was all about how quickly can we get you back in the car. 'We want you back. We need you back. Let's get you healthy.' I felt that the whole way through, and it meant an awful lot to me. I never felt like I was being disassociated with the team at any point. Always included. I always felt like it was still home. That goes an awful long way.

Q. This has been a target date for you; was it an emotional day for you, and if so, what were those emotions?

A. Getting here this morning was emotional, seeing everybody and I was probably grinning like an idiot and some of the crew guys were probably doing the same thing. It's going to have that effect to a certain extent. But I'm a professional, in theory, so once the helmet goes on, it's all business. I tried to kind of keep the meotional side in check. Maybe tonight, I'll have a little cry about it, but for right now, I'll be focused on the job.

On pit road
On pit road

Q. With the length of the track, is it more mentally taxing than other road courses?

A. No because the length of the straightaways actually gives you a bit of time to rest. It kind of lets you collect your thoughts a little bit, but racing drivers collecting thoughts could actually be detrimental to your lap time. The less we think is probably better. So sometimes these long straights can get you in trouble because you can think about it too much when you head into the next brake zone.

Q. You won a race before the injury, and (Ryan) Briscoe was pretty competitive all season, so what was the feeling about what the team and Briscoe accomplished and how you can try to build on that from last season?

A. From that standpoint, it was a learning season for everybody, right? We hit some pretty good strides at points. There were a few tracks that Ryan, the team and I weill all agree we need to work on in time for next season, but that's all part of a new program, and that's what this is, not only with me being at the team but the team having the new aero kits. So there's a lot of useful things we did last year that we can apply not only here but moving forward.

Q. What concerns did you have physically about today? You said nothing leaked, but were you worried about your neck getting sore or your calfs knotting up . . .

A. A couple of thigns, really. It wasn't widely reported, but I did suffer a serious neck injury in the accident, as well, and I wasn't cleared to start training my neck until very recently. Obviously that's a part that takes a beating in an Indy car, especially around a place like this. So that was a bit of a concern. I spoke to TK after he ran here last (week), and he told me it definitely was going to be a concern. I think he was hamming it up a little bit, though, trying to make me scared. Then obviously upper body was something I was able to work on fairly quickly in the recovery, but these things are super physical without power steering and with these new aero kits. So that was a concern. My left leg, obviously, has to put a lot of pressure to the braking system and that had a large injury not that long ago. SO there were a couple of things, but I've been lucky in that at this point I actually feel very good.

Q. People, I think, want to make what you went through a huge life-changing thing, and certainly physically it has been and maybe your career (with the time out of the car), but . . . do you see it that way, or is it more like a bad day at the office?

A. It's interesting. It's a situation that the further away I get from it time-wise, the more I think it affects me in that sense and the more I think about it. At the time, you're just so focused on getting back. You don't really give yourself time to think about anything else. Now we've reached this point. Especially with things that subsequently happened in the season. It does make you pause a little bit and make you appreciate the situation we're in. I've always tried to be a driver that loved every day of his job and appreciated it, because even the worst day of my job is better than the best day of most jobs, and it even heightened it a little bit more. It's not your job, it's your everyday life too. You can't take anything for granted, and you have to enjoy everything and everyone around you.

Q. What kept you motivated for 4 ½ months?

A. Winning again. That's it. That's all of our movtivations for getting up in the morning, for going to the guy, for going to engineering meetings, for coming testing. For everything. So for me, I was very fortunate. We won a race earlier in the year. I had fairly recent memories of what that felt like, and that's really what I focused a lot on, just wanting to feel that every time.

Q. A football player blows a knee out, he says, 'I know the whole process, it's all great, but until I get out there, and do it, and test that knee, I won't really know.' Was there a point where you said, 'I know. I'm back?'

A.I had a moment in the Carousel where you're flat out in fourth gear, and the thing stepped out on me a little bit and I caught it. I'm like, 'OK, if I can do that, I'm pretty sure I can do anything at this point.' But for sure, until you get out there and do it, you don't have 100% confidence in how it's going to go. This morning was big in that sense. I get out of the car at lunchtime and feel great. The car was working well, and that helps. And I'm confident I can be 100% going forward.

Q. So now you're just a driver.

A. Just a driver. Just a guy.

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