James Hinchcliffe back on track after crash

Back in the saddle

Elkhart Lake — Getting out of bed once was the most important goal. Then walking. Then hitting the gym. And then getting the doctors' OK.

Each of those steps James Hinchcliffe took over 4½ months was done with Monday in mind.

Finally the 28-year-old Indy-car driver was able to suit up, tighten his helmet and seat belts and become whole again.

"Once they unleashed me and let me put the hammer down a bit, it all kind of came flowing back pretty quick," Hinchcliffe said after turning his first laps in an Indy car since suffering life-threatening injuries in May.

Monday's test at Road America was an initial tune-up for four teams and five drivers — as well as manufacturer Honda — for a first-time event at the 4.048-mile course next June.

But for Hinchcliffe, the session served as an opportunity to shake off the cobwebs and any nagging uncertainty. It also marked a milestone in his recovery from his crash May 18 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Ryan Hunter-Reay also tested
Ryan Hunter-Reay also tested

Hinchcliffe suffered a fractured pelvis and his upper left leg was pierced when a suspension part penetrated the cockpit of his car. He suffered massive blood loss, underwent emergency surgery and had a subsequent operation in late summer.

"For the main goals personally, for me, we've checked all the boxes," said Hinchcliffe, who was the first driver out when the track opened.

"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."

Although no official times were reported, Hinchcliffe was on pace with the others at the test, including 2013 IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti, former teammates of Hinchcliffe's from his time at Andretti Autosport.

"Just to see him climbing back into his car, in his natural environment, (doing) what he loves to do, it was great," Hunter-Reay said. "He's been very strong throughout the process, very upbeat and very positive the whole time. As you would expect from him.

"We just came off a full season of running, and he's right with us. I didn't expect anything less out of him, but it's pretty cool to see that. He's got a lot of heart."

Hinchcliffe reiterated that from the time he regained consciousness after emergency surgery, through the ups and downs of therapy, he never had any doubt he would be back in a race car.

Sebastien Bourdais at speed
Sebastien Bourdais at speed

The biggest question in Hinchcliffe's mind before the test was how he would come through it physically.

Hinchcliffe wasn't cleared for rehab on his neck until recently because of what he called a serious neck injury that hadn't been widely reported. Long corners such as the Carousel put a heavy load on a driver's neck at Road America.

Heavy braking would tax Hinchcliffe's left leg. And although he was able to work on upper body strength early in his rehabilitation, nothing compares to actually pushing a high-downforce car to its limits.

The screech of tires audible around the property left no doubt Hinchcliffe was on the edge. And the one time he stepped over it, he passed the test.

"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," Hinchcliffe said. "I'm like, 'OK, if I can do that, I'm pretty sure I can do anything at this point.'" Dave Kallmann/JSOnline

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