James Hinchcliffe once spent three hours waiting for the chance to meet his hero. When Greg Moore finally emerged to speak to the 12-year-old outside his team truck, Hinchcliffe was too awe struck to say much during what ultimately turned into a life-changing chat for the aspiring driver.
"I barely could spit out any words, my sister had to ask most of the questions because I was just staring up at this guy like he was God," Hinchcliffe said. "It changed my life, to this very day. He influenced the design of my helmet, he's why I wear red gloves, he's who I model myself after—and it only took 10 minutes for him to make that impression on me."
Canadian drivers are revered in their home country, and Moore was quickly moving up through the ranks when he met a young Hinchcliffe at the 1999 race in Toronto. Moore died about four months later in an accident at the season-ending race in California. He was 24.
Hinchcliffe, a native of Oakville, Ontario, understands the legacy of Canadian drivers. He rattles off a list of winners—Moore, Patrick Carpentier, Scott Goodyear, Alex Tagliani, Paul Tracy, Jacques Villeneuve—and feels the pressure to match their success.
"Almost all the Canadians before me have been successful," he said. "Just making it to IndyCar is only a small part of the fight, because as a Canadian, I am very anxious and keen to carry on that legacy of winning for this nation."
The pressure is even more intense this week since Hinchcliffe is returning home to race Sunday in Toronto. He arrives with some serious buzz: This second season of IndyCar has been a breakthrough for Hinchcliffe, who joined Andretti Autosport this year as Danica Patrick's replacement, and he's combined on-track success with strong marketing to become the series' newest star.
Sponsor GoDaddy has rallied behind him for this event with a "Toronto Takeover" campaign that has put Hinchcliffe's face on billboards and at bus stations all over the city. Perhaps it really is "Hinchtown," that imaginary online community (and Twitter handle) that has helped build his reputation as one of the more personable drivers in quite some time.
For Hinchcliffe, all of this is both surreal and scary.
"My poster is now all over Toronto, and seeing my face, seeing yourself around town is just bizarre," he said. "It's not something you get used to, and not something I've experienced before. And Canadian fans are super supportive of their drivers. So to know that you've got that backing, it really hits you how much you want to put on a good performance for the hometown crowd."
Tracy, in fact, is the last Canadian driver to win an IndyCar race at Toronto, which he did in 2003 under Champ Car sanctioning. That win came 10 years after Tracy's first victory, in 1993 under CART, and no other Canadian driver has won in that 19-year span.
No pressure, right?
Four-time series champion Dario Franchitti remembers the pressure on good friend Moore whenever the series raced in Canada.
"I think the guys in the Canadian press and the Canadian fans, they want a home win and they are going to put a lot of pressure on James to deliver that," Franchitti said. "But I used to see that with Greg, too. The pressure on Greg in Toronto and Vancouver, especially Vancouver, was just obscene, and to have to deal with that was very tough.
"I think if James can put that out of his head and get on with it, he'll be just fine."
But, Franchitti said, it's up to Hinchcliffe alone to manage the pressure and not let it interfere with his performance or his approach to Sunday. He has been impressed with Hinchcliffe's performance so far this season, and sees many similarities between Hinchcliffe and Moore.
"One thing I've learned about James, I think he's very smart and he'll treat it like any other race," Franchitti said. "Obviously the next big break for James is winning an IndyCar race. He's been very consistent and done a hell of a job, and I think as long as he treats this race like any other week, he'll be just fine.
"As far as Greg, out of the car, Greg (had) that—just that kind of crazy sense of humor and a really good person; and I see that from James, that connection with the fans. They definitely have that in common. I think a lot of that is the Canadian personality, as well. He's a good guy and very, very impressive."
Many people knew Hinchcliffe had a special presence outside the car and in front of the camera. But he's shown this season he's a special talent inside the car, too. More at San Jose Mercury News