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IndyCar Meet-and-Greet: James Hinchcliffe
Less than two weeks after sustaining a scary concussion at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the popular Andretti Autosport driver is sitting pretty in the Indy 500’s front row.
The driver being loaded into the back of the ambulance could remember a few things. What’s your name? “James Hinchcliffe.” When’s your birthday? “December 5, 1986.” Who is the President of the United States? “Barack Obama—that’s pretty good, because I’m Canadian.”
Hinchcliffe’s girlfriend of two years, Kirsten Dee, was standing close by, crying. The driver reached up from the gurney and grabbed her hand.
“Don't worry, I remember you,” he said.
Hinchliffe had just been struck in the head by debris from Justin Wilson’s car during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It knocked him unconscious and gave him a concussion.
Hinchcliffe is hanging out in a suite at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, attending a promotional event for the launch of Hammer Down, a new beer made in his honor by Flat12 Bierwerks. He recounts the touch-and-go aftermath of his recent injury.
What’s your phone number? Hinchcliffe rattled off a few digits. Dee and members of Hinchcliffe’s family who were there looked at each other, befuddled. None of them knew his number by heart. “They had to ask somebody what my phone number was,” he says. “But apparently I nailed it.”
Other things? Not so much. What month is it? Hinchliffe, who was preparing for his fourth Indianapolis 500, had no idea it was the Month of May.
As a boy, James Hinchcliffe knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up.
He wanted to be an IndyCar driver.
“I've got a fabulous interview that he did at maybe 12 or 13 with a local TV channel,” says his father, Jeremy Hinchcliffe. “They said, 'Where do you think you're going to go with your career?' And James said, ‘Oh, I'm going to be an IndyCar driver. I'm going to make it.'”
For Hinchcliffe, “making it” started with his father, a native of Britain who, until his son was 7 or 8 years old, had no racing experience himself. “I had a midlife crisis when I was about 45,” says the elder Hinchcliffe. “I bought myself an old English racecar and went vintage racing. So he'd come to the track with me and polish my visor and help fuel the car and do the tire pressures. We've always been a car family, so right from being a toddler, James has been a car guy.”
James Hinchcliffe would stay the night at the track with his father and go out to dinner with him and all of the “old guys,” the veterans who made the racing facility their second home on weekends. While they sat around the table sharing stories, Hinchcliffe soaked it up. "He was like a little old man,” his father says. “In fact, my nickname for James was 'little man.'” Jeremy let his son drive his MGB through the streets of their Toronto neighborhood while sitting on his knee.
The driver’s own memories of racing don’t come into focus until 1995, the last year of a unified Indianapolis 500 before the infamous CART/IRL split. It was also the year that driver Jacques Villeneuve became the first and only Canadian to win the 500. “I distinctly remember that car on the cool-down lap, Jacques’s fist in the air, and it was the first time that I watched a race that I actually retained anything,” Hinchcliffe says. “A bit of nationalistic pride, I guess—I was learning what that meant at the time.”
Later that year, Hinchcliffe celebrated his ninth birthday and received his first go-kart.
“That was it,” says his father.
Hinchcliffe had his first brush with celebrity in the A1 Grand Prix series, in which drivers compete against each other under the flag of their native countries. Hinchcliffe found himself crossing the border from Canada to the United States as many as 14 times a year. “The U.S. government didn’t totally understand why this kid was traveling frequently to the U.S,” he says. “So crossing the border and Customs was the worst part of my life. It sucked every time.”
Hinchcliffe decided to apply for a Nexus card, which would allow him to pass through customs with an eye-scan. “I get there to the office, hand the guy the file,” Hinchcliffe remembers. “He looks at it. Starts going through the pages. Pauses. And he looks up to me, looks back down to the file. He closes the file and walks to the back of the room, and at the back of the room there's a guy on a computer. At this point I'm getting really nervous. He opens the file and points to it, and the other guy looks at it, and he looks at me, and he looks at the file, and he looks at the guy, looks at the file, looks at me—and at this point I'm casing the exit. How do I get out of here as quickly as possible?”
The first official returned. “James Hinchcliffe?” he asked.
"Yeah,” Hinchcliffe responded.
“You're the James Hinchcliffe that races for Team Canada in A1GP?”
“Cool, man, we love that series,” the official said while stamping Hinchcliffe’s paperwork.
“That was the first time I was ever recognized for being a racecar driver,” Hinchcliffe says.
He was later voted the most popular driver in IndyCar. Hinchcliffe says he always knew he would someday break into the open-wheel series. His father, however, wasn’t convinced until after James had completed his second season in Indy Lights, IndyCar’s top development series, with three wins and eight podium appearances.
“James did a test with Newman-Haas Racing down in Florida,” says Jeremy Hinchcliffe. “Brian Lisles, who is a general manager at Newman-Haas, came to me and said, 'You should be a very, very proud father. This kid is exceptional. Much quicker than other drivers we've tested.'”
When Kirsten Dee entered Hinchcliffe’s orbit in 2012, the Australian had already found her own niche in IndyCar. The then-20-year-old model had already been named Miss Indy Australia, and she was judging the overall Miss IndyCar competition in Los Angles when she was paired up with the Canadian driver.
Dee had no idea who Hinchcliffe was. No idea he was in his second year in IndyCar, racing for Andretti Autosport. No idea he was The Mayor of Hinchtown, his own lively online community. She asked him if he’d like to have dinner. “I was totally trying to pick him up,” she says. “It was so funny, because I had no idea what he did for work. I didn't know how serious it was. I actually thought that anybody could show up with a car.”
Hinchcliffe said he would love to take Dee out to dinner that night, but he unfortunately had a curfew. “This guy does not like me,” Dee thought at the time. “What kind of 25-year-old has a curfew?” The next day, Dee was at the Grand Prix of Long Beach when she saw Hinchcliffe waving at her. “I'm turning around and was like, 'Is he waving at me? Oh geez,’ she recalls. After the race—in which Hinchcliffe finished third, earning his first trip to the IndyCar podium—the two changed their flights and made plans to visit Disneyland together. The next day, Hinchcliffe had dinner with his parents and told them he had met his future wife.
It was not until she witnessed Dario Franchitti’s career-ending crash in the Houston Grand Prix in 2013 that Dee saw how dangerous IndyCar could be. “I guess people assume that I would be more scared at first,” she says. “But I get more nervous with each race. At first I had no idea what was going on. It was all fun and games.”
Dee and Hinchliffe’s family were sitting in his sponsor’s suite at the IMS on May 10, during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, when the danger became personal. “We didn’t actually see what happened on the screen, so all we saw—it looked like James made contact with another driver and he'd driven off into the grass,” Dee says. “We didn't think anything of it, because they didn't show anything. So I said to James's mom, 'What do you say we get a wine?' She said, 'Yup, I think it's time for a glass of wine.’”
The two women were on the way back to their seats when a man Dee didn’t recognize ran into the suite. “Did you see what happened to James?” he asked.
“Yeah, he ran off—hopefully they can get him restarted,” Dee responded.
“No, he's on the way to the hospital. He's had a head injury.”
The whole family sprinted to the medical center, and as the doors opened, Dee saw Hinchcliffe on a stretcher, wearing a neck brace and being lifted into the back of the ambulance.
A little over a week after the concussion, Hinchcliffe was back on the track, earning his second front-row start in the Indy 500.
“I've sprained a wrist; I've separated cartilage between a rib,” says Hinchcliffe. “Even when I flipped a car, I walked away. This has been by far the most dramatic accident, I guess.”
“I've been so lucky,” he continues. “Knock on wood.”
See exclusive behind-the-scenes photos of Kirsten Dee and other IndyCar drivers’ wives, fiancees, and girlfriends from the recent Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo shoot.