12 Questions with James Hinchcliffe

The series of 12 Questions driver interviews continues this week with IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe, who is currently 10th in the series standings after getting caught in a crash Sunday in the Indy 500. I spoke with Hinchcliffe in the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports garage at Indianapolis a few days before the race.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I would say 50/50. I’m definitely not one of those insanely naturally talented people. Let’s put it this way: My first go-kart race was horrendous. Like you didn’t put me in a go-kart and I was like instantly fast. I had to work at it. I had to figure out how to be fast.

I think if you’re at this level, you have a certain degree of natural talent for sure, but no doubt I had to work pretty hard to kind of figure out how to do this well.

What happened in the first go-kart race?

I got lapped on the third lap of the race, and it was pretty horrendous. I think by my fourth go-kart race when I was still being lapped my dad was like, “If this isn’t fun for you anymore, we can stop.” I’m like, “No, no. I am determined to figure out how to go quickly here.”

2. In general, what’s your pitch for people to become fans of yours?

Oh man. I guess, “Like attracts like.” I’m a fan of this sport. I’ve been on the other side of the fence, I’ve been the kid with a Sharpie and a hero card. I try to relate to fans like that as a fan, because even though I’m on the other side of the fence now, I’m still a die-hard fan of racing and I try to exude that and show that to my fans and show them the appreciation that we have for them in supporting us. 

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Probably the travel. Just the amount of time that you’re away from home, away from family, the amount of time you spend at airports and hotels and rental cars and lines for buses going to rental car centers. People think travel is very glamorous — and it can be sometimes — but that’s probably the biggest drain on you and probably one of the hardest parts.

Do most of the drivers not have jets in IndyCar?

No, we’re not quite rocking on the jet level. There’s a couple floating around out there, but that’s not a typical way of travel for an IndyCar driver.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah for sure, as long as they are polite about it. I think manners are important no matter what the scenario is. But I understand and accept that part of my job is being a public figure and that’s one of the sides of it. People are gonna recognize you and I like connecting with fans, so if they see me at a restaurant and they want a picture, then sure — just come up and ask.

5. What’s a story in IndyCar that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I feel like with the emergence of social media, even the smallest stories get broadcast out there one way or another. But I don’t think we talk enough about how Scott Dixon is the greatest IndyCar driver alive and maybe of all time when it all comes down to it.

No one’s gonna talk about it yet because he’s still driving, and there’s still guys like Mario (Andretti) and AJ (Foyt) walking around the paddock, so no one’s gonna say that when they’re still around. But 20 or 30 years from now — hopefully AJ and Mario are still around, but if they’re not, when Scott’s retired…hopefully he’s retired by then, but that guy can probably race until he’s 70 and still win. (But) I think you’re gonna see a lot of guys start talking about him in that way.

Guys like Mario will tell you that back in their day, it was different because the disparity between the good teams and the bad teams was much bigger. You had to have the right chassis, the right engine, the right tires and you were racing against four or five other really good guys. Now we have 15 guys that can win races in any given weekend for any team, and to be as consistently dominant and up front as Scott has for the last 15 years, I think it’s a pretty remarkable feat and I think that even guys like Mario would appreciate that.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Maybe Conor (Daly)? (Looks at phone) Uh…Alex Rossi. He was the last driver I texted.

Are you a frequent texter with other drivers?

Yes. (Scrolls through phone) I was also texting Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan this morning. I texted Conor last night. Charlie Kimball, we chat a lot. Yeah, I talk to a lot of drivers.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

I think all sportsmen, in a certain vein, are entertainers. Obviously in the racing world, they really try to bring up the rivalries and the reason they do that is because it’s entertaining to fans. But sports are entertainment, so yeah, I think if you’re a pro athlete, in some degree you are an entertainer.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

In the heat of the moment, man, anything goes. I would be super hypocritical to sit here and say that it’s inappropriate to use your middle finger on the track.

Has that evolved over the years, or has your policy remained consistent?

I think it’s been pretty consistent. I’ve probably, definitely, very unfortunately fallen into a pattern of using it more than I used to, and I don’t know why that is. It’s probably not the best thing.

I got yelled at last year. I used it in a race and Max Papis pulled me aside to scold me for it, and he was like, “Fist is fine, or whatever Italian (gesture with the hand under the chin) is fine, or like number one finger is fine — just not that one!”

And then the next time I stuck my hand out of the cockpit, it was one finger, but it wasn’t the one he wanted me to use.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Definitely. The big thing is when you find yourself in a situation — and it’s unfortunate but it happens in racing — where your race hasn’t gone well and you’re laps down. You’re taking care of the guys that are running for the race win and just running for positions, not trying to be the guy who’s three laps down trying to race you just as hard as if you were going for it.

That goes a long way, and there are definitely some drivers that have the experience to know that, “Look, this does me no good, it hurts you and ultimately makes you mad at me” kind of thing, and some guys just don’t get that. So when someone does you a favor when they’re in a position that they can’t really improve and they can help you out — or at least not get in your way — you definitely make a point to go to them after the race and be like, “Thanks buddy, I owe you one.”

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Lady Gaga.

Holy crap, that’s pretty big. What was that like?

It was awesome! That was actually after the (Indy) 500 last year. We went and had dinner with her at St. Elmo’s here in Indy, and yeah, she’s just a super cool girl. She was asking a lot of questions about racing. She was interested and fascinated by the whole thing. She’d been in the two-seater with Mario and the whole deal, so yeah — a very cool dinnertime chat.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

You can always improve as a driver. This is one of those sports (where), and a lot of athletes say the same thing, you never stop learning. In such a competitive environment, there’s always something you can do better. There are four or five different aspects of my game that I would spend, and I do spend a lot of time on, trying to improve — and I don’t think that will ever stop.

12. The last interview I did was with Jamie McMurray. He wanted to know: Fernando Alonso has come here and sucked up a lot of the attention so far. What do you make of all that, and how do you think he’s done so far?

I certainly understand it. The fact that we’ve got a guy that is in the conversation for greatest living racing driver giving up their crown jewel event, and in his very unique circumstances, the best chance he has at a good result all year, to come here and do the Indy 500. He’s not a guy who grew up in North America, he’s not a guy that grew up dreaming to race in IndyCar, but still, the Indy 500 has that much allure and is that important to racing drivers all over the world.

So I certainly understand why there’s a lot of attention around it. You know, we fully support him being here. It benefits us as much as anything else, and so it’s great in that sense.

How’s he doing? Annoyingly well. (Laughs) This is a very, very different thing than what he does on a weekly basis and it’s unlike anything he’s ever done. He’s put himself in some situations in practice that would frighten some more timid racing drivers, but you can tell this guy is the real deal. I mean, he got in those situations, dealt with it, got up to speed very quickly, got comfortable very quickly in traffic — which is the hardest part — and he put himself on one of the best teams since the new car came out in ’12, statistically the best team here at the Speedway. And he put himself in a really good position to do very well on Sunday, so it’ll be interesting to see.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with, but it will be some NASCAR driver. Do you have a question I might be able to ask him?

That was a good question from Jamie. I liked that one. I was expecting more like, “Are you a boxers or briefs kind of guy?” or something goofy. But as we’re going a little bit deeper and insightful in that sense…

Talking about great racing drivers, you’ve got Jimmie Johnson, who is gonna try and break the record for number of championships. It’s a two-part question: A. Do you think Jimmie will get the record? And B. How many championships do you think Jimmie will retire with when he finally decides to hang up the helmet?

This 12 Questions interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re thinking of attending the Dover race this weekend, please consider using my ticket link. Thanks!