James Hinchcliffe: Getting Back on Track

As he awoke at the hospital, Verizon IndyCar Series driver James Hinchcliffe had no recollection of what had happened hours before at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was there, at racing’s most famous track, that the 29-year old nearly saw his racing career – and his life – come to an end.

While practicing for the Indianapolis 500, which was just days away, the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver lost control of his No. 5 vehicle at about 200 mph and careened into the wall on the third turn. Flames erupted from the back of the vehicle before quickly coming to an immediate stop. Safety crews rushed to Hinchcliffe, only to find a portion of the vehicle had punctured both of his legs, pinning him in the racecar and causing the former IndyCar Rookie of the Year to bleed profusely.

“I don’t remember any of it, to be honest,” Hinchcliffe said about the accident. “I suffered a massive concussion in the crash and so, from about 30 seconds before the crash until two days afterwards, I don’t have a whole lot of memory of it, which is probably a good thing, considering how the scene was described to me by the safety workers that got there.”

It was the quick response and procedure by the Homalto Safety Team, a group consisting of 30 safety personnel – including paramedics and firefighters – that saved Hinchcliffe’s life. It’s no wonder the crew is considered one of the best of any racing series in the world. The Canadian native owes his life to those brave men and women – and admits he’ll never forget what they did that afternoon.

“The Homaltro Safety Crew is the best in the world, that’s why I made it out of that accident alive – it was because of the experience they had and the procedures and protocols in place,” he said. “It goes without saying that thanking them profusely is still something that happens six months after the fact and will continue to happen probably as long as I’m in a racecar.”

But Hinchcliffe, also known as The Mayor of Hinchtown, didn’t just thank those involved with maintaining his well being, he also turned to the crew to help piece the crash together.

Hours upon hours were spent in bed in the days following the incident, leaving Hinchcliffe with plenty of time to do investigative work and figure out just what happened and why it happened. He spoke with doctors, crew members and fellow drivers in the hopes of better recreating the nightmare.

The events that transpired were fascinating to Hinchcliffe and, before long, the problem that caused the crash was discovered. It turns out, there was an issue with a suspension component and it failed.

“We aren’t sure what caused it,” Hinchcliffe added. “It was a component that we’ve never really actually seen a failure on before, which is kind of the interesting part. So, it’s not something that would have been easily preventable, based solely on the fact that it’s not anything we’ve really seen before.”

Piecing together the incident, among other things, helped pass the time for Hinchcliffe, who didn’t get out of bed until the fourth day. While many of his injuries were well known by the public, it was a neck injury that went unreported, coinciding with a fractured tailbone and the severe injuries to his legs. The road to recovery was much different than racing – it was slow, meticulous and often unsettling.

BIRMINGHAM, AL – APRIL 26: James Hichcliffe of Canada drives the #5 Honda Indy Car on the track during the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on April 26, 2015 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

“It was just a function of moving slowly, because I was in quite a bit of pain. When they first came in to get me out of bed, it seemed like a massively unappealing proposition, but I knew it was a necessary evil. They didn’t want me stagnant for that long. I was spending 23 hours and 45 minutes a day lying down but those 15 minutes of getting up and moving were very important. As I healed more and got stronger, those 15 minutes became 20 minutes, then became 25 minutes, then became an hour and now, here we are – 100 percent and ready to go.”

Once released from the hospital, there was no way of keeping Hinchcliffe away from the sport he loves, and almost three weeks later he made his first public appearance since the crash, at his home track in Toronto. It was among his favorite races of the season and one he hadn’t missed in quite some time, so he made sure that he was there in his home country, helping out the other Schmidt Peterson drivers.

“I wanted to be in Toronto because, obviously, that city and that country have been so supportive of me throughout my career,” he added. “I had a record of 27 consecutive times at that race and I didn’t want to miss it and break my streak. That was important but it was just about being back at the race and trying to help my team as best I could.”

Of course, the next big step for Hinchcliffe was getting back behind the wheel of an IndyCar and on Sept. 24, almost four months after a life-threatening injury, the mayor returned. For Hinchcliffe, it was a long-awaited return, one that produced little jitters, but rather, a ton of excitement. It took a lot of pain and a lot of rehab to get back into the car, though Hinchcliffe claims it was “just like riding a bike.”

With the end of the 2015 season came an outcry from the public about safety issues and concerns, with many members of the media looking at Hinchcliffe’s accident, along with the unfortunate passing of Justin Wilson after a head injury sustained at Pocono Raceway, and declaring that the sport needs to consider other safety options or discontinue racing altogether. It’s a subject that seems to arise often— a subject Hinchcliffe, one of two drivers on IndyCar’s Safety Council, is passionate about.

“I get it, it’s an emotional reaction and no one is more emotional than the drivers or people involved in the Verizon IndyCar Series” he explained. “[Safety] is always something we think about and something that’s in the forefront of our minds. It’s frustrating when armchair quarterbacks sit there and try and tell us how to do our jobs or what we need to do to make the series safer or better, when they’re not involved and don’t know all of the facts. You have someone bad-mouthing something you love, that you’ve dedicated your entire life to making better. It’s not like we’re sitting around on our hands, waiting for the next accident – there are a lot of people working very hard trying to think of something that could solve that problem.”

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 06: IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe gives the command to start engines before the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

But is tradition standing in the way of better improvement, as some believe? The look of IndyCar has changed little – something purists love – over the years, but that doesn’t matter to Hinchcliffe.

“Anybody who thinks tradition should stand in the way of safety is an idiot. If that was the case, we wouldn’t have seatbelts, engines would still be in front, we wouldn’t have fuel cells and fuel tanks would still be right beside the driver – that’s the most ignorant argument I’ve ever heard. That said, there is no solution to our problem right now. Could a canopy be beneficial – absolutely? But we need to come up with a solution that solves more problems than it creates – and that doesn’t exist yet.”

However, as the winter months approach, Hinchcliffe has his sights set on the upcoming season and what it’ll take to get back into rhythm, after having missed so much time to injury. Several weeks ago, the mayor was back practicing on a short oval, testing out the track at Phoenix International Raceway, a track once again returning to the IndyCar Series, this time for the 2016 campaign.

There are several new stops on the upcoming schedule, raising the excitement level for fans and drivers alike and, for Hinchcliffe, there’s one stop he’ll certainly have circled on the calendar.

“I love going to new tracks,” he said. “I got a chance to test Phoenix and that’s a cool place. Short oval racing is some of my favorite and some of my favorite tracks to go to were Milwaukee and Iowa – they were some of the best races for us. Boston, I struggle to see as anything other than incredible. It’s a very cool city and it’s going to be a great place to have an event. Road America is still one of my favorite tracks and the thought of racing an IndyCar there is awesome – I’m really excited.”

Ed Miller is a contributor for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillyEdMiller or “like” CraveOnline Sports on Facebook.


Photo: Getty