It’s hard not to smile around James Hinchcliffe. He’s the funniest driver in the IndyCar Series.
Remember when he showed up with a Danica Patrick wig two years ago? Ever checked out his website?
The 26-year-old from the Toronto suburb of Oakville will put you in a good mood.
But that’s not why he’s driving the lime-green No. 27 for Andretti Autosport, the car Patrick left behind for NASCAR.
He’s in the car because he can win, which, until this year in the season opener at St. Petersburg, the light-hearted racer hadn’t shown he could do in the United States’ top level of open-wheel racing.
“He is such a great personality,” team owner Michael Andretti said. “But he also performs on the racetrack. He’s got it all. That’s a great thing to have.”
He’ll bring that thing to Texas Motor Speedway this week for the Firestone 550 on Saturday night, aiming to continue a climb into the ranks of the best-known IndyCar Series drivers.
The list is not that long. There is Dario Franchitti, the Scotsman who used to be married to Ashley Judd; Helio Castroneves, the Dancing with the Stars champ; and Tony Kanaan, last week’s first-time Indy 500 winner.
If he can perform, Hinchcliffe might join their ranks in personality power. The series could do worse.
“Sponsors want attitude. Does he bring that? Oh! Unbelievable,” racing icon Mario Andretti, Michael’s father, told reporters at Indy. “You put James in front of a camera, and he shines. Then he goes in the garage, gets in a race car, and he wins.”
At St. Petersburg in the season opener, Hinchcliffe showed patience and street-course savvy in pulling off a right-place, right-time victory.
Three races later, his perfectly timed swing inside Takuma Sato put him in the lead on the last lap for a victory at Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Hinchclifffe came up street racing in Canada, and his skills are the product of watching his idols.
“Obviously, Greg Moore was my hero growing up,” he said after the Brazil victory. “When I got to IndyCar, the biggest pressure I put on myself was to maintain the reputation that Canada has with their IndyCar drivers. To be able to do that now, not only make it to this level, be successful at that level, I’m proud. My country, they really get behind their drivers. I was told this on the way over here: the last time a Canadian won in Brazil, it was Greg Moore back in ’98. To be able to do that as well is very, very special for me.”
Not everything has been rosy this year. But even in adversity, Hinchcliffe has managed to lighten his stress.
In the season’s second race, at Birmingham, he literally got stranded on the course when a malfunction left his car stuck on Turn 5. He needed a caution so he could be towed back to the garage, but the yellow never came and he spent the entirety of the race waiting — a scene that turned comical after the race when Hinchcliffe hopped out of the car, took a bow, then stuck out a thumb for a ride.
Hinchcliffe still shakes his head about that day.
“The crew kept me smiling over the radio,” he said. “We were having some fun banter, just trying to make light of the situation, because at that point, that’s all you can do.”
Now that he has won twice, Hinchcliffe has credibility to go with his loose persona. He is even more free to be who he is.
But he believes he still needs to manage the balance between fun and business.
“I think in the car I’m a very different person than I am out of the car,” he said. “I try very hard. I worked very hard for a long time to separate those two. There were times where I was probably too lighthearted in the car when I was younger, and there were times when I was too serious out of the car.
“Trying to find that balance has been a key to some of my success, just knowing when to flip that switch.”
He probably flips it with a smile.
7:30 p.m. Saturday,
Texas Motor Speedway
Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe looks to be in a breakout year in the IndyCar Series. The rundown: