IndyCar's James Hinchcliffe heads home to Canada
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.
Hinchcliffe has finished lower than sixth just twice in nine races this season. He has two podium finishes, has led at least one lap in six races, started on the front row at the Indianapolis 500, and, until a pot hole in the track caused him to crash at Belle Isle last month, was the only driver in the series to complete every lap.
He rebounded from that 21st-place finish to finish fourth at Texas and third at Milwaukee.
That moved him to second in the IndyCar standings behind leader Will Power two weeks ago when they raced at Iowa, which turned out to be one of the more frustrating races of his career. He led 19 laps and was poised to tighten the points race after Power crashed, but he wrecked by himself 55 laps from the finish on a restart in which it was critical he and Andretti teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay not make contact with each other.
Belle Isle and the poor track conditions made him angry. Iowa still has him frustrated after a week off. The two races are the only blemishes on his season and, with different outcomes, he could be heading into Toronto as the points leader.
"On Iowa, I understand everybody makes mistakes in this sport and my philosophy is as long as you can learn something and grow from it, you'll be fine," he said. "What I've struggled with after Iowa is I don't know why I wrecked, and that's what bothers me. I am not saying it is not my fault, but I just don't know what caused it and I can't learn from that. If I was in the same situation today, I don't know what I would do differently.
"And on Belle Isle, well, that one just makes me mad because it was avoidable. If you can do that race over again, you'd red flag that at lap 6 and go fix the track before you cheat me, and before you cheat the fans who got a shortened race because of the problems."
Hinchcliffe went into Iowa trailing Power by 31 points. Although he has slipped to fifth, he is still only 30 points behind the leader and "in a weird, twisted way, we moved closer and the championship race is a lot tighter."
He is still looking for his first IndyCar win, but team owner Michael Andretti believes it is coming soon.
"He's right there, right on the verge of getting that first win, and when he gets it, I really believe it's going to open the gates and he'll starting winning a lot of races," Andretti said.
Hinchcliffe knows there will be hometown fans hoping that win comes Sunday at Toronto, where he'll be racing for the sixth time spanning three different series. He first attended the event as a baby with his family and could finally be its star attraction with Toronto-native Tracy -- the popular "Thrill From West Hill" -- not competing for the first time since his 1992 debut.
In Hinchcliffe's first appearance at the track, in 2006, he tried to accommodate every request and realized afterward that he done "way too much." Back this year in a much more high-profile role, he's worked hard to make it a normal event.
"PT was around last year, my first year in IndyCar, and he still got a lot of the attention. But this year, without Paul and with (me) being a little bit higher up the food chain, we know there's going to be attention," he said. "We've worked very closely with (the team) and the league to make sure I contain everything."
But the expectations are clearly there, and there should be more than a few fans in attendance wearing the limited edition "Red Gloves Rule" T-shirt being sold by the Toronto Motorsports group. He's worn red gloves most of his career as a tribute to Moore, but it drew particular attention at the Indianapolis 500.
A friend of Moore's gave Hinchcliffe a pair of the late drivers' gloves, and asked Hinchcliffe to take them on a lap around the famed speedway where Moore never got a chance to race. Hinchcliffe waited until qualifying day, tucked the gloves inside his firesuit and nearly won the pole.
"For someone to ask me to do that, and think I was worthy enough to give Greg the laps around the most famous race track in the world was unbelievable," Hinchcliffe said. "I don't think of myself as worthy enough, because he was my hero. But to be able to give him that was very special to me."