IndyCar Crash Survivor James Hinchcliffe Thinks IndyCar Is Safe

This year’s Indy 500 polesitter talks to us about his horrific crash, triumphant comeback and why he has no fear of getting back behind the wheel.

James Hinchcliffe IndyCar Interview
AP Photo/The Indianapolis Star, Jimmy Dawson

James Hinchcliffe watched the Indy 500 from a hospital bed last year. Six days earlier, he had smashed into a wall at more than 200 miles per hour, his car bursting into flames and a suspension rod tearing through his leg. He could’ve easily bled to death, were it not for the expedient actions of the safety crew who rushed him to medical attention. One year later, his storybook comeback gained another chapter after he snagged the pole position for the 100th running of the iconic race. We sat with the Canadian driver to talk safety, his qualifying win and what makes the Indy oval challenging.

Congrats on the pole. What a cool comeback.

Thanks! It makes for a really great story, right?

It does. Do you worry that the crash overshadows the accomplishments in qualifying?

The crash was such a big topic of conversation for the last year that my mindset has always been to live in the present and to think ahead. My whole goal coming into the month of May was to give a new story to talk about. I didn’t want to come in and have a bad month and have everyone think maybe the crash was the reason. Regardless of what happens next Sunday, because with 500 miles and 33 cars, anything can happen. No matter what happens outside the race, I think what we accomplished [with winning the pole] was big and was very fitting and can hopefully close that crash chapter.

I’ve heard you mention before you don’t have a lot of fear, but is there any part of you thinks ‘I won’t go into this corner as hard as I would have before?’

Absolutely not.

Christian Petersen/Getty Image

And that’s what makes you a race driver.

That’s what makes me clinically insane. [Laughs]

How did your parents react after you won the pole last weekend, especially after last year?

They were incredibly happy. My parents were out of the country when I had my accident. I’m not a parent, so I can’t imagine what that must’ve been like. They got a phone call that a plane was sitting on a tarmac and they must get to Indianapolis immediately. For three hours, up in the air with no information, I bet that was awful. This year, my parents moved into my house in Indy on May 1st, saying they wanted to go to every single practice and qualifying lap, just in case I tried to kill myself again. [Laughs] After the pole victory, it was just tears, my mom was so happy. For someone who had been there for the whole process, the rehab and the comeback, to see where we got to was a proud moment for her.

Do you think Indy is doing enough for safety?

Ironically, I’ve been one of the driver representatives on the IndyCar safety committee for a few years. I’ve got a front row seat for a lot of the things that are in development and know where things are headed. As a driver, I’m perfectly comfortable getting in those cars because I know what they’re doing to make them safer.

You narrowly edged out Josef Newgarden to take the pole. The difference, 0.06 miles per hour, was the fourth closest in Indy race history. What do you and Josef say to each other after a finish like that?

I told him I could sympathize. In 2014, I was step-for-step in Josef’s position because I had gone out fourth or fifth in the fast nine, set a good time, and watched all the better guys not be able to get it. Then Ed Carpenter [Newgarden’s team’s owner] went out on the last lap of the last run, nicked me for pole by a very small margin. So I told [Josef] I feel bad for you, but not that bad. [Laughs] I’m okay with it. I prefer it this way. He was super gracious about it. He’s still getting a front row start at the Indy 500.

James Black/Icon Sportswire

What do you think makes the Indy oval so difficult?

You’re going for the absolute highest speeds. To do that, you have to sacrifice so many things you need to keep the car on the race track. All the grip, all the downforce; the more of that you can get rid of, the faster you go. It’s this super delicate balance between speed and control and you end up on this knife edge. In a car moving at 230 miles per hour, you’re covering a football field a second. Any input you make with hands or feet is magnified so much because of the distance you’re traveling.

How quickly can elemental conditions change the handling of the car?

These cars rely a lot on aerodynamics so if the air changes, be that humidity, temperature, air density or wind, we have to adapt. Wind’s the really bad one, because each tenth of a mile an hour affects the car a little bit. If you’re facing a ten mile-an-hour wind, that’s like going into the corner 10 miles an hour faster. If we’re at the car’s limit going 10 miles an hour slower, that wind will wreck havoc. As the track heats up, it loses adhesion and the car starts sliding more, so you have to adjust the downforce you’re going to run and what line you’ll take, and the gearing. Nailing the different parts at the right times for those conditions is difficult for the engineers.

There are new regulations surrounding the aero kits this year, right?

They introduced a new floor piece for safety that has affected the way the car works, so it’s a little new for everyone.

Newgarden said it’s been harder for every driver to find downforce this year as compared to last year during qualifying. That true?

One hundred percent. Any driver in the field would agree.

Last question. What do you do if you win?

[Grins] Drink the milk, kiss the bricks.

We also talked to drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power. Check out the chat below.