INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (March 16, 2016) – James Hinchcliffe loves his job, but he didn’t always dream of being a race car driver.
“Why did I get into racing? I was born in Ontario and I was too small to play hockey so I had to pick something else,” he said.
His dad influenced the direction his life would take.
“Sunday mornings you wake up at seven and watch Formula 1 with Dad and then you do homework and chores and then after lunch you watch the IndyCar race. For as long as I can remember, those were my weekends.”
On his ninth birthday, he was given a go-kart.
He hopped in, hit the gas and left his hockey dreams in the dust.
He was a racer and he was good.
“There were some tough years. When I was a starving Indy Lights driver I had the same pair of boots for two years and I wore holes in them so I had to duct tape them. I was sitting there laughing at the fact that I had to tape my own racing boots and I had a sharpie in my hand and as a joke I wrote “stop” and “go” on the duct tape. Someone noticed it and it ended up in the paper and kind of became this thing and so I started sharpie-ing every single pair of boots I got after that. I guess I’ve made it because now they stitch “stop” and “go” into my boots for me!
“But it was a slog. Even my rookie year in IndyCar, I missed the first race. We were still trying to put sponsorship together. It’s still a slog but at least we’re in a much better position now.”
At the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for his 5th month of May in 2015, and with four Verizon IndyCar Series race wins under his belt, he could picture his face among the greats on the Indy 500 Borg Warner trophy.
“I remember the day yeah, for sure,” he said. “I remember getting up. I remember… it was a practice day we don’t normally get. It was the first time we ran on that Monday. We started the day like any other practice day. The start of the practice session had gone pretty well. The car was feeling pretty good. I remember starting that lap and being behind (Juan Pablo) Montoya and next thing I knew there was a bunch of bright lights and a tube down my throat and I’m trying to figure out how exactly I went from point A to point B.”
Hinchcliffe was flying around the track at 223 miles per hour when the suspension came loose. He slammed into the wall and a steel rod from the suspension impaled him.
He was pinned and losing massive amounts of blood.
“The blood loss was obviously pretty severe. Your body can lose about 60 percent of its blood before everything shuts down, before you’re not really coming back no matter how much they get back into you. I was at just over 50. At the rate I was losing blood, if they had gotten me to the ER any later, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have made it.
“I have obviously no memory of the accident and when I woke up and kind of comprehended what had happened and understood the situation, my attitude was kind of very blasé about it, about the accident itself. It wasn’t until I started being a little more cognizant in the couple days afterwards that I saw my family and my friends and it started to set in that this was a bigger deal then I think I was giving it credit for.”
That’s when Hinchcliffe decided to start asking questions.
“So I started interviewing my nurses and my doctors and talking to them and trying to piece things together and I then I got the chance to talk to some of the safety team and some of the crew guys and I just started slowly putting the whole day together from all these other people’s first person accounts so I could understand better what happened.
“That was pretty sobering for me. It was the first time I really digested, I think, the severity of the situation. Here’s a trauma surgeon in his 60’s, been doing it for years, he’s seen everything and when a guy like that says, yeah for a minute there I didn’t think we were getting you back… with his experience for him to say that and hear that… man… that’s bad.”
As Hinchcliffe was going through daily rehabilitation and trying to heal physically, he’s dealt a mental blow with the death of fellow racer and close friend Justin Wilson.
In a freak accident at Pocono Raceway three months after the Indy 500, Wilson was killed when he got caught up in a shower of debris and hit in the head.
“If I’m honest, I think that Justin’s accident actually had a bigger impact on me than mine did. For me, yeah, half an inch to the left it would’ve hit a bigger artery, you would have bled faster and there’s no way we would have saved you. And then what happens to Justin happens and it’s like, yeah, two inches to the right and it would’ve missed him. And I all of a sudden got this massive appreciation for game that we play. It’s a game of inches. Life or death is an inch or two away. And that was a massively sobering thought,” said Hinchcliffe.
“When you’re going through that grieving period you can go for that why phase, why wasn’t mine half an inch to the left and his could’ve been two inches to the right? Why did it go this way and not that way? There’s no doubt that was something that affected me in a much more profound way on a personal level than mine did.”
Hinchcliffe’s recovery, physically and mentally, wasn’t easy.
“I tell a story how I remember the first day I was able to put my socks on by myself,” he said. “I almost cried. It was a big deal.”
He says the hundreds of signatures on get well signs, the cards, the gifts, the thoughts and the prayers helped him recover faster than his medical team expected.
“The support was incredible. Obviously you know there’s people watching, there’s people that support you and you have fans or whatever, but when something like this happens, to see the outpouring of support, it was overwhelming, it really was. And the food! When I came back home people must’ve assumed I couldn’t cook, which was true, and food would just show up at my door.
“People that you don’t even know, people that you’ve literally never meant, taking time out of their day. It was just incredible.
“When you’re having a bad day or a bad moment in the day, you just look up and see that stuff and you feel better. They honestly played as big a part as anybody else in this whole thing. There’s not one person that I thank or appreciate more than another from the moment I hit the wall to sitting here right now. It’s everybody.”
Today, he’s 100 percent healed.
He drove his first race since last May at the 2016 season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida last weekend.
Hinchcliffe started the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 8th, but encountered contact on the first lap. He was able to gain the lap back but was caught up in a multi-car crash in lap 56 and finished 19th.
He says physically, he’s never felt better, and he’s glad to be back with his crew.
“For me it’s blind trust. I trust those guys to the end of the earth because I know that it goes through their head when they’re building the cars that a person is going to be put in this thing and projected a couple hundred miles an a hour and I know they take it very seriously and what happened that day was not anybody’s fault. It was a part failure that they don’t touch, they don’t build it, it was bad luck of the draw if you want to call it that. So for me it was very easy to get back in the car in that sense and I still have all the faith in the world in the guys bolting my car together.”
He says he’s not dwelling on last year at all.
“It’s done. It’s over. I’m back. I feel great. I know how lucky I am to be in that position,” said Hinchcliffe.
“Professionally I like to think I’m the same guy. I’m still the same driver. I’m still just as motivated, just as hungry, but personally, for sure going through the 2015 that I went through for a variety of reasons, it definitely changes you. It’s an appreciation of life is what it comes down to because it’s a very fragile thing.
“I don’t think about the accident but I think about how I conduct myself every day. I try to find little things to appreciate every day because you don’t know if you’ll have a chance to appreciate them tomorrow.”
He says he’s realized the importance of donating blood.
“At first it was just a number and it wasn’t until I really did start investigating a little more what they really meant, 22 units of fluid and your body only holds ten or 11. That’s a lot. That’s a big deal.”
Hinchcliffe plans to host a blood drive in May.