INDIANAPOLIS — James Hinchcliffe might have the busiest appointment calendar in IndyCar.
When he’s not fine-tuning the No. 27 car for team owner Michael Andretti, he’s making promotional appearances for sponsors or trying to sell the sport to non-IndyCar fans. And if he’s not busy doing those things or goofing around with friends and colleagues in Gasoline Alley, Hinchcliffe can almost certainly be found patrolling the Internet as the self-appointed Mayor of Hinchtown.
Somehow, Hinchcliffe has found time to do all of it, still win races and become one of the most popular drivers on the circuit.
“He’s a dream for a sponsor because he’s great out of the car and he’s great in the car, too,” Andretti said Sunday, the second day of Indianapolis 500 practice. “James has a way of turning it (the racing focus) off, and then turning it back on, which is a real talent.”
He’s a new breed of IndyCar driver, too.
The Oakville, Ont., is nothing like the feisty rivals that dominated the sport in its glory days and he doesn’t have the same personality of his team owner, who admittedly came across as standoffish during his career because he was so focused on driving cars.
Instead, the 26-year-old has embraced social media and enjoys life. His unusual list of includes flannel shirts, maple syrup and dog sled racing.
Over the winter, Hinchcliffe and a few other drivers carved out time to dress in fire suits and cut a series of humorous online videos at the IndyCar office. The way Hinchcliffe and series officials see it, there’s no such thing as overexposure.
“When you have someone that has the talent, results, personality and understands the business side of IndyCar racing as well as engaging fans, you have a near perfect combination that allows a driver to transcend outside of motorsports,” IndyCar vice-president of marketing Kasey Coler said.
But the attraction goes far deeper than Hinchcliffe’s engaging personality.
A year ago when Hinchcliffe got his big break, replacing Danica Patrick as the driver of the No. 27 car, he immediately started cracking jokes about becoming the first Go Daddy guy. Turns out, he’s just the big man on the IndyCar series this year with two wins in four races — one more win than Patrick had in her IndyCar career. He’s currently fourth in points, trailing leader Takuma Sato of Japan by 24.
What’s different for Hinchcliffe this season?
“I knew there was always going to be a big gap stepping into the Go Daddy car and following Danica,” Hinchcliffe said. “But I think it was important to make this ride our own and create our own identify, and I think we’ve done that.”
His rapid ascension has been remarkable.
Three years ago, Hinchcliffe came to Indianapolis as a rising star in the Firestone Indy Lights series. A few days after competing in the Freedom 100, he returned to the 2.5-mile oval to help call the better-known Indianapolis 500 on the radio — as an analyst.
By 2011, Hinchcliffe’s exuberant personality helped him land a full-time gig with the once heavyweight team of Newman-Haas Racing. The IndyCar rookie produced three fourth-place finishes and seven top-10s in 16 starts that season, then lost his job when Newman-Haas ceased operations.
He wasn’t out of work long.
Andretti needed a personable driver with oodles of talent to replace Patrick and keep the sponsors happy, but he also wanted somebody who would fit in with an already established team.
Hinchcliffe was the perfect choice, and it showed. Ryan Hunter-Reay wound up winning year’s points title and this year’s second race while Hinchcliffe won the season-opener at St. Petersburg and last weekend’s race at Brazil. Andretti’s son, Marco, also is coming to Indy with the best start of his career.
It’s not a coincidence.
“He (Hinchcliffe) is just putting it all together, same as me,” Marco Andretti said. “You could say it’s a team thing because it started last year.”
But Hinchcliffe is not satisfied.
After qualifying second for last year’s 500, a bad pit stop forced him to settle for a sixth-place finish.
He’s come back as this year as one of the hottest drivers in the series and with a team that has dominated the first two months of the season. It happened again Sunday when the Andretti drivers nearly swept the top five spots on the practice speed chart.
Rookie Carlos Munoz, of Colombia, had the fastest lap Sunday, 223.023 mph. Hunter-Reay was second at 222.825 with E.J. Viso third at 222.523 and Marco Andretti fourth at 222.485. Hinchcliffe was sixth at 220.907 before heading off for yet another appearance before starting all over Monday.
That’s life in the fast lane for Hinchcliffe.
“It never really shuts off,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s fun and he brings out more in me. It’s a good atmosphere within the team, but he’s fun to work with and as much as he is great in front of the camera, he’s got a lot of obligations. Like now, he’s got to go cut out for the ’Wind Tunnel’ obligations and he’s fast in a race car, too.”