Bad Timing Has Followed James Hinchcliffe

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Yesterday, James Hinchcliffe announced on social media that he is stepping back from being a fulltime driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. He stressed that this is not a retirement, but simply stepping away from being a fulltime driver. He said this was a professional and personal decision, but we also know that he had pretty well run out of fulltime IndyCar options for 2022.

It’s a shame to see this, but not a huge surprise. Few athletes in any sort get to go out on their own terms. AJ Foyt and Richard Petty did it. So did Al and Bobby Unser. It looks like Tom Brady will be able to do it in football. But unless you have achieved legendary status in your respective sport, the last phase of your career is likely going to be out of your control.

A lot of times, injury dictates the end of a driver’s career. Dario Franchitti’s monumental career was brought to an abrupt end, when he suffered a massive concussion in a horrifying crash at Houston near the end of the 2013 season. I don’t think anyone would have blamed Hinchcliffe, had he retired after his life-threatening crash in the final practice prior to the 2015 Indianapolis 500. We would later learn how close to death Hinchcliffe was, but he battled back to begin the 2016 season, and even won the pole for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 – which was quite the redemption story.

James Hinchcliffe had a star-crossed career, which suffered more from bad timing more than anything else. He got his first IndyCar ride with Newman/Haas – at that time, a team that was a shell of its former self. The once-iconic team closed its doors for good, at the end of the 2011 season. He joined Andretti Autosport for 2012, just as the DW12 and the Chevrolet turbocharged engine made their debut. After a decent 2012 that saw him finish eighth in points, he won three races in 2013. The problem was that he also finished eighth that season, as well. 2014 saw Andretti switch to Honda engines and the team took a step back. Hinch’s sponsor, Big Daddy, left IndyCar and United Fiber & Data became Hinchcliffe’s primary sponsor.

Funding became an issue as the team scaled back to three cars in 2015, and James Hinchcliffe was the odd man out. He essentially replaced Simon Pagenaud at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM). He won in only the second race of the season with his new team, and things looked bright. But his season was cut short with his practice crash at Indianapolis.

As mentioned earlier, he returned in time for the 2016 season and won the pole at Indianapolis. But he managed only three podiums in a winless season that was a tough season for all Honda teams, and finished thirteenth – his worst career finish in a full season.

In all candor, each season with Schmidt Peterson was a struggle for Hinchcliffe. I think Hinch was loyal to Sam Schmidt, because he stuck with him after his 2015 crash. The team let him down in 2018, when he failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 – partially because they didn’t realize the gun went off at 5:50 pm. Added to that pain later in the summer, he also saw his best friend and teammate, Robert Wickens, in a terrible crash at Pocono that has him still in a wheelchair more than three years later.

Two-thirds of the way through the 2019 season, Hinchcliffe found out that Schmidt Peterson had allowed Zak Brown and McLaren to buy into the team. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he was not in their plans for 2020 and beyond. For a while, it looked as if his contract would force him to be a PR figure for the team, but not allow him to drive.

Then there was the ESPN – The Magazine episode, where Hinch came ever so close for posing nude (not showing anything) in the now-defunct magazine. Some say Arrow objected, while others say his new bosses at McLaren were offended. There is also the school of thought that McLaren was looking for an out, so that they would not be responsible for the remainder of Hinchcliffe’s contract; so they suddenly developed a case of exceedingly high morals.

Whatever happened behind the scenes, Hinch was allowed to compete in the final two races of the season and the two legally parted ways after the 2019 season.

James Hinchcliffe was suddenly in limbo for 2020. He was able to secure sponsorship from Genesys for the Indianapolis 500 and the two races at Texas with Andretti Autosport. When the pandemic scuttled the first four races of the season, and then the Indianapolis 500 was moved to August – suddenly the double-header at Texas was the season opener in June. Those races were forgettable, but Hinchcliffe scored a seventh-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 later in the season (that still sounds strange). That finish tied (2016) his second best 500 finish ever, and was just behind his personal best of sixth in 2012. Later in that convoluted 2020 season, Andretti Autosport and Zach Veach parted ways, so Hinchcliffe drove the final three races of the season in the No. 26 Gainbridge car, with three poor finishes.

Hinchcliffe and Michael Andretti brought Genesys on board for the entire 2021 season in the No. 29 car. It did not go well. Hinchcliffe managed only one podium – a third at Nashville. In fact, other than the Music City Grand Prix; the second best finish that Hinchcliffe could muster was a pair of fourteenth-place finishes at Belle Isle and Long Beach.

Quite honestly, 2021 was a disaster for Hinchcliffe and Genesys. It was predictable that neither would return to the team in 2022, as Michael Andretti has given his team an offseason shakeup. Hinchcliffe is to be replaced by fellow Canadian Devlin DeFrancesco, while Ryan Hunter-Reay was not renewed in favor of Romain Grosjean.

Now, at thirty-five, James Hinchcliffe finds himself on the outside looking in – again. That is not a good age to be looking for a ride. It’s bad enough to be Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will turn forty-one on Friday – but at least he has eighteen IndyCar wins, a series championship and an Indianapolis 500 win on his resume. While I think that James Hinchcliffe is a much better driver than what his results show, it’s the results that sponsors and team-owners look at when filling cockpits.

Timing is everything in all sports, but I think even more so in racing. For decades, a rookie could only dream of getting on with a team like Newman/Haas. When Hinchcliffe got his big chance with the team that was winning championships just a few years earlier – they were on their last legs. When he moved to Andretti, they won the championship in his first season there. In his last season, they won the Indianapolis 500. But there were financial difficulties looming, and Hinchcliffe was eventually squeezed out, when the team trimmed down to three cars.

I think the biggest waste of Hinchcliffe’s career came during his tenure at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Timing forced him to sign with the second-to-third-tier team owned by Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Hinchcliffe was used to having Ryan Hunter-Reay as a teammate at Andretti Autosport. At SPM, he had teammates like James Jakes and Mikhail Aleshin.

Speaking of bad timing, five races into his tenure with SPM – Hinchcliffe was sidelined for the remainder of the season. When he came back in 2016, some say he was not the same driver. I don’t agree with that. I think he was just with a bad team.

As he continued to toil away with SPM, their owner sold much of the team to Zak Brown and McLaren, who was looking to poach any IndyCar team he could. He found an owner that could be bought in Sam Schmidt. Once again, Hinchcliffe was the odd man out.

To be honest, I don’t know what happened with James Hinchcliffe in the Genesys car at Andretti Autosport in 2021. I will remind you that three of the four Andretti cars struggled this past season. Besides Hinchcliffe’s twentieth place finish in points, Hunter-Reay finished seventeenth and Alexander Rossi finished tenth. If it were not for Colton Herta, I think this past season would have been considered a disaster at Andretti Autosport. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that this past season was bad timing for Hinchcliffe to return to his old team for a fulltime season.

I don’t know what lies next in James Hinchcliffe’s future. Some say he will pursue a ride in IMSA, while others indicate he is headed to the NBC booth to replace the departed Paul Tracy. Perhaps he will get a good one-off for the Indianapolis 500. Whatever he does, I wish him well, but I don’t think he needs me to wish him good luck. He will be a natural in broadcasting. If you’ve never listened to his podcast with Alexander Rossi, you need to. The two of them are hilarious.

James Hinchcliffe is a natural in front of a camera and behind a microphone. In my eyes, he has nothing else to prove. He has won races and has been at this game for eleven seasons. If he never climbs into a cockpit ever again, it is good to be James Hinchcliffe. He has a beautiful wife, and their marriage seems to be the real deal. He is beloved by IndyCar fans everywhere and also has the respect of the paddock. At thirty-five, there is no shame for calling it a career and moving on to the next chapter.

Personally, I hope he goes straight to the NBC booth and forgoes a second career in sports cars. That’s just being selfish on my part, because I want Hinchcliffe to stay connected to IndyCar. I think with better timing and luck, James Hinchcliffe could have had a much more successful IndyCar career. But he doesn’t seem bitter about how his career has unfolded. He just looks ahead, ready to tackle what’s next. That’s what winners do.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “Bad Timing Has Followed James Hinchcliffe”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    Agree 100%

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    George – As I was just about completing reading your posting today, Dario came to mind and how he is enjoying life and motorsports now that the pressure to win & campaign for financial sponsorship is no longer shadowing him.

    Hinch will now begin to also enjoy life as Dario is.

    • Northsider Says:

      That 2 or 3 rate SPM team finished 3 and 5th in the championship the two years prior to Hinch and had 4 wins while James had 3 in the next 5 years and that includes the joke of a race in Nola… Nice guy with 1 really good season that in hindsight was a fluke but overall a thoroughly mediocre driver who suffered from the rising tide of IC talent.

      • Not that I think that Hinch was the greatest to ever put on a helmet (he was/is far from that), but I guess you and I have fairly different idea of what the word “mediocre” means…

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Well put, George. Hinch was a fine driver, though not a great one, and had an Indycar career to match. Probably could have been better with a little more luck, but such is the racing life. I thought his presence on the grid was good for the series and I’m sad to see him step away from racing Indycar full time.

    Given this very clear announcement from Hinch and Paul Tracy’s departure from NBC, I would be surprised if James is not in NBC’s booth this year. Surely Hinch’s announcement was made with some certainty on what yet to be announced role he will fill this season, either in a broadcast booth or an IMSA cockpit.

  4. George…the one thing you didn’t mention about the 2021 season was the mysterious leg injury that James had all year and greatly affected his speed on road and street circuits. He never mentioned it but Marshall Pruett mentioned it several times without say exactly what it was.

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