So Long, James Hinchcliffe, And Thanks For The IndyCar Memories

The Canadian driver is stepping back from full-time competition.

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Photo: Robert Laberge (Getty Images)

I started watching IndyCar because a close friend of mine knew I’d started watching Formula One, and she sent me a playlist of James Hinchcliffe videos and told me to “watch these.” Four months later, I was at my first IndyCar race, and I fell in love. Now, James Hinchcliffe — the gateway drug to one of America’s finest forms of motorsport — is stepping back from full-time competition.

That doesn’t mean retirement, Hinchcliffe said. Just no full-time competition in IndyCar — which means we’ll likely see him back for one-off events or trying out a new form of racing.

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“In 2011 I realized a lifelong goal of becoming an IndyCar driver,” he wrote in his announcement, which he posted via Twitter. “I remember almost every minute of the journey getting there. There were many ups, and many downs. Through all the challenges and uncertainty there were two constants: my unabated desire to make it to IndyCar and my family’s unwavering support. In the 11 years that followed I lived out my dream in a way that a nine year old kid, sitting in a kart for the first time, could never have imagined.”

“With a decade plus of incredible memories in the bank, I am happy to announce I am stepping away from full time IndyCar competition,” he continued. “This was not a decision taken lightly, and it was one made with the full support of my family and closest supporters. There were many factors, both personal and professional, that led me to this decision, but it truly felt like it was the right time.”

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Hinchcliffe made his IndyCar debut with Newman/Haas Racing in 2011, and he succeeded Danica Patrick in the Andretti Autosport GoDaddy the following year. That era was his most successful in the open-wheel series, and he scored three wins in 2013 in what was his peak IndyCar performance.

In 2015, Hinchcliffe’s transition to Schmidt Peterson Motorsport initially seemed successful after he won in New Orleans, the second race of the season — but things quickly took a turn when a horrifying crash during Indy 500 qualifying saw Hinchcliffe impaled by his own suspension. He suffered massive blood loss and was out for the rest of the season. His 2016 comeback is one of IndyCar’s recent crowning moments.

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But Hinchcliffe’s true successes came off the track. In the early- to mid-2010s, IndyCar had hit a slump thanks to a fraught reunification, and it was personalities like Hinchcliffe’s that not only kept people involved but attracted newer fans — like myself.

Hinchcliffe was central to fan engagement. Whether it was crowning himself mayor of his own fictional town, Hinchtown, putting together a podcast (The Mayor on Air, followed by Off Track With Hinch and Rossi), enacting scavenger hunts at races every weekend, filming any goofy promo IndyCar asked, appearing on Dancing with the Stars, or tirelessly chatting to fans at the track, Hinchcliffe did what he could to make the sport welcoming to viewers.

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From a personal perspective, Hinchcliffe was one of the reasons I went to an IndyCar race for the first time. After spending the summer hitting up F1 tracks in Europe, my first IndyCar race was Pocono in 2015, where my friend and I ran into Hinch in the pits. He spent a solid half hour chatting with us, totally enthused that some of his goofy videos (among them a video where Hinch bathes himself in a dog bath, which has long since been removed from YouTube) actually managed to get fans to the track.

That race — which I’d gone to in part to recover from the shock of Jules Bianchi’s death — was a miserable one. Justin Wilson was killed by a wayward nosecone, an entirely freak accident that no one saw coming, and I was disillusioned. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep watching racing if this was what it would be like. After all, that was the same year Hinchcliffe had been seriously injured in the 500, an event that happened on my birthday. It felt like all signs were telling me to find a different hobby.

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And then Hinchcliffe got back in the car.

I still remember where I was. IndyCar was airing a live stream, and I was sitting in the back of my math class in college, crying my eyes out. All that tragedy, and Hinchcliffe still wanted to compete. Somehow, it eased a little bit of the ache I felt. I was still heartbroken at the unnecessary loss of two racers that year, but there was some comfort in knowing that these racers were aware of the risks and took them anyway because this was what they wanted to be doing.

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I watched Hinch get behind the wheel and turn some practice laps. That next season, I went to nine IndyCar races.

It’s been a difficult few years for Hinchcliffe, and his decision to step back from full-time IndyCar competition doesn’t come as a surprise. He’s made a wonderful analyst (and with Paul Tracy having left the NBC broadcasting team, we could see Hinch take on that role), and there’s a whole wide world of racing out there for him to explore. But I — along with many other race fans — will be thankful for the memories he’s given us in IndyCar. Thank you, James Hinchcliffe, and all the best to you.