While he was toiling away on the dance floor a couple thousand miles away in Los Angeles, James Hinchcliffe had the unanimous support of a boisterous couple hundred people at a “Dancing with the Stars” watch party Monday night in Indianapolis.
Forty Five Degrees, a restaurant and bar in the downtown of Indiana’s state capital, was jammed with supporters of the Verizon IndyCar Series driver on his quest to win the mirror ball trophy on Season 23 of the ABC dance competition. To the delight of those on hand, Hinchcliffe survived elimination Monday night and is among five celebrities remaining as the show heads into its two climactic weeks.
Fans and members of the INDYCAR community packed Forty Five Degrees, including fellow Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Conor Daly, JR Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball and Spencer Pigot. RTV6, the Indianapolis ABC affiliate has hosted a watch party there each week and joined forces this week with INDYCAR to promote the event that yielded the best turnout in its nine weeks.
“To see everyone come out with their shirts and show their support, it just shows how this community appreciates what we do out there, appreciates the Indy 500 and everything about the INDYCAR season,” said Daly, who was decked out in an American flag sportcoat and joined in the fun with a group dance lesson from a local professional.
Hinchcliffe performed two dances Monday, an individual dance with substitute pro partner Jenna Johnson and a “Team-Up Challenge” that paired Hinchcliffe and Johnson with retired football star Calvin Johnson Jr. and partner Lindsay Arnold to dance together. While Hinchcliffe didn’t enjoy the best night overall from the judges’ scores – earning 73 of a possible 80 points from the combined two dances – he has been at or near the top of the leaderboard nearly every week.
“I’m impressed but not surprised because he’s a competitor and I think a lot of people underestimate the competitive drive of us as INDYCAR drivers,” said Kimball, the Chip Ganassi Racing Teams driver who’s been good friends with Hinchcliffe since they began competing against each other in Indy Lights in 2009. The duo moved up to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2011 and Hinchcliffe officiated at Kimball’s wedding in 2014.
“We adapt, we learn, we have to figure things out to compete,” Kimball (in photo at left) continued. “He does a great job working the camera anyways. When we do media day, he always blows me away. I relate more when I can see my audience; when I talk to people, I can play off that. James almost plays to himself. So you do something like ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ where there’s cameras and an audience, it just raises the stakes (for Hinchcliffe).”
Kimball said that competitive drive was never more in evidence than during Monday night’s show. A mistake early in his first dance lowered Hinchcliffe’s score to 36 (a nine from each of the four judges), but the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver came back with renewed determination for the second dance.
“How many times do you see that in a race, where you lose a position, you make a mistake, the guys maybe make don’t have a great pit stop or you don’t get a great restart,” Kimball said. “You can’t dwell on it; you still have 80 laps to run. It’s that same mentality. … He makes that mistake and right away he moves on from it. But then you saw in the team dance where he was motivated. You could see that drive.”
Kimball enjoys seeing Hinchcliffe’s infectious personality – “he is just such a character,” Kimball said – being displayed to a wider audience on the national TV stage. Daly sees it paying off for everyone in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“He’s got the personality to do it, he’s got the personality to take our sport to another level,” Daly said. “Hopefully we can use him and use a couple more of us to create a bigger footprint for INDYCAR – and this is a huge step for doing that. I’m just glad he’s on our side and representing our sport in a positive way.”