The Mirror Ball Trophy nearly came back home to the Verizon IndyCar Series, but for James Hinchcliffe, the journey to get there and finish runner-up to Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez on “Dancing with the Stars” isn’t so bad.
The 29-year-old Canadian was perhaps the most surprising of the 13 celebrity competitors in the 23rd season of the dance competition show, riding a wave of stalwart efforts that left everyone raving about his performances week after week.
PHOTO GALLERY: Relive James Hinchcliffe's "Dancing with the Stars" journey
The “Mayor or Hinchtown” enjoyed a run that rivaled Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves, who won it all in Season 5 nine years ago, but he made sure to acknowledge his pro partner, Sharna Burgess, for enhancing his dancing abilities.
“I have to give a ton of credit obviously to Sharna for having a teaching style that really resonated well with me, obviously just being very good at her job choreographically, creatively,” Hinchcliffe said today on a media teleconference, the day after his second-place finish.
“It was a lot of hard work, I won't lie. It was not something that came naturally. She'll be the first to tell you that every Tuesday morning when we're starting from scratch (on a new week’s routine), it was pretty rough. But by putting in the hours, not being afraid of a little hard work, some long sessions, late nights, repeatedly watching videos trying to improve, it's amazing what can happen.”
Hinchcliffe has raced before large crowds many times, including more than 300,000 fans at this year’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. But the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda stated that one of the biggest learning curves for “Dancing with the Stars” came down to his awareness of the crowd during the live broadcasts.
“Unlike athletes from other sports – be it football or hockey, basketball, tennis, golf, doesn't matter – in racing, the crowds are just as big if not bigger, but you don't see them, you don't hear them,” Hinchcliffe said.
“When you're doing something in front of a live audience like that, it has an effect. The very first week, that was the biggest thing I took away from the show on Monday, was the sound. Every time you did a move that the crowd liked, they let you know about it. It kind of caught me off guard.
“I'm not used to hearing people cheer every time you make a pass on the track. You're so hyper-focused on what you're doing. I had to teach myself to make sure it didn't throw me off and have me forgetting steps. It really was just an element I wasn't prepared for.”
The four-time Verizon IndyCar Series race winner admitted that the “nerves never fully went away” during the 11-week competition and called Week 6 the turning point – the moment he started to believe he and Burgess could run the gamut all the way to the finals – which had a staggering 11.98 million viewers on ABC.
“You certainly get more confident with the process, knowing what to expect in certain situations,” he said. “That helps. Ultimately it was all still very new to me, even right through to the end.
“But in Week 6, I believe, when we had our rumba, it was the week that Julianne (Hough, judge and Castroneves’ dance partner in Season 5) made that comment (stating he was the best male celebrity dancer in the show’s history), I started to gain a little more confidence in what I was doing. Before the judges had said anything, because of how I felt, I started to adjust to the way she was teaching, really forcing me to do more, to lead more, to kind of be more the role that I should be in the traditional ballroom pairing.”
The sensational performance, executed nearly flawlessly to 38 of a possible 40 judges’ points, was the confidence jolt that the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver needed to take himself to the next level.
“Being able to do that, execute that, gave me a huge boost. That was a point where my mindset maybe changed a little bit,” Hinchcliffe said.
“Going into it, I was assuming I would be gone by Week 6. Instead, around Week 6 is when it kind of got kicked into the next gear, so to speak.”
The DWTS runner-up expects to get some grief from three-time Indy 500 champion Castroneves for not duplicating his winning effort, but Hinchcliffe comes away from the experience content since #TeamStopAndGo finished on a high note.
“I'm never going to hear the end of this from him,” Hinchcliffe said. “I'm well aware of that. That's fine. He did a tremendous job. He did what he had to do. He was able to walk off with the trophy.
“We were not quite able to do that, but I was at least up at the sharp end, so we can still be proud of the effort.”
Castroneves returned to compete in an all-star edition of “Dancing with the Stars.” Hinchcliffe said he enjoyed his experience enough that he would consider another try.
“With what I've learned, how far I came as a dancer in that sense, then how close we came to the top spot,” he said, “I think I probably could be talked into it again.”