Now that James Hinchcliffe is done dancing on national television, the race is on to have another Verizon IndyCar Series driver appear on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
From Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi to new Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden to Hinchcliffe sidekick Conor Daly, there are plenty of worthy INDYCAR candidates for future shows. Charlie Kimball also was in the Los Angeles ballroom to support Hinchcliffe in Tuesday night’s grand finale, and there are other INDYCAR drivers who would look good under those bright lights.
Yes, it was a surprise that Hinchcliffe danced as well as he did over the show’s 11 weeks – he finished second to gold-medal-winning Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez – but it was not a surprise that he was there in the first place. The invitation was years in the making, part of INDYCAR’s strategic push.
INDYCAR’s introduction to the show was made at the 2007 Indianapolis 500 when Helio Castroneves met then-new DWTS champion Apolo Anton Ohno, the Olympic speed skater. Castroneves was intrigued enough by the show to soon be in the DWTS offices.
The fact DWTS had an INDYCAR fan then on its staff – Indianapolis native Amy Astley – added to the connection. When Castroneves won Season 5 in the fall of 2007, the racing/dancing bond was secure.
INDYCAR maintained dialogue with show officials, pitching various drivers for consideration. One of them was Simon Pagenaud, the Frenchman who in September became champion of the Verizon IndyCar Series. All three of the Andrettis – Mario, Michael and Marco – were asked to participate and Rossi was under consideration for the recently completed show.
DWTS settled on Hinchcliffe after longtime casting director Deena Katz met the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver during INDYCAR’s appearance earlier this year on another popular ABC show, “Celebrity Family Feud.” Because of the way the entertainment industry works, a similar introduction could have occurred last spring when INDYCAR landed Newgarden, Castroneves and Tony Kanaan on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.”
The point is, none of these Hollywood happenings are by accident. There are months, even years, of networking that goes into generating these opportunities, and the rewards are significant.
Nearly 12 million people watched Hinchcliffe dance Monday night and Tuesday’s final TV numbers figure to be even higher. This season included 14 shows and, in nearly every one, Hinchcliffe was identified as an INDYCAR driver. The harrowing tale of his 2015 accident at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was told and retold, and there must have been six shows with footage of his Turn 3 crash that nearly took his life. There were a couple appearances by an INDYCAR two-seat car, and Hinchcliffe actually jumped over the car he crashed in during a Nov. 14 dance. (Credit race team owner Sam Schmidt for covering the expenses to get the Arrow-sponsored Honda on stage that night, and it was flanked by Firestone tires that seemed to sparkle.)
The combined exposure from DWTS and programs such as “Entertainment Tonight” amounted to a staggering, if immeasurable, figure, to the point there is no way Hinchcliffe isn’t forever linked with INDYCAR. Maybe this makes the point: Earlier this week, one Hollywood outlet referred to Season 19 dancer Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner in NASCAR, as an INDYCAR driver.
The full impact of Hinchcliffe’s run on DTWS might not be realized for years. It’s possible the breakout star takes the benefits even farther than Castroneves, who returned to the show in 2012 as part of an all-star season.
Add it up and it’s easy to see how Hernandez wasn’t the only winner in this DWTS season. Hinchcliffe and his brand won. His race team won. Their supporters won. And INDYCAR won.
Curt Cavin recently became INDYCAR’s vice president of communications after 30 years covering Indy car racing for The Indianapolis Star.