James Hinchcliffe will be the first to admit he has unfinished business – both personal and professional – when he returns to Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week.
It was at IMS on May 18, 2015, that Hinchcliffe suffered the worst crash of his career while practicing for the 99th Indianapolis 500, abruptly ending his Verizon IndyCar Series season prematurely.
He had just came off a speed of more than 221 mph the previous lap when a suspension failure sent his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports No. 5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Honda into the Turn 3 wall.
The Canadian native was critically injured when a suspension piece pierced an artery in his thigh. Hinchcliffe underwent several surgeries, enduring months of therapy and rehabilitation.
To watch the feature segment on Hinchcliffe's return that aired on NBCSN's broadcast of the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, click here.
Miraculously and only through his own unwavering determination, Hinchcliffe was back in his Indy car to test at Road America in September – only four months after the life-threatening incident. He is back fulltime in 2016, posting 19th- and 18th-place finishes in the first two races.
But the circle won’t be complete, Hinchcliffe said, until he successfully conquers Turn 3 at IMS once again. That opportunity is scheduled to come April 6 in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ aero test, the chance for most teams and drivers to get the feel of their respective manufacturers’ superspeedway aero kit configurations for 2016.
“I think when I get back there, it’ll be full (closure),” Hinchcliffe said. “I’ve been in the car numerous times since coming back, so I have no issue.
“I think until you come back to Indy and get those first laps under your belt and get through Turn 3 incident-free, then I think it will be fully closed,” he added. “I’m 99.9 percent of the way there. I just need a couple of hot laps through (Turn) 3 and I’ll be good to go.”
Memories of the 2015 crash remain a blank canvas for Hinchcliffe. He’s seen video of it numerous times, yet still has no recollection of what happened.
The severity of the incident is well documented. If not for the lightning-quick response of the Holmatro Safety Team on track, Dr. Tim Pohlman and others along the way, he could have bled to death before he reached IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
Hinchcliffe was on life support and Pohlman said he had no pulse as he was wheeled into surgery to close the wounds. Others not in such peak physical condition as Hinchcliffe may not have survived.
“Every time I see my surgeon and every time I talk to him, I get a better understanding,” Hinchcliffe said. “Every time we talk about it, I learn something new about what happened, about the timeline of it all.
“I think every time that happens – the further away I get from the actual event – the more I appreciate the gravity of it, the more I respect the people that helped me, all the rest of it. In the immediate aftermath, you're so focused on getting back. I didn't really have time to care about anything else.”
Just a few hours after the crash, as he lay in the hospital’s intensive care unit after the first of what would be several surgeries, Hinchcliffe knew not coming back was never an option.
“When I was fresh out of surgery, still on a ventilator, communicating by pen and paper, one of my first questions was, ‘When can I drive again?’” he said.
“I think some people in the room found it so bizarre and confusing that somebody in the state I was in, hooked up to 10 different machines, recently sewn up, would say, ‘How can I get back into the machine that did this to me?’ I think that's how racing drivers are wired.”
Hinchcliffe admitted there were times where even he had his doubts.
“Yeah, there were a couple moments where I wasn't sure,” he told reporters in July 2015. “There were certain things I wasn't sure were going to heal well enough for me to compete at this level again.
“My neck was actually my biggest concern. It wasn't widely reported, but I had a pretty massive neck injury that took a very long time to heal. There were times when I thought I wouldn't be able to hold my head up in a race car again.”
As time went on, after losing 20 pounds and significant muscle mass that he had to work hard at to regain, Hinchcliffe could see that, yes, he’d once again be in a race car.
“As time goes on, further removed from it, I definitely appreciate what happened and the support I got from certain people more and more every day,” Hinchcliffe said. “I'm thankful I had that support team and I still now get to do what I do.”
The 29-year-old native of Oakville, Ontario, Canada, is now ready to put the past behind and do in 2016 what he had hoped to do in 2015. If he can accomplish that feat, after last year’s life-changing crash, it would have all the makings of an inspirational Hollywood script.
That script would start with keen optimism and anticipation, take a near-tragic detour, detail an inspiring comeback and complete the circle by ultimately conquering the most famous and difficult race in the world on the most famous and difficult racetrack.
Hinchcliffe is eager to put himself among Indianapolis 500 royalty. And while this year is the milestone 100th running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” it wouldn’t matter to him what the number is.
“In a lot of ways I think it would be the same as winning the 94th or the 105th,” Hinchcliffe said. “It's the greatest race in the world.
“Is it cool to say you won the 100th? Yeah. But does it really matter? No. We try to win it every May.”
Hinchcliffe missed the “500” last year, not of his own choosing. After he finally gets the full closure he is seeking in the first few practice laps around the historic IMS 2.5-mile rectangular oval this week, it’ll be time for Hinchcliffe to finish what he started.
Sixteen cars scheduled to take part in IMS aero test
The one-day test April 6 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will serve two goals: to test the configuration of both the Chevrolet and Honda superspeedway aero kit packages and allow Verizon IndyCar Series Leaders Circle teams the chance to turn important test laps in advance of practice for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil next month.
Sixteen Leaders Circle entries are scheduled to participate. They are, by team: Andretti Autosport (No. 26 Carlos Munoz, No. 27 Marco Andretti, No. 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay), Chip Ganassi Racing Teams (No. 9 Scott Dixon, No. 10 Tony Kanaan, No. 83 Charlie Kimball), Ed Carpenter Racing (No. 20 Ed Carpenter, No. 21 Josef Newgarden), KVSH Racing (No. 11 Sebastien Bourdais), Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (No. 15 Graham Rahal), Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (No. 5 James Hinchcliffe, No. 7 Mikhail Aleshin) and Team Penske (No. 2 Juan Pablo Montoya, No. 3 Helio Castroneves, No. 12 Will Power, No. 22 Simon Pagenaud).
The test is scheduled to run from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ET. Fans can watch from the infield grandstands between Turns 1 and 2, in front of the IMS Hall of Fame Museum.
Indianapolis 500 rookies are not permitted to be on track at IMS until completing the rookie orientation program on the first day of practice May 16. Practice runs through May 20, with qualifying scheduled for May 21-22 and the 100th running on May 29.