Now that James Hinchcliffe has won a race and completed “the comeback,” can everyone please put the obsession with his life-threatening accident in practice for the 2015 Indianapolis 500 to bed?
When the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Sam Schmidt Honda driver crossed the finish line to win the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the first thing I thought — it's recorded on Twitter, for those with doubt (https://twitter.com/jpappone/status/851200590076141569) — was: “Sigh, I bet the Indy crash is the first thing Hinch will be asked about.”
It only took a few seconds after he stepped victorious from the car for Hinchcliffe to be faced with the question of whether he ever thought he'd be back in victory lane when he was lying in the hospital after the 2015 crash.
To his credit, the first word out of Hinchcliffe's mouth was: “Absolutely.”
Unfortunately, the real significance of the win to the Canadian driver was completely lost in the rush to relate it to his near fatal accident.
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach triumph marked Hinchcliffe's fifth career Verizon IndyCar Series victory, an accomplishment with tremendous personal meaning: The total puts him equal with his boyhood hero and racing idol, fellow Canadian Greg Moore, who died in an accident during the 1999 CART season finale in Fontana, California.
“Someone told me after NOLA (New Orleans where he took career win No. 4) that five wins was the number Greg had, the number (1995 Indy car champion) Jacques Villeneuve had and, I believe, the number (former IndyCar driver) Patrick Carpentier had. Only PT (Paul Tracy at 31 victories) is higher than that in the list of Canadians in Indy car racing. To drive at a level with those guys, I mean, it's tough to put into words,” Hinchcliffe said.
“Greg was a huge motivation and a huge inspiration to me as a child. I followed Jacques' career religiously. When Pat and Greg were teammates, followed Pat as well, to now be level with those guys is incredible.”
A fourth Canadian, Scott Goodyear, also sits at five INDYCAR wins.
Hinchcliffe’s connection to Moore is well-documented. As a young racer, he waited outside Moore’s trailer at the Toronto Indy for three hours hoping to meet his hero. The conversation he had with the CART star is one of Hinchcliffe’s most treasured memories.
In 2010, he won the Greg Moore Legacy Award, given to the Indy Lights driver who best typifies Moore’s combination of supreme talent on track and dynamic personality with fans, media and the racing community.
At the time of Moore's death, Hinchcliffe was a young karter trying to figure out his own career and hoping one day to emulate his idol. The accident that took his hero gave him great pause.
“I remember the day that he died, which was right when I started taking racing seriously, and it made me question things a little bit,” Hinchcliffe said after winning the Moore award.
“It certainly made my parents question whether or not this was the route they wanted me to go in life.”
Almost 20 years later, that once-wide-eyed kid's next win will put him ahead of his boyhood idol. Those who knew Moore understand that he'd be massively proud to see the success that a young driver he inspired had achieved.
For his part, Hinchcliffe, who wears Moore's trademark red gloves every time he steps into his race car, understands the significance of following in famous footsteps.
“When I came into this sport, I felt a huge responsibility, to be honest, to keep up the good name that Canadian drivers had in INDYCAR,” he said. “I wanted to maintain that, you know, record for Canada, not be the guy that let us down.”