Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe has been on a rapid rise during his two-and-a-half year career as an IndyCar driver.
The 26-year-old Canadian spent five years training and toiling in Atlantics and Indy Lights, watching as many of his rivals made their way to Champ Car and IndyCar before he did, but he finally graduated in 2011, bringing his considerable talent to the championship-winning Newman/Haas Racing organization.
He’d go on to place 12th in the championship, earning Rookie of the Year honors along the way, and after being without a ride when NHR folded just prior to the 2012 season, Hinch was soon tabbed to fill the Go Daddy-supported seat intended for the late Dan Wheldon at Andretti Autosport.
And now, with his two-year contract at Andretti Autosport set to expire, the three-time IndyCar race winner finds himself in the enviable (and unfamiliar) position of negotiating from a place of strength for his next contract.
In addition to Andretti Autosport looking to keep him in the family for the next few years, Hinch has also drawn interest from the Ganassi team and a few others in search of a high-profile driver who is good with pleasing and attracting sponsors. IndyCar’s most colorful driver spoke to RACER about the big decision he’s facing, and how he’s been propelled into a situation that he could only dream about a few years ago.
“It’s funny how things change,” said Hinch. “My first year, my first deal with Newman/Haas, we brought (sponsor) Sprott to the table and it was a similar situation that a lot of rookies find themselves in. It was really me needing financial support to break into IndyCar and the team deciding to take a risk. Then we moved to Andretti Autosport. That was a need-need thing where they needed a driver and I needed a drive.
“We were at the right place at the right time for each other. At the same time, I was a driver with one year of experience and didn’t have a lot to stand on. And now, this time around, it’s obviously different, which I’m thankful for. We have some wins behind us, which is different than before, and that’s the position every driver wants to be in when they’re in a contract year.”
With his stock at an all-time high, drawing interest from other championship-caliber teams has been a welcome change.
“We’ve had a great year and have strong momentum, and for a guy needing to solidify his future, it’s nice to have some options,” added Hinch, who’s won a pair of street course races and on the short oval at Iowa this year. “It’s a nice change from knocking on everyone else’s door seeing if they’d even be willing to throw you in their car. That’s what I’ve had to do throughout my career, so this is a welcome change of pace.”
Hinchcliffe finds himself in almost the same exact position his teammate, 2012 IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, experienced last summer.
RHR had scored three wins two on short ovals and one street course victory heading into Sonoma, and with his contract up at the end of the season, was being courted by at least one major rival: Roger Penske. He chose to stay with Andretti and currently leads the team in the standings in third place, followed by Marco Andretti in fourth and Hinchcliffe in seventh. Just as RHR had plenty of items to weigh and consider before settling on where to sign, Hinch is currently going through the same process.
“Any driver in a situation, when faced with a choice like that, is going to look at what’s going to give them the best long-term foundation,” he explained. “We all get into this sport to win races and championships. It’s not about anything else. When you’re in a position where there are multiple opportunities, you have to judge what’s best for you in your pursuit of those goals. I’m sure a lot of drivers have lost a lot of sleep trying to decide what to do. You can’t predict what’s going to happen; this sport’s very cyclical, and knowing who’s going to be strong and when is tough to figure out.
“Obviously, the team I’m with is an incredible team. They gave me a chance to prove myself as a winner at this level. The chemistry within the team has been well-documented, so there’s nothing wrong on the human side of it. There’s a lot of things that are right.”
It’s too early to know where Hinchcliffe will be driving next year, but he shared a short and simple set of criteria that will be used to make the decision.
“It’s not the most complex thing, really: you have to weigh all the pros and the cons, and the decision, at the end of the day, has to be about who you think will give you the best shot to be a winner and a champion,” he noted. “There are other aspects that are involved, but those things will take care of themselves if you’re in the right situation. For me, the primary choice has to be about where you can have the most amount of success. The rest are all the small details to be sorted out afterward.”
And when can IndyCar fans expect to learn about his decision?
“I’m in no rush,” he said in a casual tone. “We need to make sure everything is right, and that’s about lining up the right sponsorship and the rest of the package. I’m focused on ending the year strong and getting my contract situation done in due time.”