James Hinchcliffe just made the finish line of his five-year plan to become an IndyCar driver. Ever since, he's been tough to slow down.
Hinchcliffe is the hometown hopeful as North America's premier open wheel circuit rolls into Toronto this weekend for 150 miles of racing around the Exhibition grounds. The 25-year-old, born and raised in suburban Oakville, has been coming to this race since he was an 18-month-old toddler. On Sunday, for the second time as an Indy racer, he'll be chasing the checkered flag at the track where he fell in love with racing.
Opportunities and experiences like this were the ultimate goal when Hinchcliffe put his studies at McMaster University on hold in early 2006. You've got five years to make it as a racer, his parents said, or else it's back to the books.
Hinchcliffe capped his rise through racing's minor circuits and earned his ride just as his five year deferment was set to expire, signing on with Newman/Haas in April 2011. In his second race he had his first top five finish, coming home fourth at Long Beach. With two more top five finishes and four top 10s by season's end, he was named Indy's rookie of the year.
Things looked rosy until December, when Newman/Haas shocked Hinchcliffe by suddenly shutting down its team. He wasn't out of work for long, parlaying his sparkling debut into a deal with Andretti Autosports, where he replaced the departing Danica Patrick.
Always the entertainer, and never the sort to take himself too seriously, Hinchcliffe soon dubbed himself 'Manica' and appeared in a dark, Danica-esque wig for driver introductions at 2012's season opening race in St. Petersburg, where he went on to post another fourth-place finish. Three more top fives have followed, and Hinchcliffe was in position to take the lead atop IndyCar's driver's standings until he spun out in his most recent race, two weeks ago in Iowa.
Now, rested and refreshed after kicking back in Muskoka cottage country over Canada Day weekend, Hinchcliffe hopes to have his first checkered flag in his sights as he speeds towards the CN Tower in the final straightaway of Sunday's race.
Hinchcliffe caught the motor sports bug from his dad, an Englishman. Father and son would wake up early on Sunday mornings to watch Formula 1 races on TV, and never failed to miss the annual Indy event in Toronto. To the young Hinchcliffe, it was "Christmas in July." When he turned nine, his birthday gift was a go-kart, and life as a competitive racer began.
Hinchcliffe's taste for racing was strengthened by the emotional connection forged while following the careers of Canadian drivers Jacques Villenueve and Greg Moore, who he met at the Toronto race in 1999, just four months before Moore died. Despite that tragedy, their successes turned his youthful interest into a consuming passion.
To this day, Hinchcliffe continues to honour his past heroes. He changed his car number to 27 upon joining Andretti, because both Gilles and Jacques Villenueve raced with that number. He wears red driving gloves, as the late Moore once did, and stashed a pair of Moore's old gloves inside his firesuit for a few qualifying laps at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year, nearly winning the pole with them onboard.
As Indy's newest young star, in the midst of a brilliant breakthrough season, Hinchcliffe's next five-year plan could bring some special things, with the young Canadian hopeful of his first race victory, possibly even a run at a driver's championship. Whatever happens next, he's having the time of his life.
"The best part," he said, "is still just waking up every day knowing that you get to go strap into a bad-ass race car and throttle it as hard as you can."