IndyCar Driver Test: James Hinchcliffe

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Popular and slightly off-kilter racer James Hinchcliffe was born outside Toronto in Oakville, Ontario in December, 1986 back when “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “Platoon” were also new. After a breakthrough third season in 2013 scoring an impressive three wins, Hinch had a disappointing 2014 and recently changed teams leaving Andretti Autosport after three up and down seasons. That’s not the only conversion the comic Canuck has undergone recently, either.

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Last week the madcap Mayor of Hinchtown announced his signing with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in usual style – at an Indy brewery over some “oat sodas.” Before that he became an ordained minister through the wonderful convenience of the web, performing the ceremony at his friend and fellow driver Charlie Kimball’s late September wedding. A few years back, Hinch hilariously dawned a long black wig while replacing Danica (more diva than driver) in the late GoDaddy ride at AA. Today’s question of the quirky, quotable Canadian comedian is, did he pass the driver test?

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In his fun filled four year IndyCar career, Hinch has a gaudy eighteen top five finishes and thirty four top tens to go with his three wins. He’s also led over four hundred laps in his career, although funnily he’s never earned a pole. A past winner of the Tony Renna Rising Star Award, the racin’ reverend displays obvious driving talent. Even after an off year in 2014, his winning percentage in sixty eight big league races is an impressive 4.4%, better than most in the field. Without question Hinch is in the top half of IndyCar drivers, but that’s not the only part of this rigorous, uncomfortable and thoroughly invasive driver’s test. Now reverend, turn your head and cough.

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The other half of the exam is how well the driver handles media and public relations, as well as interaction with fans. In this regard, James’ talent may well surpass his on track gifts, which are bountiful. From his virtual Hinchtown site to his practical jokes and unorthodox, goofy-cool style, the mayor excels in the realm of media and PR. More than that he embraces his comedic racing role and enjoys it to the hilt, adding some much needed funniness to the sometimes somber, strangely sober series.

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A merry prankster, our humorous man of the (greasy) cloth lightens the mood wherever he goes, his charismatic personality nearly as infectious as a giggling fit in church. Joining his third team in less than five years, Hinch has made light of this inconstancy and likened his wandering ways to that of another waifish star, calling himself “the Taylor Swift of racing.” James is an exceptionally likeable and funny guy who’s not afraid to laugh, especially at himself. That quality translates extremely well in the modern age of racing, media and widespread weirdness.

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We at IRR salute and congratulate Hinchcliffe on his recent off track accomplishments – for weddings be sure to book early – and commend his silly slapstick style and Python-esque panache to other, less media-savvy drivers in the paddock (most of whom certainly will need a backup career). Hinch is easily the most likeable Canuck since John Candy – at a quarter his size – and along with his WAG is just adorable. How could a guy with the talent, face and personality of our favorite fast funnyman not pass the test? As Sam Schmidt may well have sung to the Rev of revs (and if he didn’t he should have), “Get out of my dreams, get into my car.”

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IndyCar Driver Test: Jack Hawksworth

Likeable IndyCar rookie Jack Hawksworth who hails from Bradford, England faces our first ever driver exam, a new series of features at IRR. Hawksworth drove the number ninety eight car during the 2014 campaign for underfunded Bryan Herta Autosport with backing from Curb-Agajanian. He made headlines during the season and already again this off season, winning an award and answering some questions in a softball interview for indycar.com. The hardball question we’re asking is, did the twenty three year old Englishman pass the driver test?

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Young Jack finished 17th in IndyCar standings in his inaugural campaign, out of twenty two full time cars. The highlight of his season came in the second race at the now defunct Houston parking lot “track,” where he stormed forward from twenty third and last starting place to finish third, taking his first and only podium of the year. Above him that day on the podium were Simon Pagenaud and his Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports teammate Mikhail Aleshin, Hawksworth’s fellow European rookie rival.

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Jack was awarded the Tony Renna Rising Star Award for 2014 even though the mad Russian Aleshin finished ahead of him in the championship, despite missing the double points finale 500 in Fontana due to an accident in the final practice. Nonetheless, Hawksworth impressed several in and out of the paddock, scoring five top ten finishes in seventeen races while also suffering several encounters with walls, particularly on the ovals. In July Hawk himself missed the double points Pocono 500 after a nasty practice accident.

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He’s already announced that he’s left BHA behind thank you very much and currently isn’t under contract for next season. Recent rumors have linked him to AJ Foyt Racing as well as other possibilities and he doesn’t seem too concerned about landing a ride in the series for next year. HIs driving skills seem solid enough while there’s definitely room for improvement, although that’s not the sole component of the IndyCar driver exam.

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A secondary yet still crucial aspect of this exam is the driver’s savvy in interactions with the media – his PR capabilities. As with most rookies, Hawksworth needs some serious study and improvement in this area. In a recent interview on indycar.com, the northern Englishman came off sounding superior and at times cocky. Interestingly, England is the opposite of the US in its internal biases, where northerners like Hawk have the “accent” and are looked down upon, often considered backward hicks.

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He said in answer to a question about his rookie year results: “I think this has probably been the best season I’ve ever put together and I’m very pleased with my performance.” Depending upon one’s perspective, Jack’s statement ranges anywhere from the typical professional driver’s supreme confidence to a touch overly self-congratulatory, particularly considering his rather scurvy on track results. Remember, Marco, Graham and as recently as this June in Houston Carlos Huertas all actually won races in their rookie seasons. Since Hawk’s a seemingly congenial bloke, we’re willing to over look that comment.

But the naive northerner wasn’t finished. As per indycar.com, Hawksworth continued his lofty praise for himself. “I think I did a very good job. I made mistakes but also got the most out of the car and look back on the year pretty happy without sounding arrogant.” Oh really, young Jack? To some, it does come across arrogantly, especially for a seventeenth place points finisher. He continued, describing his desires for the future. “It’s given me solid ground to go out next year and win races, which is what I want to do.” He concluded “I don’t just want to be an IndyCar driver – I want to win races.”

Obviously the upstart Brit needs some media coaching although that’s not uncommon amongst rookie racers, who are after all death defying daredevils who pilot jet cars for a living. In fact, several aforementioned veteran drivers have had their own notable, recurring lapses in the realm of public relations. One major difference between them and our British subject however is that they all have wins in IndyCar, while Bradford’s favorite son hasn’t any as of yet.

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The rookie’s result in the driver test? We recommend working on your driving skills as well as management of your mouth whilst with the media. Study your fellow northern countryman Justin Wilson’s career and his model handling of media in IndyCar’s spotlight, then come back next season for another attempt at passing the driver exam.