Winning the Pole for the Indy 500 is like no other qualifying achievement in sports. Winning the pole position at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s two and a half mile symmetrical rectangle is a test of nerves. It takes a near perfect four laps with your foot flat on the accelerator to become the pole winner of the most prestigious event in sports.
The Oakville-Trafalgar Secondary School grad said his rookie status could be an advantage, as he isn’t going into the race with any pre-conceived expectations. He said his strategy would be to use the first 250 miles to “learn” and then put what he’s learned to use over the second 250 miles.
He added his No. 1 goal was just to “make it to the end. For the first one I think that’s a pretty good day if you can come home.” But he did mention top rookie would be nice.
Hinchcliffe — who is the self-proclaimed mayor of Hinchtown (his irreverent website) — said his offbeat personality has helped him stand out in the racing world.
“We’re a show, we’re entertainment, we’re a business, and then we’re a sport,” he said. “I think (my personality) has helped a lot. It’s not one of those things I try to do. This is who I am. I didn’t let the corporate side of this sport hold back my personality, which I think a lot of guys do.”
He regularly produces funny videos for the Hinchtown site, ranging from “mayoral” addresses to gags like getting into his sister’s dog washing machine to discussing race results.
“The videos are all done as a way to get my personality out there … that’s the same guy you’d see if you just saw me on a Tuesday evening,” he said. “I guess I’ve always had sort of a goofy sense of humour.”
Of course, humour alone won’t cut it as he heads out to the track Sunday for the gruelling 500-mile race in what is predicted to be 29 C heat. Hinchcliffe already knows the most important part of his strategy — getting a good night’s sleep on Saturday. Here’s what you need to know to watch:
It’s a big year for Canadians, even if there are only three among the 33 drivers. Oakville’s James Hinchcliffe is driving in his first Indy 500. And Quebecer Alex Tagliani is the first Canadian to win the pole, after posting a four-lap average of 227.472 m.p.h. on the final qualifying attempt and knocking 2008 Indy winner Scott Dixon into second spot. Paul Tracy is the third Canadian in the field, qualifying 24th. “With Alex on pole, it’s a huge accomplishment for Canada, for Canadian motorsport,” said Hinchcliffe.
IndyCar drivers are tough. Take Simona De Silvestro, for example. The 22-year-old Swiss driver badly burned both hands in a scary crash during practice. Her car made contact with the wall in the third turn, got airborne then flipped over and caught fire. But she’ll be driving on Sunday. She drove in the qualifier just two days after her accident, gripping the steering wheel with both hands wrapped in bandages. She is one of only four women in this year’s race. Also in the pack is Danica Patrick, the high-profile American driver who is credited with greatly increasing the popularity of IndyCar racing. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500. While the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909 (the first event was a helium balloon competition), the first Indy 500 was won by Ray Harroun in 1911. That race took seven hours. Harroun drove a one-seater car, but at that time, most of the vehicles carried a driver and a mechanic for the entire 500-mile race. The track itself was originally gravel and tar, then brick, then asphalt. Seating capacity has grown from 60,000 to 400,000. Janet Guthrie was the first woman ever to drive in the Indy 500 in 1977. “This event is so big and you don’t really get the full grasp of it until you’re here,” said Hinchcliffe. “It’s a fantastic feeling.”
The race will debut double-file restarts on the racing oval. The technique, borrowed from NASCAR, is hoped to make IndyCar racing more interesting, but some drivers have expressed concern it will be more dangerous, especially with two lines of cars going into tight turns. There is some suggestion that slower starts and restarts will have to be implemented to allow for safe two-wide action. The start of the race will be three-wide as usual, with a later acceleration to allow drivers to get into formation.
It’s a family sport. Marco Andretti, grandson of legend Mario and son of Michael, will be starting in 27th position. He’ll be driving against his uncle, Jeff. While the Andretti family has raced 64 times in the Indy 500, the only win was Mario’s in 1969. Alex Tagliani also has a family race car connection through his wife, Bronte, who hosts Spike TV’s Champ Car show Dangerous Curves.