TORONTO - James Hinchcliffe can’t turn around in Toronto this week without literally running into himself.
The Oakville native’s image is plastered across the Toronto Transit Commission subway system and on billboards above the ground in the city, all promoting his GoDaddy.com IZOD IndyCar sponsorship for his No. 27 Andretti Autosport Chevrolet that he hopes to drive to victory on Sunday afternoon at the Honda Indy Toronto.
He said on Thursday that while it is all a bit unnerving seeing his image all over the place, it does go with territory of being a big-time race car driver.
“I have had lots of friends from high school calling me saying they have never seen me as much as they have this week,” he said.
The attention for the 25-year-old Hinchcliffe began the moment it was announced just before the season started that he would take over the GoDaddy IndyCar from Danica Patrick, who left the series after 2011 to go NASCAR racing full time — also with GoDaddy sponsorship.
And he has had some fun with it, appearing in GoDaddy commercials with Patrick, poking fun at himself as the guy who wants to replace her as the most popular team driver.
He even appeared at the season opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg wearing a long Patrick-like black wig.
On the serious side of his newfound fame, however, Hinchcliffe said it is important to keep everything in perspective.
“It is great and important for me and the team that GoDaddy is doing all of this but we also have to remember that we are here to win a race,” he said.
Then there is the pressure of him being the hometown boy with a chance to go to Victory Lane on Sunday — and doing it with all the added stuff thrown in such as dozens of promotional appearances.
But Hinchcliffe said it doesn’t distract him from the job at hand.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I believe that the off-track demands are more of a difference than anything on-track.
“As a competitor I always say that in our environment we put so much pressure on ourselves that whether your are driving in Iowa or Toronto or any race when the visor goes down you are just racing.
“It doesn’t really matter where you are or what colour your car is, whether it is blank white or GoDaddy green. All these things add elements to it but I think that once you are in the car the pressure all comes from within.”
Hinchcliffe said that he learned early in his racing career that the need to balance on-track and off-track needs is paramount to being successful, especially at home race like the Toronto Indy.
“Certainly the attention is greater and the demands on you timer is greater so there is a need to balance that and make sure you give yourself the time you need to do you job on Sunday,” he said.
What he has in his favour this week is that he is genuinely excited to be racing in such familiar surroundings and that makes everything better.
“This is one of my favourite street courses,” Hinchcliffe said. “It has a really good mix of fast corners and slow corners and long straights and good braking zones.”
He joked that Toronto’s undulating roads, with patches that were once pot holes, makes it a special race.
“The thing that Toronto is famous for is the surface changes,” Hinchcliffe said. “There are about 8,654 different surface changes out there and that really throws the engineers and the drivers for a bit of a loop.”
He did admit that the re-paving job on Lake Shore Blvd. this year was welcomed by everyone in the paddock.
He does have a concern about the current heat wave enveloping the city, however, with temperatures expected to spike above 35C on Friday.
“I am not wearing a (fire) suit yet so it has been OK but guaranteed when I get in the car it’s going to be a different story,” he said. “The Indy 500 was probably one of the hottest races that I have run in my entire life and Toronto is going to be right up there with it.
“At the 500 we at least had nice long straightaways and it’s not a physical race track. (Toronto) is a tough race track with the tight confines with the walls and the heat from cars sort of sits there where even the fittest drivers are wrecked at the end of the race.
“It should be hot.”
If he wins on Sunday, however, the heat, the distractions and even the patched pot holes, will be forgotten.
Helio Castroneves has been a winner at just about every race track on which he has competed during his 15-year open-wheel career in North America.
And, of course, he is a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.
Heck, he even won the glitzy Dancing With The Stars competition in 2005 with all-world partner Julianne Hough.
Where Castroneves has never won, though, is in Toronto.
In fact he has been downright terrible — or really unlucky — on the 2.824-km temporary street course around Exhibition Place since he first raced there in 1998 and the six times since.
The record book shows his best finish in Toronto was 10th in his very first race.
Since then, well look at the record: In 1999, he finished 27th; in 2000, 16th after starting on the pole; in 2001, 19th after starting second; 2009, 18th; 2010, 24th after tangling with Toronto’s Paul Tracy and last year 17th.
Even Castroneves can make light of his plight.
“When I went through immigration (Wednesday) the officer said, ‘We are extremely happy to have you at the race’, ” he said. “Well, it is great to be in Toronto despite my results here, which have not been very good. But I still enjoy this place because the vibes from the fans just amazing.”
Castroneves said that he means it when he says he really does enjoy Toronto even after fans booed him last season for wrecking Tracy the year before.
“They really support the Canadian guys and actually support everyone on the grid,” he said. “That makes coming back here fun.”
Castroneves said that he hopes to break his Toronto jinx on Sunday because this season there is more on the line for him.
He is third in the championship points battle behind Penske Racing teammate Will Power and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.
“We are only 25 points behind my teammate (Power) which is very reasonable distance,” he said. “So I am still dreaming about my championship.”
He said he was also happy to see new pavement on Lake Shore Blvd., leading to Turn 3, the scene of many of his past mishaps in Toronto.
“For me that Turn 3 has been something but we are hoping to change things around this year,” he said.
TOP 10 (AND TWO WILD CARD) CONTENDERS
In spite of having a sub-par season so far — except for his third Indianapolis 500 win in May — Franchitti still has to be considered a favourite to win in Toronto. He has win here three times (1999, 2009 and 2011) and the two week break between Iowa and Toronto was just what the No. 10 Target Ganassi Honda teams needed to work on issues its faced through the first half of the season. Franchitti is more focused than ever to get back to his winning ways and there is no better place for him to do it than the Exhibition Place street course.
Power leads the IZOD IndyCar championship points parade and has traded wins (2007 and 2010) at the Honda Indy Toronto the past four races with Franchitti. And he figures the track owes him one after essentially being knocked out of contention last year by Franchitti. This season Power has a pole at St. Petersburg and three wins — Birmingham, Long Beach and Sao Paulo — on road and street courses in the No. 12 Penske Racing Chevrolet. After an also-ran finish — 14th — at Milwaukee and a crash at Iowa that resulted in a 23rd place finish, Power will be chomping at the bit in Toronto
The native of Oakville presents the best chance for a Canadian to win the Honda Indy Toronto since Paul Tracy did it in his championship 2003 season. Hinchcliffe has had seven Top 10 and four Top 5 finishes in the first nine IndyCar events in his sophomore season. And this season stepping into the high profile No. 27 GoDaddy.com Andretti Autosport Chevrolet Hinchcliffe has the car and the team to keep him up front at every race. Remember this is a kid who has been coming to the Toronto Indy since he was 18 months old and he will have the biggest cheering section on the track on Sunday.
Dixon is part of the powerful 1-2 punch with Franchitti at Target Ganassi Racing and this season, with a win at the Detroit Grand Prix of Belle Isle in the No. 9 Honda and consistent finishes in the Top 5, Dixon is showing he could overtake his teammate to claim his third championship. The New Zealander finished second in Toronto in 2009
No one has been hotter lately than Hunter-Reay and the No. 28 Andretti Autosport Chevrolet with wins at Milwaukee and Iowa. He also has a second place this season at Sao Paulo and a third place at St. Petersburg, two other temporary street courses. His incentive is that he is only three points behind Power in the championship and a win in Toronto would move him to the top.
Castroneves has been coming on strong with five Top 6 finishes in the first nine three races to go with his win in the season opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in the No. 3 Penske Racing Chevrolet. Castroneves is a good technical driver and that is important if he wants to win on the temporary street course at Exhibition Place.
The third member of the powerhouse Penske team, Briscoe trials his two teammates but has had a lot of bad luck this season, including wrecks at Iowa and Sao Paulo. But the Australian has shown he is capable of running at the front with three Top 5 finishes including a third place at Texas Motor Speedway this season.
After a pair of horrible finishes — 25 and 21st — at St. Petersburg and Birmingham respectively to start the season the veteran Kanaan has picked up his game in the No. 11 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet. He has podium finishes in three of the past five races including the past two at Milwaukee and Iowa.
In his first IndyCar season after an 18-year Formula 1 career, Barrichello has been slowly adjusting to his new surroundings. With nine races under his belt coming to Toronto, his experience on street courses could land him his best chance to win on this side of the world.
The Montreal native has a second and a third place finish in Toronto on his resume and if everything goes perfect, he could find the top step of the podium on Sunday. A switch to Honda engines has helped the one-car Barracuda/Bryan Herta Autosports team but he will have to drive the wheels off the No. 98 Dallara DW12.
The 33-year-old Frenchman has won in Toronto before — in 2004 — and has a new Chevrolet engine in his No. 7 Dragon Racing Dallara.
He showed at Texas that he can win this season in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, but it might be stretch for them on the streets of Toronto.