EDMONTON - Two years ago, after he won the Indy Lights support series race here, James Hinchcliffe walked through the media workroom at the Edmonton Indy introducing himself.
He was, at the same time, trolling for sponsor mentions, making himself available for interviews and putting faces to bylines for the future.
One couldn’t help but think of that Wednesday at a media availability at City Hall as Hinchcliffe enjoyed a session on the dais with Justin Wilson and Oriol Servia, posed for pictures with Miss Indy, and did a media scrum and different TV hits while waiting for a sit-down one-on-one.
Now he’s the driver of Danica Patrick’s car. Just this week he bounced her from the Go Daddy home page to complete a fun bit of promotion. And he’s here for the 11th race of the IZOD IndyCar Series, sitting fifth in the standings.
“I still feel like that guy. The last seven months have kind of gone by like a whirlwind.”
Now he’s a big-time, major-league, race-car driving star.
“I still walk through the paddock thinking, ‘Holy cow, there’s Dario Franchitti,’ ” he said.
But now, he admits, the gee-whiz, pinch-me, ride on the star ship adds a new element.
His ride is with Andretti Autosport, which is back up there racing competitively with the big boys, Penske and Ganassi.
And there’s pressure, when you’re running with those guys, to win. And some time soon he needs to do that.
“When you’re on a team like Andretti Autosports, there’s definitely an added pressure. The team is back where it was five or six years ago and it wants to stay there. It wants to be competing for championships again,” he said.
So far, while Hinchcliffe doesn’t have the legs to replace Patrick, he does have the results. You know he wants to end up higher in the standings than the fifth she achieved in 2009.
Not many people realize how it all went down with this young Canadian hot foot, who doesn’t lack for confidence or charisma.
When Patrick decided to go to NASCAR, Go Daddy agreed to stay in IndyCar with team owner Michael Andretti, and Dan Weldon signed to replace Patrick the morning he was killed in the season finale in October in Las Vegas.
Andretti then pushed to hire last year’s rookie of the year, Hinchcliffe, and Go Daddy agreed, with an eye to his marketing ability.
“That first phone call was difficult,” said Hinchcliffe. “It helped that Dan’s family offered me such huge support.”
It’s one thing to be replacing Danica Patrick and ending up with a ride as a result of a driver crashing and losing his life. It’s another to be replacing Paul Tracy as Canadian idol.
That part of the pressure is just now starting to kick in for the 25-year-old Toronto driver.
The question is if he can bring back the drawing power provided by his Canadian predecessors, such as Tracy, who is missing his first-ever Edmonton Indy.
No Canadian has been able to win the Edmonton race yet.
Tracy won the Toronto Indy in 1993 and 2003, and the Vancouver predecessor of this event in 2000, 2003 and 2004.
Until last year Tracy, who is tied for seventh on the all-time Indy car win list with Scotland’s Dario Franchitti and Sebastian Bourdais of France, with 31 wins each, had been the top Canadian in every Edmonton race. He’d finished third in 2005 and fifth in both 2006 and 2007 in the ChampCar Series and fourth, sixth and sixth again in the first three years of the merger.
Top Canadian last year was the new kid. But Hinchcliffe was way back at 15th in the 2011 Edmonton race. Tracy didn’t finish the first lap.
Rumorus are that when Rogers Sportsnet negotiated IZOD IndyCar Series TV rights beginning next year, they did so under the idea that another Canadian race would be added to the ones in Edmonton and Toronto.
If that turns out to be true, there’s more pressure there … and added opportunity.
“It would have been nice to have a bit more warning. I’m still a huge Tracy fan. It would have been great if he’d been here this year.”
Hinchcliffe got a taste of it two weeks ago at the Toronto Indy and a taste of it again Wednesday.
“It’s so cool to race for a country.”
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