James Hinchcliffe was sitting in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge on Tuesday, sitting in Indianapolis 500 race cars from 1962 and 1986, and marveling at what used to be considered state of the art.
“It’s very weird, like stepping back in time,” the 2016 Indy 500 pole sitter said during a promotional appearance for Sunday’s race. “In the moment these were seen as the pinnacle of technology, of safety, of speed. They were sure fast.
“You look at them now and those guys were cowboys, man. It’s incredible.”
Perhaps so, but 21st century drivers are no slouches, no matter how advanced the machinery and safety apparatus. Exhibit A: James Hinchcliffe.
The fact that Hinchcliffe, a 29-year-old Canadian, won the pole is perhaps the most remarkable story leading to the 100th running of the race. But the fact that Hinchcliffe is alive at all is nearly as remarkable.
“It’s a pretty miraculous comeback,” said Marco Andretti, his friend, fellow driver and member of one of the royal families of racing.
On May 18, 2015, a year and four days before he secured the pole position, Hinchcliffe crashed into a wall during practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and emerged with his car’s right front rocker having pierced his left thigh.
He was bleeding profusely. Only a rapid response at the track and at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital saved his life, which was in peril at times during the first hour after the accident.
Now, he here is, “100 percent (healthy), stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been.”
Hinchcliffe has been ambivalent about the attention his recovery has gotten, even though he understands it is irresistible for journalists, and can help a sport that is not at the top of the American media agenda.
So he has tried to avert the focus to those who helped him get here.
“As unlucky as I was for the accident to happen and the injury to happen I was 10 times luckier to have the people around me that we did,” he said. “The Holmatro Safety crew, all the surgeons down at IU, friends, family, all the support that I received in the days and weeks and months afterward.
“There’s no doubt I’m one of the luckiest guys out there, and I use that as fuel to come back as strong as ever and try to justify those people saving me.”
Like a baseball player who has been beaned, it stands to reason a racer that has been involved in a near-fatal crash might be wary his next time out. But that assumes auto racers are reasonable.
“I’ve said it a lot of times: I think racing drivers are just wired differently, and we lack that self-preservation gene that a lot of people have,” Hinchcliffe said. “I woke up in the hospital and immediately asked when I could get back in the car. The doctors were just stunned that I wanted to get back already . . . Basically, we’re clinically insane.”
Even among his colleagues and competitors, though, Hinchcliffe’s return has been a marvel.
“It’s phenomenal,” said 2014 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, who also was in Brooklyn Tuesday. “To be minutes away from losing your life because of a racing accident, to putting yourself through the months of rehab and the surgeries, to be back into the position to get in the car and be competitive again, only he knows what that’s like going through it.
“I feel like I only hope I’d have half as much courage as he has. So it’s been an amazing journey for him.”
Said Andretti, “Oh, there couldn’t be a better story, honestly. I feel like if it wasn’t me, he was a great second choice. He’s well deserving for what he’s been through.”
Will Power, the 2014 IndyCar champion, said, “The night before qualifying I said to my wife, ‘I think Hinch will get the pole just because of what happened to him.’ To come back almost fitter than he was before is an amazing recovery after a horrible injury.”
Hinchcliffe has heard and read such things before, and he said that means more to him than any victory could.
“I’ve always said that my biggest goal at the end of my career is to have earned the respect of the guys who I respect in it,” he said. “Hearing some of the things that they’ve said about the whole situation is huge for me.”
Hinchcliffe said he was surprised about the pole only because of the strong competition and his good-but-not-great runs leading up to the clincher.
The fact his first-ever IndyCar pole came at the Speedway after previous close calls and what happened last May added to the thrill.
“To get it there after competitively what I’d been through in qualifying at the Speedway, but then no doubt after the fact that it was just a year on from nearly losing my life at that track,” he said, “there was absolutely no way you could have written a script better for getting your first pole.”