ELKHART LAKE, Wis. -- All eyes of a small crowd were on Verizon IndyCar Series star James Hinchcliffe as he warmed up on pit lane at Road America.
In typical Hinchcliffe fashion, he joked with the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew while exercising with a jump rope before his first laps in an Indy car in over four months. After a few moments of reflective silence, he smiled at his surveyors.
“I’ve never had so many people interested in skipping before,” he said.
Soon he was in the car and out for a warm-up lap around the 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course, which will welcome the return of Indy car racing in 2016 after an eight-year absence. Hinchcliffe participated in a one day team test in preparation for the June 24-26 event and as an important step in his re-acclimation to racing.
“This track is unreal. It’s my favorite one in the country,” Hinchcliffe said. “So to get to come back here and throttle an Indy car around this place is awesome.”
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In one team radio transmission, he responded to a call to pit with, “I am never coming in. Ever.”
Hinchcliffe was injured in a May 18 accident during practice for the 99th Running of the Indianapolis 500, and following two surgeries and a recuperation period was cleared to drive by INDYCAR medical officials.
“A lot of (my recovery) was based on healing,” Hinchcliffe said. “And the doctors, to their credit, they left a lot of it in my hands. They don’t know how I feel. They can tell you that medically speaking everything should be healed, but at the end of the day it really came down to how I was feeling, how I was feeling in the gym and things like that.
“I was honest with myself. I wasn’t going to lie just to get back in the car sooner. I wanted to make sure that when I got back I was back for good.”
Joining Hinchcliffe on the track were Sebastien Bourdais (KVSH Racing), Tristan Vautier (Dale Coyne Racing) and Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport), who tested exploratory components for Honda Performance Development’s 2016 road/street course and short oval aerodynamic bodywork package.
“We’re going through a lot for Honda, on the aero side, on the engine side, obviously a lot of just chassis-related items as well,” said Andretti, whose father, Michael, has three wins at the Road America. “Just getting through the checklist. Hopefully we have more positive reads than negative.”
Hunter-Reay, who recorded a top-10 finish at the track in 2003 and a top-five result the following year, was complimentary of the track after his initial laps.
“It’s great to be back at Road America,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s one of my favorite tracks. Even all the years that we haven’t been racing here, when people ask me what are my favorite racetracks I say this is one of them. So it’s great to be back and really looking forward to making this a future home of INDYCAR. Back where it belongs.”
Bourdais’ was the only Chevrolet-powered car in attendance at the test. Though he dominated the Champ Car circuit from 2004-07, he had to wait until ’07 to capture his first win at Road America, which he won over Dan Clarke by 9.752 seconds.
He fielded questions from media regarding the comparisons from then and now, to which he responded with surprise that the similarities were so strong, and reminisced about his history at the track. As he spoke, a bee came close to listen in on the conversation. Discouraging its interest with a flip of his hand, he recalled an even closer encounter with one during one memorable Road America race, when he was stung on the hand during a pre-race parade lap.
“I almost had to cut the glove a little bit,” he laughed.
In addition to expressing mutual admiration for the track, the drivers were also happy to see Hinchcliffe racing alongside them once again. Andretti and Hunter-Reay, who were teammates with Hinchcliffe during his three seasons at Andretti Autosport, were unsurprised at how quickly he matched them in pace.
“It’s awesome. To see him back in his car, in his natural environment and what he loves to do, it’s great,” said Hunter-Reay. “… We just came off a full season of running and he’s right there with us. I didn’t expect anything less out of him, but it’s cool to see that. He’s got a lot of heart.”
As for the remainder of Hinchcliffe’s re-introduction to racing, he plans on taking things one step at a time.
“I did (have some anxiety) a little bit,” Hinchcliffe acknowledged. “But then I looked down and checked my shoes and remembered that the right one is go and the left one is stop, and then everything was fine.”
On Sept. 22, 10 drivers turned laps on the Road America course. For more information about the race weekend, visit www.roadamerica.com.