(This is the latest in a series of stories tracing the roots of Verizon IndyCar Series drivers through their own words. We look at where they grew up and what first sparked their interest in racing. Today’s subject: James Hinchcliffe.)
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver James Hinchcliffe recently discussed his memories of growing up in Ontario, Canada, just outside Toronto, with IndyCar.com writer Phillip B. Wilson.
Wilson: What were you into as a kid?
Hinchcliffe: The first thing I can remember is watching a Formula One race on TV with my dad. I remember super distinctly it was a race in Montreal. There was a car going by and he got the fastest lap of the race. It popped up on the old-school Formula One graphics with Murray Walker doing the commentating, saying that was the fastest car on the track, but he was running P6. I remember turning to my dad and being like, “If he’s the fastest guy on the track, why isn’t he leading?” I couldn’t comprehend why the quickest guy wasn’t leading the race.
Wilson: You’ve had that happen to you a few times in your career?
Hinchcliffe: Now it makes much more sense. I’ve been on that end, unfortunately.
Wilson: So you were interested in it, it caught your eye. How old were you?
Hinchcliffe: Probably about 5.
Wilson: Something drew you in?
Hinchcliffe: I was clearly already into it. That’s just the first thing I clearly remember. Other than that, I was a pretty normal kid. I remember going to school. I kind of remember my first day of kindergarten, getting on the bus with my brother (Chris). Went to school, hung out with friends after school, watched racing on the weekends with Dad.
Wilson: What did Hinch do when hanging out with friends?
Hinchcliffe: My friends weren’t really into racing. We lived in a neighborhood. My best friend from school lived about 15 houses down the street. He and I would go riding our bikes around the neighborhood. There was a little forest kind of attached to our place and we’d go ride around there. In the forest, there was this abandoned Volkswagen bug. It had been sitting there for like decades. This thing was rusted to hell. There was nothing left inside. It was just a shell of a car. We’d go ride our bikes through the forest and eventually go find ourselves sitting inside this rusty, old relic of a car and coming up with crazy adventures that we were pretending to be, getaway driving.
Wilson: What was your buddy’s name?
Hinchcliffe: Mike Moxley.
Wilson: Do you know where Mike is today?
Hinchcliffe: Yeah, I know roughly where he is. You can kind of stay in touch through the wonders of the World Wide Web, but we’re not super close anymore, unfortunately.
Wilson: Nothing like childhood, though?
Hinchcliffe: I remember when my dad would start taking me to the Indy car races in Toronto. I was always glued to the fence when the Indy cars were on track, but I didn’t really care about the other stuff. I always had a buddy with me. When the other cars were on the track, we’d go under the bleachers and use the scaffolding for the bleachers like monkey bars, climbing on stuff. We were always under the bleachers using it as a jungle gym.
Wilson: Funny. You did that until the Indy cars came on track?
Hinchcliffe: Yeah, whenever the Indy cars were on track, I was glued to the fence. When it was any of the support series, we were horsing around.
Wilson: What kind of student was James Hinchcliffe, the future Mayor of Hinchtown?
Hinchcliffe: I was a decent student. When I was really young, I struggled with math quite a bit, Grade 1 and Grade 2. I would constantly get comments in my report card about talking too much in class. Shocking, I know. My high school career was a bit different. By that point, I liked school and tried to do well. My parents said if I didn’t make an 80 average, I had to give up racing. One year at the Indy race in Toronto, my dad was invited up to the Shell suite and, at that time, Bryan Herta was one of the drivers for Rahal. I was a kid racing go-karts. My dad got a chance to chat with Bryan for a moment. He asked him, “How did you kind of manage with school coming up?” He said, “My parents were always very strict about school. We had this deal where I had to maintain a 70 average or I had to stop racing.” So Dad comes home and tells me the story. I said, “OK, that sounds fair.” And my dad said, “Yeah, except your number is 80.”
Wilson: You’ve been around Herta enough since. Did you ever give him a hard time about setting that bar for you as a kid?
Hinchcliffe: I don’t think I’ve ever told him that story. I even had him on my podcast once, but I was too captivated by hearing his stories.
Wilson: Anything else stand out about school?
Hinchcliffe: Yeah, I had kind of a weird elementary school upbringing in the sense that I went to four elementary schools. I was in one school from K-3. In Grade 3, they did provincial-wide testing to identify any kids that had learning problems or were gifted. One day, I was sitting at Pete’s Donuts with my mom. We were waiting for my sister to finish her piano lesson around the corner. I was doing homework. I reached into my backpack and found this letter. As soon as I saw it, I thought, “Oh no,” because I was supposed to give it to her when they gave it to me two weeks before. She opened it and read it and started laughing. It was a letter from the school board saying that your son has been identified as gifted and would like me to come in for additional testing. My mom thought that I either stole the letter or cheated on the test. I went in for some additional testing and said I qualified for the gifted program. My parents made the decision to stick me in the gifted program for Grade 4. In the summer between Grades 4 and 5, we moved so I had to change schools again for Grade 5 and was in the gifted program in the new town for Grades 5 through 7. Then they decided they were moving the gifted program to a different school. At this point, I had already been to three schools and was going to have to go to a fourth and my mom felt bad for me. I could either follow the program to the new school or go to the local elementary school with all the kids you’re going to go to high school with and learn some of those people before I get to high school. I was young, but she left it up for me. I decided to abandon the gifted program and went to my local school. It was there that I met the guys that I’m still friends with today. On a group chat, that drains the battery on my phone.
(Check out Hinchcliffe's IndyCar.com biography. Also read previous "Racing Roots" entries on Marco Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, Ed Carpenter, Josef Newgarden, Spencer Pigot, Carlos Munoz, Ed Jones, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Charlie Kimball, Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal.)