James Hinchcliffe found a correlation between driving a race car in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and commentating on the sport as his new analyst role with NBC Sports began with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding.
Adrenaline still rushes through the body, he said, particularly as the green flag approaches.
“The countdown to going live on national television is the same as when you’re a driver getting excited about the (national) anthem, getting in the car and hearing the ‘start your engines’ command,” Hinchcliffe said. “Live television is such a rush.”
Hinchcliffe, a six-time INDYCAR SERIES race winner, officially made his debut in the NBC booth alongside veteran broadcaster Leigh Diffey and longtime driver analyst Townsend Bell. Hinchcliffe had worked in that position once before, in 2020 for a race at Iowa Speedway, but this was the start of a full-time role with INDYCAR’s broadcast partner.
Hinchcliffe expected a big audience, and the total audience delivery released by NBC showed more than 1.4 million people tuned in, the most for one of INDYCAR’s season-opening races since 2011. Hence, the Mayor of Hinchtown was in his element – in the spotlight where he has always seemed comfortable.
Hinchcliffe said having TV experience years ago analyzing Champ Car races with Jeremy Shaw and regular appearances on “Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain” – plus assorted pit road reporting with NBC in more recent years – helped make the transition to the booth relatively seamless, particularly when a producer talks in his ear while he is trying to complete a thought.
“Definitely one of the hardest parts of the job, I’m not going to lie,” he said of the background chatter. “But live television is a lot of fun because there’s a lot on the line and you can’t make mistakes, just like when you’re driving the car.
“In this case, there was all that energy of it being the first race of the season, and all the atmosphere and buzz (at St. Petersburg) that is always amazing. Then when we came on the air to be standing in front of that huge crowd of people – that backdrop was really cool – to kick off the season was something else.”
The affable Canadian made a strong first impression, with few noticeable slips during the weekend that included shows during practice and qualifying on Peacock, NBC’s live streaming service. Twice, for example, he executed like a professional broadcaster tossing the conversation to a pit reporter. He even threw in a word not normally associated with the sport: serendipitous.
Hinchcliffe said he planned to review the broadcast to analyze his work in preparation for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ next race, the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 20.
“Just as I would going over the data before a race I was driving in,” he said.
The St. Petersburg race was relatively straightforward with few controversial moments, but Hinchcliffe said he was ready, willing and certainly prepared to critique them as necessary, regardless of how good of a friend he is with the driver – or drivers – involved. Because, he said, an audience expects as much from the analyst sitting in that chair.
“It’s part of the job,” he said of objectivity. “I’ve got to be honest with myself, honest with the job, honest with the audience. I think all of (the drivers) understand that, and if I say something they don’t agree with, I think we can all be professional about it.
“I’ve got to call it how I see it.”
While Hinchcliffe worked as if he was in his driving element, he admitted still feeling a bit out of place at times.
“It’s very different being behind the wheel of a race car, which is something I’ve done my whole life – I’ve prepared for it and trained for it – and while it’s a high-pressured situation, I still feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on what I’m doing and what I should be doing,” he said. “But this is a whole new thing for me, and I’ve got a lot to learn. It’s a different kind of pressure.”