Our weekly series of driver interviews continues today, though this edition is not with a NASCAR driver. Since it's Indianapolis 500 week, we figured it would be a good time to highlight an IZOD IndyCar Series driver instead. Here are 12 Questions with Indy 500 front-row starter James Hinchcliffe, who is replacing Danica Patrick in Andretti Autosport's Go Daddy-sponsored car this season.
SBN: What percent of your career races do you remember?
JH: I would probably say I could give you fairly accurate detail from about 80 to 85 percent of them. Years, tracks, you name it. When something goes really wrong or really right, you remember those ones. Those sort of sixth-place finishes, you kind of push those ones out.
SBN: What was the first win you got in any form of racing?
JH: The first-ever win I ever got was in a go-kart in Peterborough, Ontario. I was in the Toronto Kart Club Novice class, and that was in 1997. I was running third, and the two leaders bumped into each other on the last lap. And I passed the two of them in the last corner and got my first-ever win in the first race of that season.
SBN: Did you go big on the celebration afterward?
JH: I think at 10, my celebrations were a little less than what they would be today. I think I got a Dilly Bar from Dairy Queen that my dad bought me. (Laughs)
SBN: What's your personal code of conduct on the track?
JH: I take a lot of pride in having good on-track etiquette. When you're out there racing with these guys, your life is literally in their hands – and vice versa. It's very difficult to earn a driver's respect, and it's very easy to lose it.
I do try very hard to treat everybody the same and treat everybody very fair. I'll race people to within an inch of what I think is fair and make sure I race them hard. I don't want somebody to think I'm willing to give up something that I'm not.
But at the same time, I don't ever want to put myself or someone else in a dangerous position. Some drivers don't mind pushing that boundary a little bit, and I just think that's a dangerous game to play. I put a lot of effort into trying to stay within what I think is a good moral boundary on the track.
SBN: You mentioned guys putting people in dangerous positions. Is that a matter of them thinking the other driver is just going to yield the spot?
JH: Yeah, it's an intimidation factor. But at the end of the day, you've got a lot of strong personalities out there on the racetrack, and you try very hard to not be the guy who buckles to that sort of behavior. Sometimes, that's just too positives going together and it's not going to work.
SBN: Who is a driver from the past you'd like to team up with if you could turn back time?
JH: Greg Moore. He was my hero growing up. The guy was a very talented race car driver and he came across as a hell of a human being. There's a lot of guys I race against today who raced against Greg, and they knew Greg very well and will all corroborate that story.
He was a huge influence to me when I was younger, and one of the reasons why I really wanted to try to get into racing and make a career of it. So yeah, that'd be awesome. Two Canadians on the same team? I think that'd be pretty cool.
SBN: When is the last time you got nervous about something?
JH: About anything? I don't know... (Thinks for awhile) I guess I don't get nervous that much. I had some pretty bad turbulence on a plane a couple weeks ago – that was probably the last time I was really nervous.
Oh, you know what? I lied! I got to go up in a fighter jet (in March), and the guy let me fly it. I was reluctant to grab the joystick, so he took his hands off the joystick and put them up in the air and said, "It's all you!" So yes, at that point I was pretty nervous.
SBN: That's pretty cool. How'd you swing that?
JH: It was a retired Marine Corps pilot who was in town for the Florida International Air Show. I was supposed to be doing a flight with the Blue Angels, but there was a mechanical failure on the plane so they couldn't fly it. This guy heard about it, so he said, "Why don't I take you up in my plane instead?" So I got to go up in his plane instead! It was pretty cool.
SBN: Race car drivers do so many appearances and autograph sessions, and fans can sometimes ask awkward or uncomfortable questions. Do you have any stories along those lines?
JH: Last year – shockingly often – I was mistaken for J.R. Hildebrand. People would come up to me and say, "Oh man, I was really cheering for you at Indy. That was a tough break." And I'd say, "Yeah, crashing on lap 100 while running seventh...that was pretty heartbreaking for me." (Laughs)
And they'd sort of look at me and go, "Wait, you're not him?" I'd say, "No, I'm not him." That happened a bunch of times, with people thinking I was J.R.
It's awkward when that happens, having to break the news. Because you're like, "Ughhh, I don't want to sound like I think you should know who I am. But I just want you to know I'm not the person you think I am!"
SBN: So there was no temptation to play along and just pretend you were J.R.?
JH: The thought crossed my mind, yeah! But since that one was particularly exceptional circumstances, I figured I'd leave it alone.
SBN: What's a question you get asked a lot that you're tired of answering?
JH: "What's Danica like?" (Laughs)
SBN: People really ask you that?
JH: No, I don't know. I don't really have a (topic) I get asked about all the time. Like J.R., he's probably tired of people asking him about what it felt like hitting the wall at Indy, you know? There's not really one question I get so much that it's tiring. I'm sure it'll eventually happen once I make some big mistake or something.
SBN: Who is someone famous you'd like to meet?
JH: Seth MacFarlane.
SBN: Because you're a Family Guy fan or just a fan of his in general?
JH: Both. I was just a Family Guy fan at first, but then I've seen some of his standup stuff and his stuff on (Comedy Central) Roasts, and the guy just seems like a trip. He seems like he'd be really fun over dinner.
SBN: Do you have a favorite Family Guy character?
JH: Stewie. Gotta be.
SBN: Would you rather have a season where you win several races but don't come close to winning the championship, or a season where you don't win any races but contend for the title all year and finish second?
JH: It's kind of tough. That's not a terribly uncommon situation. Drivers have gone through both kinds of seasons in their careers and to be honest, I've kind of wavered back and forth on that. I think if it came down to it and you knew you weren't going to win the championship, then I'd want to have the wins.
I mean, I've always thought of myself as sort of a long-term guy. I normally think in terms of the endgame, of the championship. But the reason any of us strap in the car on any given Sunday is to try and win a race, you know? We don't do it to finish second.
So if the choice was to never win but come in second in the championship, or to know on a couple occasions you were the best car/driver/crew/team combination, you would probably get more gratification with (the latter) as a competitor.
SBN: How different is your personality from when you're in the car to when you're sitting here talking?
JH: It is a bit different. Obviously, when the visor goes down, things change a lot. The stakes change and the attitude changes. I don't often crack jokes on the radio, and what we do is very serious business; I take what I do very seriously. So while I joke around a bit more off-track than some other guys, when the visor is down, it's time to get serious.
SBN: If you could switch lives with an athlete from a different sport, what sport would you want to play?
JH: I'd want to be a top NFL quarterback. Those guys are absolutely incredible, how they do what they do and read what's on the field. They see a guy running and think, "OK, if I throw it now, he's going to be there." I mean, that talent has always been very impressive to me.
I'm only recently a football fan. Growing up in Canada, I didn't really watch it much. Once I moved to Indy, I was sort of forced to be a football fan. But it's given me a huge respect for a lot of players in that game – especially the quarterbacks.
SBN: Let's say you're going to win the championship. Would you rather have it wrapped up with two races to go, or would you rather win it on the final lap of the season coming to the finish line?
JH: It depends. In the last-lap scenario, am I leading the points going into the last race, or is this me taking the championship because I'm winning the race?
SBN: I'll say you're winning the race to take the championship.
JH: Then I'd rather do that. If you're going into that race with a couple-point lead and you're coming out with a couple-point lead, that's probably my least-desirable situation out of those three scenarios.
I'd rather either go in to the last race with the championship locked up or be running second with a chance to get it. It's very cool to have that dominating season. But if the scenario is to come from behind, last corner, last lap, that's what people are going to remember, right?