After missing out last year, Hinchcliffe set for Indianapolis 500 qualifying
James Hinchcliffe during practice for the Indianapolis 500 IndyCar, on May 14, 2019. (Darron Cummings / AP)
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, May 17, 2019 7:13AM EDT
The Honda Indy Toronto will forever be special to Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe, but even it can't hold a candle to "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
That's the term often used to describe the Indianapolis 500. For many, though, it's simply, "The 500."
"I mean, it's the biggest race in the world and that's a fact, not just an opinion," Hinchcliffe said in a telephone interview. "It's the largest single-day sporting event on the planet but I do think it carries more history and tradition than probably any other motor sports event globally and that makes it an incredible event to be a part of.
"You can listen to drivers who've competed in it and they go on and on about how special it is and what it means to them and it almost sounds phoned in at some point. But I can promise you one thing: Once you do it and really experience it firsthand you understand what this place means to everybody and how important it is."
Hinchcliffe could only watch last year's race after failing to qualify. Qualifying for this year's event goes this weekend, but the veteran Canadian won't have redemption on his mind when he settles into the cockpit at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"We've learned our lessons, we took our lumps but we're heading back as a team that's sat on the pole here in the past and done well here in the past," Hinchcliffe said. "Qualifying at Indy is such a unique animal.
"Certainly when you put an IndyCar into qualifying trim on a track like this and you're going for a minimal amount of downforce and maximum amount of drag reduction, what ends up really helping is just being smooth. I've pounded around that place enough laps to learn how keep your hands smooth and deal with a car that's a little bit on the free side and that ultimately will get you the big pace and fast laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway."
The Indianapolis 500, which goes May 26, has been a source of elation and pain for Hinchcliffe.
The 32-year-old native of Oakville, Ont., recorded his first -- and only -- career pole in this event (2016) and twice has qualified second. Hinchcliffe took pole a year after nearly dying in the race when a piece of his suspension broke during a crash and pierced his leg.
The safety crew quickly extracted Hinchcliffe from his car and pumped him with over 14 points of blood while racing him via ambulance to hospital. Hinchcliffe has no memory of the accident but understands the severity of his injuries and how the quick actions of others helped prevent a totally different outcome.
"Words can never describe how thankful I am for them," he said. "Luckily I have no memory of the accident itself but the subsequent rehabilitation and recovery are obviously something I live with every day.
"I think it has helped shape me as a person in terms of how I conduct myself outside of the race car but inside the car, I'd say it hasn't changed me at all. I think about (accident) every day. It was a very big part of my past but something I've moved beyond."
A six-time IndyCar Series winner, Hinchcliffe's best Indy 500 result was sixth in 2012. He said a driver must not only be on his game to win that race but also very lucky.
"There are just so many factors outside of your control," he said. "Over 500 miles there's so much opportunity for something to go wrong.
"You have to be absolutely perfect, your crew has to be absolutely perfect and your car has to be absolutely perfect. But you also need Lady Luck to be absolutely perfect and on your side or else all the hard work is for naught."
Hinchcliffe currently stands 10th in the driver's standings with 107 points. He's 75 points behind overall leader Josef Newgarden but trails seventh-place Graham Rahal by just six points.
"Not extraordinary by any stretch," Hinchcliffe said of his season to date. "We've not had much luck but still managed on Sundays to keep our heads down and pull off decent results.
"If we can keep doing that then I think once luck stops working against us and even goes our way a bit we'll be primed for some really good results. Obviously the 500 is a double-points race and that's going to be very important for everybody. We need to get through May with some momentum and take that into the next part of the season."
While winning in Toronto remains on Hinchcliffe's bucket list, even that would pale in comparison to chugging milk in Victory Lane as the Indy 500 champion.
"Toronto is obviously my emotional favourite because it's my hometown," he said. "But winning the Indy 500, essentially, makes you immortal as a driver.
"For the rest of your life you'll be introduced as Indy 500 winner so and so, and long after you're gone your likeness is going to be sitting on one of the most prestigious trophies in sport. It really does solidify you as one of the all-time greats of the sport and helps make sure what you accomplished is remembered forever."