Column By: MARK ROBINSON / INDYCAR – INDIANAPOLIS, IN – Despite widespread speculation to the contrary, as of Sunday, James Hinchcliffe didn’t think he would be racing in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 27.
Bumped from the 33-car field in first-day qualifications on Saturday, the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver put on a brave face and returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to cheer on his teammates and friends in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock for the second day of time trials that established the starting order.
While walking pit lane, Hinchcliffe was asked by Jake Query of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network if he believed he would not be competing in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” this year.
“Yeah, at this point I believe I won’t,” Hinchcliffe said.
The engines hadn’t cooled Saturday before conjecture flourished in the paddock and on social media that SPM would find a way to get Hinchcliffe placed in a qualified car – most likely with a Honda team since the Canadian has become so closely associated with the manufacturer. Those involved categorically denied that anything was in the works to move Hinchcliffe into a car other than the No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda that wasn’t fast enough to make the show.
A replacement for a driver not sidelined by injury is unusual in Indy 500 annals, but it has occurred before. Most recently, Ryan Hunter-Reay took over the car qualified by Bruno Junqueira in 2011 after Hunter-Reay was bumped from the field.
“There obviously has been a precedent in the past of people jumping into other cars,” Hinchcliffe acknowledged, “but at the end of the day, man, a single one-race deal is occupied here by someone that worked their tail off all year long to get the sponsorship together, to get the team in line. This is their race, this is everything for them for the entire season. It’s hard to talk someone out of that.
“It’s not even my decision; I’ve got no say in it at this point. I do what I’m told. I certainly see both sides of the argument. At the end of the day, it is what it is. We didn’t get the job done (Saturday), so if that means we don’t get to race, so be it. That’s our bed that we’ve got to lie in.”
Hinchcliffe said he was moved by the support shown by fans on what he termed “one of the toughest days that we’ve ever had to go through in my career.
“That’s Indy, man,” he added. “That’s what it does and that’s how much we care about this race. That’s not just the drivers, it’s all the crews, it’s everybody that comes out here.”
The 31-year-old winner of five Verizon IndyCar Series races and the 2016 Indianapolis 500 pole could keep it better in perspective than most, considering he nearly lost his life in a 2015 crash during practice at Indy.
“I’m one of the few that’s had that bad a day here, so I can kind of put it in perspective, yeah,” he said. “I may not be in the 33 but I also wasn’t lying in a hospital bed with tubes coming out of me and 10 doctors standing around trying to figure out how to save my life. Bad days could be worse days, certainly.”
For now, Hinchcliffe concluded, he’s on hand to support Indy 500 teammates Robert Wickens, Jack Harvey and Jay Howard, while personally thinking ahead to the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear doubleheader that follows the Indianapolis 500 by a week.
“I’ve had worse and we’ve come back from that, too,” he said. “In a couple weeks’ time, there’s 100 points on the table in Detroit. We’re already head down, focused on that, and in the meantime here cheering my teammates on.”