What’s good for IndyCar Series driver James Hinchcliffe is good—really good—for a lot of open-wheel-racing interests.
For starters, it’s good for the IndyCar Series and its fans. The Canadian offered fans a much-needed fresh face in the winner’s circle at Sunday’s opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. It was Hinchcliffe's first IndyCar victory, and I'm sure series officials are hoping it won't be his last.
The 26-year-old known by fans as the Mayor of Hinchtown is a whiz at social media outreach, is good with the media, and more than affable with fans. If the talented driver continues to race past the big boys at Penske Racing and Ganassi Racing, he could someday be on the radar beyond the world of motorsports.
Of course, IndyCar officials will have to promote Hinchcliffe to reap the benefits of his recent success. Driver promotion hasn’t been a strong suit for IndyCar, but new Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles has promised to address that. Miles and last year’s series champ, American Ryan Hunter-Reay, met earlier this month to discuss driver promotion.
Hinchcliffe is not a cure-all for IndyCar’s challenges, which include tepid television ratings and live attendance, but featuring a few winning drivers like him can only help.
Having Simona de Silvestro out from behind the wheel of a Lotus and in a competitive car also has to have IndyCar officials smiling this week, but that’s a story for another time.
Clearly, Hinchcliffe is good for his team, Andretti Autosport, which went into a bit of sky-is-falling mode when glamour girl Danica Patrick defected to race taxicabs, er, NASCAR, after the 2011 season.
Andretti lost its sure-fire replacement for Patrick when likable two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon died in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas. Wheldon had signed to race for Andretti in 2012 the morning before that spectacular multi-car crash.
Hinchcliffe came along at a critical time for Andretti Autosport, and now the team’s boss, Michael Andretti, can’t stop gushing about his driver.
Although Hinchcliffe showed flashes of talent last year, he couldn’t find the Winner's Circle and struggled with a few aspects of his racing. Oddly, one of those was restarts. He clearly got better at them in the off-season, as was evident by his performance at St. Pete.
He was good on restarts all day Sunday and zoomed past Penske’s Helio Castroneves on the final restart, then never gave up the lead. Now entering his third season, the aggressive racer appears to have what it takes to put Andretti up front on a regular basis.
Hinchcliffe is good for his sponsor, GoDaddy, too. I’m sure company officials have wondered more than once if they wanted to stay in the series after their primary spokesperson, Patrick, left for NASCAR. And naturally, keeping the free-spending GoDaddy marketers in the league is good for the series and the Andretti team.
Hinchcliffe might not have Patrick’s sex appeal, but he gives GoDaddy something she never could—a driver who is good enough on ovals and road courses to contend for the overall IndyCar title.
Hinchcliffe already has given GoDaddy something else it never had with Patrick—a trip to the Winner’s Circle. Patrick’s sole IndyCar victory in 2008 came while her car’s primary sponsor was Motorola.
Hinchcliffe and his handlers last year carefully played their marketing off of Patrick—who is still sponsored by GoDaddy in NASCAR. Hinchcliffe even appeared in a humorous TV ad with Patrick, with both joking about the confusion between the two drivers.
Hinchcliffe told reporters last year, when his highlight was qualifying second for the Indianapolis 500, that he was happy to play the part of Patrick’s replacement in IndyCar.
With a good finish at Indianapolis this May, Hinchcliffe would take a massive step out of Patrick’s shadow.
And IndyCar will be better for it.