Canadian Drivers at #indyTO : James Hinchcliffe of the Verizon IndyCar Series

James Hinchcliffe: “To me, this is my Holy Grail right here.”

By: Christian Ryan

Nothing would ring in Canada 150 for James Hinchcliffe quite like a victory in his home and native land.

The driver of the No. 5 Arrow Electrics Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports from has long dreamed of victory in front of a hometown crowd in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In turn, the Toronto crowd gathers en masse to cheer on their hometown hero. In the long history of the event, the third longest running race on the IndyCar schedule, the only Canadian to stand on top of the podium in the Honda Indy Toronto is Paul Tracy in 1993 and 2003.

“It’s the only race we’ve got, I’m the only Canadian here, it is kind of like having the whole country behind you,” Hinchcliffe says. “I’ve obviously always wanted to win this race, just it being the hometown one and I was here when Paul [Tracy] won it. It’s certainly a special atmosphere.”

Growing up in nearby Oakville, Ontario, the Honda Indy Toronto would become a young Hinchcliffe’s introduction to IndyCar racing. Now, in his seventh season at the pinnacle of North American open wheel racing, he continues to seek that elusive victory on home soil. A feat that ranks as the top priority in the driver’s career.

“To me personally, this race means everything,” he says. “This is the reason that I got into IndyCar racing, why I wanted to be an IndyCar driver. To me, this is my Holy Grail right here.”

The desire to win in Toronto was made even stronger in 2016 when Hinchcliffe stood on the podium in third, his career best finish in the event.

“Getting that podium, it really just fuelled my desire to want to win this race, he explains. “I mean, you want to win them all, and you want to win your home race, but getting a little bit of a taste at what that might be like with the third place last year, it really does light the fire.

I’ve had such good support from everybody in this city and all across Canada my whole career. Giving them results worth cheering for, especially at home, means an awful lot to me.”

Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, hails from Columbus, Ohio and has won his home race of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2015. Having achieved his own dream of victory at the track where he fell in love with IndyCar racing, Rahal knows the importance that the Toronto race holds for Hinchcliffe.

“For James, to be able to accomplish that would be great for him to see,” Rahal says. “I can guarantee you, you’ll feel now greater joy in racing than to accomplish that for him.”

Canadian motorsport as a whole is in the forefront of Hinchcliffe’s passions, as the drivers that he idolized through his childhood at his home track were most often his fellow countrymen. Hinchcliffe famously wears red gloves as an homage to his childhood racing hero, Greg Moore. The late driver from Maple Ridge, British Columbia defined how Hinchcliffe approached motorsport, both as a driver and as a personality.

“It was easy to latch onto Greg because he started in IndyCar right about when I started racing go karts,” Hinchcliffe explains. “That obviously fuelled my passion for the sport even further than before. Being the young Canadian kid, he found success pretty early, he won races pretty early, he was really fun to watch on track, he was exciting. But also, the big thing for me was he seemed like a great guy.”

Now, as the sole Canadian in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Hinchcliffe is finding himself becoming an influence for a new generation of Canadian racing drivers.

“I think it’s really important to have an identifiable and recognizable face for the Canadian fans,” says Dalton Kellett, Toronto native and driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyLights. “Guys like all the Canadians that have gone through the Mazda Road to Indy and gone on to have success like Hinchcliffe. Having those public figures in the event is really important for the Toronto fans. It gives them somebody to root for.”

Aside from a symbolic influence on up and coming Canadian drivers, Hinchcliffe also takes a very personal approach.

“At Barber Motorsports Park before a race [Hinchcliffe] came up and we actually had probably a two minute conversation about what the track was like at Barber,” says Parker Thompson of Red Deer, Alberta and Exclusive Autosport driver in USF2000. “I’ve got to look up to a guy like that: that will take the time to come down. I’m sure the guy’s got a million different things on the go within IndyCar… For him to take the time to come and do that, that’s definitely pretty admirable.”

Hearing the influence that he has had on these young drivers, the ever-humble Hinchcliffe is quick to make a joke.

“I feel like they need to watch old races and idolize actual good racing drivers from Canada like Greg Moore and Paul Tracy and ignore me,” he laughs. “It’s weird being on the other side of it. But at the same time it’s incredibly humbling and a huge privilege to maybe be a person that can help influence and have a positive effect on a young kids life like that…

I’m a big fan of helping promote young talent from Canada and trying to get more young drivers into open wheel. Knowing that guys like Dalton and Parker say that this was part of the reason they wanted to go that route, it means an awful lot to me. It really does.”

Until these drivers reach the Verizon IndyCar Series, Hinchcliffe remains the sole flyer of the Canadian flag. In doing so, he represents an entire nation and, in return, he is welcomed home to Toronto with open arms and total admiration. He is Canada’s representative to the American racing world, a title that he takes seriously.

“I would like to think that I maintain Canada’s reputation for being nice, friendly, and outgoing,” Hinchcliffe says. “But at the same time I hope they know that Canada can produce some pretty bad-fast racing drivers.”