KRAVITZ: Pole winner Hinchcliffe writes a comeback story for the ages

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Bob Kravitz

James Hinchcliffe never really minded addressing The Story. The voluble and eminently likable Canadian driver will talk about anything at any time, and even if he was tiring of talking about the accident that nearly killed him last May 18 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he was willing to oblige the questions that would come every time he showed his face in public.

"I get it; it was a big deal. It was a big deal to me, too," he said with a laugh Sunday. "And I understand that. And I really appreciated that people wanted to hear the story, wanted to tell the story for me. There were a lot of really, really nice pieces done…But then you’re coming back to this place, you want to focus on the here and now and not remember or focus on hitting the wall at 125 G’s."

He was intent on returning to Indy this spring and writing a new story, a better story, a monumentally uplifting story of one man’s ability to rise above fear and go faster, ever faster. It would be enough to report that Hinchcliffe had simply returned to his beloved sport and had come to grips with the terror of those dark days when a steel suspension wishbone entered both his right leg and then his left groin. But that would be too mundane for an event as storied as the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. No, Hinchcliffe would return from that terrible time and actually win the pole, his first-ever IndyCar Series pole, by driving on the ragged edge and spitting in the face of fear.

This is made-for-TV movie stuff. No, it’s better than that. It’s actual big-screen movie stuff, like something written by Angelo Pizzo, a comeback story for the ages that is befitting this racing centennial. For a sport that is forever searching for inspiring stories that resonate beyond the sport itself, Hinchcliffe’s comeback is the perfect tonic. The triumph of the human spirit knows no international borders.

"Who will play you in the movie?"

"I don’t know," Hinchcliffe said. "There’s still one big thing to check off the box before we starting talking about movie rights."

Typing the words, "He almost died," it sounds almost casual, even unnecessarily dramatic. But standing near the pits early in the evening Sunday, I ran across Jeff Horton, IndyCar’s director of engineering, a man who studies accident data, among other things, for the series. And when I ask him about Hinchcliffe, his demeanor turns serious.

"People have no idea," he tells me. "People have no idea how close he came to dying."

Horton went on to tell me how Hinchcliffe hit the wall at more than 100 G’s during a practice one day after qualifications, how a suspension component skewered his right and left legs, how he lost pints and pints of blood and nearly bled out…how, in the end, he was saved by the fast and brilliant work of the track’s safety crew and the doctors at Methodist Hospital.

If you want to understand how Hinchcliffe’s near-fatal injury touched his sport and the people inside of it, listen to Ryan Hunter-Reay. He was flush with regrets after coming just milliseconds behind both Hinchcliffe and Josef Newgarden, and yet he sounded downright thankful that he was able to see Hinchcliffe, the comeback kid, win the Indianapolis 500 pole.

"I’m super happy for Hinch; he’s one of my really good friends," Hunter-Reay said. "To be sitting in his hospital bed a year ago… I was there with him, his first Road America test. And I thought to myself, 'It’s going to take him a day to get back in the mix.' That’s a big jump back in.

"I remember asking [a team member] like two hours into the test, 'How quick is Hinch?' 'You know, he’s a tenth and a half quicker than us right now.' I was blown away. I couldn’t believe right away he was back into it. That just shows the courage he has and how resilient you have to be. It’s incredible. I don’t think anybody can really describe almost losing your life out here on the same track and getting back in and doing 240 into the corner and doing what he is doing. It is just incredible. Absolutely incredible."

This story is not just about Hinchcliffe, though, although you could certainly pen a novel about his tale and his tale alone. This is a story, too, about his team owner, Sam Schmidt, who might have enjoyed his very-best day in motorsports. Not only did Hinchcliffe get the pole, three of Schmidt’s cars made the top 10 Sunday, knocking off the behemoth race teams, specifically the struggling Ganassi group. And if that wasn’t quite enough, Schmidt provided the first and perhaps the most compelling moment of the day, driving a specially-built car that could be driven by a quadriplegic, averaging over 100 miles per hour around the oval and reaching speeds of more than 150 mph, all the while using his eyes and a tube to steer and generally control the car.

"I stand in pit lane and watch Sam do 152 miles per hour around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Hinchcliffe said. "Frankly, what I did pales in comparison."

Schmidt lost the use of his arms and legs in an accident in 2000. Hinchcliffe nearly lost his life one year ago at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Both men love racing, but it was their first love that nearly took both men.

"[Schmidt] was one of the greatest assets to have with everything that happened last year, especially to my family, to my parents, because he had been through something like that," Hinchcliffe said. "He kind of knew the story, he knew the score and I know that helped them (Hinchcliffe’s parents) a tremendous amount. And then being able to talk to him about it personally helped me a lot, too."

As Hinchcliffe navigated the 2.5-mile-long oval late Sunday afternoon, there was Schmidt, sitting and watching and saying, "C’mon. C’mon. C’mon," over and over again. Around Turn 3 he came, his lines perfect, his speed never wavering, dancing on the edge of reason, and then down the straightaway, flooring it. Finally, he crossed the finish line, and there was a huge and thunderous roar, Hinchcliffe finishing .06 miles-per-hour faster than Newgarden.

"God bless America," Schmidt said. "This is fantastic."

After getting out of the car, Hinchcliffe stopped for the first of several rounds of media interviews.

"I came into the month hoping we’d have a new story to talk about," he said. "I’m at a loss for words – which, as you know, is rare for me."

He had done it, his team knocking off the big boys, the Penskes and Andrettis and Ganassis. The comeback was complete. Nobody will ask Hinchcliffe about closure again. He’s got it. He’s had it for quite some time, actually.

The race community? They roared their approval. Some of them in very odd ways. Check out this post-Pole Day tweet from Dario Franchitti:

“From kebab to pole position,’’ he wrote. “Awesome.’’

Kebab?

Hey, drivers get drivers. And drivers get drivers’ twisted sense of humor. They are a different species altogether.

Now, Hinchcliffe has a new story. And before this wonderful month is finished, he’d really like to write an amazing sequel, the second story even better than the first.