As James Hinchcliffe rolled up in his golf cart to the Andretti Autosport garage in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with girlfriend Kirsten Dee he leaned over and gave her a kiss before heading back to work.
The popular Verizon IndyCar Series driver from Toronto – affectionately know as the “Mayor of Hinchtown” – is back in office after he passed a closed concussion test by the INDYCAR Medical Staff Thursday. That means Hinchcliffe could return to the cockpit of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Dallara/Honda after he passed the medical evaluation.
He suffered the head injury when he was hit by the end plate off Justin Wilson’s front wing after it made contact with eventual race winner Simon Pagenaud’s car in last Saturday’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
As Hinchcliffe entered the back of the Andretti Autosport garages he was warmly greeted by the team’s engineering staff who told him to get back to work.
For Hinchcliffe, his quest to win the 98th Indianapolis 500 official began Thursday – five days later than the rest of the field.
“It’s nice to know I’m wanted for comic relief if nothing else,” Hinchcliffe told FOXSports.com. “The last few days have really been tough. You never want to miss time in your car especially at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Knowing that for a time there was a chance that Indy might not happen was tough. That’s the granddaddy of them all and we want to be here more than anything. That is why I took all the doctor-recommended actions to the enth-degree. I went overkill on the rest because I wanted to make sure I was fighting fit for qualifying for the race.”
After Hinchcliffe got nailed by the debris he has no recollection of the incident.
“Not even close,” he said. “I guess I still had the wits to get over to a safe place. I don’t know if I was smart or being a really big wuss but I clearly took a pretty big hit there. It looks like I’m out for a second or two before getting into the tire barrier and saved the car. I pulled over and that was it.
“I think it was some sort of deep-down conscious decision but it was a good one. You can ask the doctors when I got out of the car that it was not good.”
Hinchcliffe believes his response was part of the training of getting the car into a safe place.
“It was a subconscious thing that not only saved our car but also a lot of opportunity for me to run into other cars there,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was really lucky I didn’t get into anybody else. Everybody hit the brakes and I kept going. It could have been a lot worse but I was lucky.”
Hinchcliffe has made daily progress in his recovery. On Sunday he admitted to having a wicked headache throughout the day but had a big improvement overnight. He saw a correlation between more sleep and how much better he felt. He believes that got him into a position where he could return to the track late Thursday.
The late Dale Earnhardt once said the most painful thing was to see another driver in his race car when he had to turn the wheel of the No. 3 NASCAR Chevrolet over to Mike Skinner in the 1996 Brickyard 500. Hinchcliffe felt similarly when he saw E.J. Viso fill in as the driver of the No. 27 IndyCar this week.
“It’s always tough,” he said. “I knew the No. 1 thing was to get better. This is not the kind of injury that you rush. This is a different beast and you have to make sure you are 100 percent before getting back in there with a serious head injury. In that sense I was thankful E.J. Viso was here to pick up the slack and get in the car and get it running and make sure we were where we needed to be later in the week.
“I would like to see E.J. get a ride for this race because he’s a friend of mine and former teammate. I know what he is capable of and it would be great to see him in the field. I don’t know if that is in the cards or not but I hope he can get a ride.”
Hinchcliffe was saved from serious injury by a Carbon Fiber strip that covers the gap between the visor and the helmet. Hinchcliffe is one of many drivers that have that strip on his helmet and many drivers would like to see IndyCar officials make it mandatory.
“It has given us some interesting data on that piece and how it will affect impacts like we had,” Hinchcliffe said. “Hopefully, it will make things even safer for us in the future.”
Hinchcliffe gave a big thanks to the medical team that helped him return.
“It goes without saying, I’m thrilled to be back in the United Fiber & Data car,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s been a long couple of days watching everyone practice but obviously getting healthy was the No. 1 goal. I really want to thank everyone at IndyCar Safety, IndyCar Medical and IU Health for their great care.
“Also, to Jim Leo with PitFit Training for helping with the rehabilitation and of course a big thanks to E.J. Viso and the team for all the hard work during practice. The car looks fast and I can’t wait to get out there and get up to speed.”