IndyCar: From zero to 230, Hinchcliffe qualifies second despite recent injury

A tense but cheerful James Hinchcliffe waits during Ed Carpenter's qualifying run.

© 2014, Michael L. Levitt

INDIANAPOLIS – What James Hinchcliffe accomplished by qualifying second in Sunday’s qualifications for the 98th Indianapolis 500 was fairly remarkable, considering that just a few days ago he didn’t know whether he would be cleared to return to his race car.

Hinchcliffe suffered a concussion when he was hit in the helmet from the end plate off the front wing on Justin Wilson’s car, after contact with eventual race winner Simon Pagenaud on Lap 57 in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. A carbon fiber strip, that covers an area of Hinchcliffe’s helmet and the top of the visor, likely saved Hinchcliffe from serious injury.

He was taken to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis where a CT Scan revealed a concussion. Hinchcliffe was out of his Indy 500 ride until he could be re-evaluated by the INDYCAR Medical Staff.

“In all honesty, by Monday I felt pretty good,” Hinchcliffe said. “Sunday I had a nagging headache for most of the day, but I didn’t take any painkillers at all because I wanted to be really tuned in to how I was feeling. I wanted to know exactly how my head felt, if any activity made it worse or better. 

“By Monday I noticed a huge improvement from Sunday and kind of thought to myself, one more good night’s sleep like that and it will be right as rain. Tuesday is when I came in with my first evaluation. The neurosurgeon was confident with what he saw. Until they give you that green light, you just never know.”

The driver from Toronto followed doctors orders and beyond, sleeping more than requested, staying away from bright lights, wearing sunglasses at all times and avoiding electronic gadgets such as computers and cell phones.

The fate of his participation in this year’s Indy 500 was heavy on his mind when he arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday. He would either have to pass his closed concussion test, or he would have to stay on the sidelines.

“Driving into the Speedway on Thursday was just awful because I’m driving in, seeing cars drive around, thinking I should be out there, knowing I’m going to a dark room that is going to determine my fate,” Hinchcliffe said. “It wasn’t the most comforting feeling certainly. 

“All the doctors, they were confident going in based on what they’ve seen from me, what I did to prepare myself in the gym. It was more nerves I think than any lasting effect from the accident. 

“Thursday, when they sat me down in the room, closed the door and said, ‘Good luck.’

“Needless to say when those results came in, it was a huge relief. They determined I’m just as brain-dead as I was before.”

Hinchcliffe was ready to practice on Thursday but didn’t have time to turn any laps before the end of practice. He hoped to run a full day of practice last Friday but there was just 18 minutes of a rain-delayed practice before another heavy rain shower washed out the rest of the day.

Hinchcliffe entered Saturday’s first day of qualifications with very little practice time but was fast enough to get into the “Fast Nine” group of drivers that would determine the pole and the firs three rows for the Indy 500.

“You go into qualifying having tested a fair amount in qualifying-ish trim,” Hinchcliffe said. “My first run of the month was about four or five degrees less on rear wing than you normally would be. 

“I had to kind of pretend I had been here all month and take the feedback my teammates were giving me at face value. I knew what to expect from the car, and that was a huge part of it. 

“I was lucky that I don’t remember the accident so I didn’t have any nerves to get over. It was kind of getting back in there and trusting my teammates. I have got some good ones so it made my job easy.”

During Sunday’s Fast Nine Shootout, Hinchcliffe whipped off a four-lap average of 230.839 miles per hour in the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Dallara/Honda to be on the pole. He was there until the fastest driver of the weekend, Ed Carpenter, won the pole as the last driver to make an attempt with a four-lap average of 231.067 mph in the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Dallara/Chevrolet.

“To think about the fact a week ago I wasn’t allowed to operate a cell phone; today I’m whipping an IndyCar around IMS at 230 something miles an hour is pretty incredible,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s only because of so many people, everything from the doctors, my family taking care of me at home, all my teammates who did such a good job getting these cars ready. 

“I jumped in Friday, one run, look where we ended up.”

Hinchcliffe thanked his four teammates including NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, Carlos Munoz, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay, as well as E.J. Viso, who filled in for Hinchcliffe in the No. 27 car before he was cleared to return.

“To have this car on the front row is incredible,” Hinchcliffe said. “The thing was a handful. I was working pretty hard for it. Into turn three on the last lap, it stepped out on entry a little bit; I had to take some wheel out of it, made for some understeer on exit. You don’t have time for correction. I knew I had to crack the throttle. 

“I was screaming in my helmet down the frontstretch.

“Congratulations to Ed. We kind of knew we were racing for second today. Good credit to the team for giving us such a quick car.”

After Carpenter starting on the pole and Hinchcliffe in the middle, Team Penske driver Will Power starts on the outside of Row 1 after running a four-lap average of 230.697 mph in the No. 12 Team Verizon Dallara/Chevrolet.

Power was totally impressed with Hinchcliffe’s comeback from a concussion to front row at the Indy 500.

“Coming from a concussion, that’s impressive,” Power said. “I don’t think I’d be that keen to get back in the car once you’ve had a head hit. It’s good. I think he took it well and recovered the right way. He’s back, not worried about anything. It’s a great job. 

“The cars definitely are user-friendly these days. As you see, there are not that many crashes during the month anymore. Just a little bit more friendly to drive. Probably a bit more downforce, too. 

“But still, it’s never easy to jump in a car like that coming back from a head hit, especially in qualifying. It’s not easy.”

Hinchcliffe’s performance may have proved that practice is over-rated.

“I don’t know about that, man,” Hinchcliffe said. “If I had a choice, I probably would have rather had more than 18 minutes. 

“Again, I just can’t thank the team enough. If this had been a one- or two-car operation, there’s no way we’d be able to do that. We’d be here, but we wouldn’t be in this room right now. We would have made the race, but it would have been much further down.

“Trust me, next year I don’t plan on taking a vacation practice week, calling in a sub. I’d rather be here all week.”