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CAMERON COTTRILL | Times

Bad crash? Racers' mentality is to get back behind wheel

Once the bleeding stopped and he woke up in an intensive care unit, James Hinchcliffe had the same thought that runs through every other driver's head when misfortune strikes.

When can I race my car again?

Something had just broken in that car during practice, forcing Hinchcliffe to slam into the wall at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A metal rod from his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports machine struck an artery as it entered one side of his left thigh and exited the other. He lost 14 pints of blood. Only the quick actions of the safety crew, an emergency surgery and luck saved his life.

When the shock wore off, the 29-year-old Canadian put that May crash entirely behind him to focus on climbing back into the car that nearly killed him.

"It's such a passion, it's such a love that we have for this sport," Hinchcliffe said. "It's very little that's going to keep us out of a race car."

So that's why Hinchcliffe will be back in his No. 5 Honda on Sunday when the green flag drops in IndyCar's season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

To outsiders, his return will be the end of a remarkable 10-month recovery for Hinchcliffe, whose first IndyCar victory came at the 2013 Grand Prix. But to those in the sport, it's just one extreme example of the innate determination every driver on the starting grid possesses.

"The first thing that goes through your mind is, 'How quickly I can recover to get back in the car?' " said Tony Kanaan, an 18-year IndyCar veteran. "Every time I was hurt in my career, that's all I could think of. ...

"The nature of a race car driver is, you want to be in the car."

Even if you know that car can take your life.

•••

"I think it all starts with a fundamental brain deficiency," Hinchcliffe said. "You know, to want to jump into a machine that did that to you."

While Hinchcliffe was joking about a birth defect, he's serious about his overall point. Even the most physically gifted professional athletes must have the innate ability to respond mentally.

A running back can't be successful until he learns how to trust his surgically repaired knee. A pitcher won't be himself if he fears blowing out his elbow. And a driver won't claim the checkered flag unless he moves on from a sliced artery.

"It's the way that we're wired," Hinchcliffe said.

Hinchcliffe found that out more than a decade ago.

He was 14 and training at a driving school, where students drove sports cars in the morning and moved up to formula cars by the end of the day.

Hinchcliffe tried to follow directions from his front-seat instructor during the morning session. It didn't work. The Camaro veered off the pavement, hit an access road and flew 30 feet.

Hinchcliffe felt bad that he busted the front suspension. He felt worse later when he learned that the accident was so extreme that his instructor quit.

"He obviously wasn't built to do that," Hinchcliffe said.

But Hinchcliffe obviously was; a few hours later, he was behind the wheel of one of the more advanced cars.

Almost every other driver in the paddock has a similar story. Windermere's Spencer Pigot was 12 when he flew out of his flipping go-cart.

"It just wasn't really a big deal," said Pigot, who will make his IndyCar debut Sunday with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Pigot returned the next day and won his race.

Andretti Autosport's Carlos Munoz's worst crash came at Fontana in 2013 when he spun and rammed into the wall. If he ever gets nervous, he forces himself to think about positive memories — like his runnerup finish at the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

"You just have to learn mentally not to fear anything," said Weiron Tan, a Tampa resident who drives in the Pro Mazda feeder series.

Those who can't weed themselves out.

•••

When Hinchcliffe began his recovery over the summer, he had no memory of the crash and seemed almost numb to it; that's how quickly he moved on.

But eventually, Hinchcliffe circled back to the incident instead of shoving it aside. The crash shook the people around him, so he wanted to understand it all, from the mechanical failure that sent him into the wall to the medical crew that saved him.

"I knew that it was done and over with, and I was going to be fine and get back in a race car," Hinchcliffe said. "For me, there was no reason to not know exactly what happened and exactly why it happened."

Hinchcliffe said the crash changed him personally. You learn to appreciate everything when you need help just to put on your socks. Physically, his only lingering effect is a stiff leg on a long flight.

But mentally, Hinchcliffe didn't know whether he was still the same until he returned to the car for a late September test at Wisconsin's Road America. Even an ounce of unmeasurable fear could be the slight difference between success and failure in a series where 15 of Sunday's 22 entrants have at least one IndyCar win.

"In my head mentally, I was ready to go," Hinchcliffe said. "But it could just be something buried deep down that I've never seen or heard or touched that was going to slow me down."

Hinchcliffe had already finished his first run and was on the track again, hitting a quick corner at 130 mph. His car got sideways. Danger lurked again.

Hinchcliffe didn't flinch. He corrected it without lifting his foot off the pedal.

"If that didn't bother me," Hinchcliffe said, "I think I'm going to be all right."

Hinchcliffe won't find out for sure until this weekend and the always-dicey first corner of the season.

But when Hinchcliffe lowers his visor and climbs back into the ride that could have killed him, Hinchcliffe doesn't think he'll feel any different. He expects to have the same thought he always has in St. Petersburg and the same one that runs through every other driver's head when the green flag awaits.

Time to go racing.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.



Grand Prix schedule

Today

7:30 a.m.: USF2000 practice

8:05: Pro Mazda practice

8:50: Indy Lights practice

9:35: Pirelli World Challenge GT, GTA and GT Cup qualifying

10:10: USF2000 qualifying

10:50: IndyCar practice

12:20 p.m.: Pirelli World Challenge GTS race No. 1

1:35: Pro Mazda practice

2:10: Indy Lights practice

2:55: Stadium Super Trucks practice

3:40: IndyCar practice

6:30: 5K run

Saturday

7:30: Pro Mazda qualifying

7:55: Indy Lights qualifying

8:40: USF2000 race No. 1

9:35: Pirelli World Challenge GT, GTA, GT Cup race No. 1

10:50: Pro Mazda race No. 1

11:55: IndyCar practice

Noon: USF2000 autograph session, Fan Village

12:55 p.m.: Indy Lights race No. 1

1:55: IndyCar autograph session, Fan Village

2: USF2000 race No. 2

2:55: Stadium Super Trucks race No. 1

3: Indy Lights autograph session, Fan Village

3:40: IndyCar qualifying

5:10: Pirelli World Challenge GTS race No. 2

Sunday

9 a.m.: IndyCar warmup

9:45: Indy Lights race No. 2

11:15: Stadium Super Trucks race No. 2

11:30: Pro Mazda autograph session, Fan Village

12:45: Green flag, IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

3:15: Pirelli World Challenge GT, GTA and GT Cup race No. 2

4:30: Pro Mazda race No. 2

Bad crash? Racers' mentality is to get back behind wheel 03/10/16 [Last modified: Friday, March 11, 2016 10:45am]
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