James Hinchcliffe drew laughs in his Grand Prix of St. Petersburg debut, popping onto the stage in a Danica Patrick-inspired wig to match the neon green GoDaddy racing suit he inherited after she left the series.
He drew applause the second time, speeding around three-time race winner Helio Castroneves to win last year's Grand Prix and claim his first IndyCar series victory.
When the 27-year-old Canadian takes the 1.8-mile track for Sunday's race, the series' resident class clown will finally enter as a defending champion. His grit has started to balance his goofiness. His off-the-wall humor has begun to complement his sky-high potential.
The twin sides to Hinchcliffe's personality fueled his rise from an unproven sideshow to a race winner and, perhaps, a spot as IndyCar's next star.
"I think he's the next Helio Castroneves," ABC/ESPN analyst Scott Goodyear said.
Long before Hinchcliffe raced cars for a living, he was a jokester.
His dad, Jeremy, is a wry Englishman who passed on his love of racing and dry humor. When Hinchcliffe bounced around to four elementary schools in gifted programs as a child, jokes became his defense mechanism.
"By constantly being the new guy, a really easy way to break the ice was with comedy," Hinchcliffe said.
What worked in classrooms worked in boardrooms, too.
In a sport where marketability and sponsorships matter as much as podium finishes and poles, Hinchcliffe's sense of humor helped him stand out without being a champion.
In his nine-year ascent from the Bridgestone Racing Academy F2000 series to IndyCar, he never won a season title. But he flashed enough talent and charm to keep climbing up the ranks.
"I was kind of the funny kid," Hinchcliffe said. "People didn't look at me as the guy that was going to win a championship."
The first turning point came in 2010, when he came within 24 points of winning the Indy Lights series championship. That got him a ride at Newman-Haas Racing, where he won IndyCar rookie of the year honors the next season, and the chance to replace Patrick when she left for NASCAR after the 2011 season.
He recognized the pressure and responsibility that came with filling one of racing's most recognizable rides at Andretti Autosport. He said he had "big heels to fill."
So he treated his first prerace introduction in Patrick's former car the same way he treated his first day at a new school. He broke the ice with humor.
His wig's black curls draped past his shoulders.
The gags have kept coming.
The self-dubbed Mayor of Hinchtown makes fake boardroom pitches in videos on his website, hinchtown.com. He joked that he landed his team's new engineer through a late-night break-in of competitor Josef Newgarden's basement. He paraded around in a commercial with a conductor's hat on his head in a push to replace Patrick on the GoDaddy homepage.
"I just wish he would wear that more often, use the baton," Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay said. "It fits him."
By the end of 2012, fans voted Hinchcliffe the series' most popular driver.
His racing results started to pick up, too. He led five laps at the Indianapolis 500 and earned his first podium finishes at Long Beach and Milwaukee.
The success comes from an ontrack determination fans don't get to see. Hunter-Reay said Hinchcliffe won't crack a smile from the time he puts on his helmet until the final meeting at the engineering truck. If Hinchcliffe's mom or girlfriend want a last-minute hug on the starting grid, he hardly notices them.
"I almost feel bad, because I pay them zero attention at that point," Hinchcliffe said. "I almost feel like a different person."
Hinchcliffe's second major turning point came in last year's Grand Prix. He overtook Castroneves on a restart on Lap 85 and held off one of the sport's biggest names for the final 26 laps to take the victory.
"It was kind of proof that the class clown could still be serious when he needed to," Hinchcliffe said.
Further proof followed. He passed Takuma Sato on the last corner of the last lap to win at Brazil, and at Iowa, he earned his first oval victory.
"You knew he was very fast. Could he complete the package?" said Goodyear, the series' 2000 runnerup. "And he proved that he could do that."
Goodyear called Hinchcliffe a championship contender, if he can find the consistency he has lacked.
But Goodyear is equally impressed with Hinchcliffe's outgoing personality. Some drivers do only the minimum requirements with sponsors or promotions. Like Castroneves, Hinchcliffe puts himself — and IndyCar as a whole — in the public eye even more.
"For him, it's natural," Goodyear said.
As Hinchcliffe returns for Sunday's race, he'll have a different experience. He carries the pressure of defending his victory. His No. 27 car has switched from Chevy to Honda.
And his GoDaddy green has been replaced by the blue of United Fiber & Data, a tech company aligned with the rock band Live that embraces Hinchcliffe's humor. His sponsors were the ones who suggested putting their promotional #gotfiber plug on the seat of his racing suit.
"My owners are rock stars," Hinchcliffe said. "They get it. They don't mind having fun, letting me be off the wall."
As long as he keeps ending up in Victory Lane.
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected].
Friday, March 28, 2014 , Section X | ????