Hinch Is Back!

Sorta.

After having a rough last several months following his ouster from the Arrow McLaren SP team, James Hinchcliffe found a home for at least three IndyCar races this year.

Turns out, he just had to go back to where it all started.

As I speculated in this space a couple of weeks ago, it was announced Tuesday that Hinchcliffe will run the Indy GP, the Indy 500 and Texas for Andretti Autosport. Hinch will have backing from Genesys and will run the No. 29 Andretti Autosport Honda.

The move is a bit of a homecoming for Hinch, whose career took a big step up when he ran for Andretti from 2012-14. He won three of his six career races with AA and in 2012-13 finished a career-best eighth in points.

Hinch’s career over the last three years has been a mixture of good and back luck, mostly bad. He was due for some positive karma, and he definite got it here. A few things had to fall into place before that happened, though, as his seat was expected to go to Fernando Alonso, just as it had in 2017. But in a last-minute decision, the highest-ups in Japan decided they weren’t happy with Alonso’s criticism of their Formula 1 product and wouldn’t sign off on his running Indy with one of their powerplants.

Hinch’s relationship with Honda sits on the other side of the spectrum. He has support from Honda in Canada, and has been featured in US-based Honda ads as well.

All in all, this is a great reunion (as you can see by my choice of photos from 2012). AA gets a former Indy pole-sitter who knows how to run up front, while Hinch is with a program that gives him the chance to win all three races. Not to mention, having Hinch in the paddock in more than a cheerleader or “ambassador” role is a great thing.

What is also a positive is getting a new sponsor involved in the series. The relationship that Hinch and Genesys has is hopefully one that can grow into full-time involvement somewhere. When you look at a team like Michael Shank Racing, the approach seems to be starting small with a driver, sponsor and handful of races, perhaps an association with a larger team, and working towards becoming a full-time team.

Maybe it wouldn’t involve building a team from the ground up, but perhaps building a relationship with a team from the ground up would work.

Hopefully, all of the parties will be able to add one more race to the schedule — Toronto. I do not subscribe to the theory that a sanctioning body or anyone else help a driver or team get a ride, but Toronto is a little exception. There really isn’t another track on the schedule where fans come to root for one particular driver, but the Canadians turn out in support of their hometown guy. As I’ve said before, I don’t interest myself in the business of racing, but I think it would be good business for that to happen.

So, speaking of Alonso, where will he end up? According to this story in the Indy Star, Michael Andretti stated that Alonso is close to having an agreement in place with another team. Who that team is, I don’t know, but I still don’t think he ends up at McLaren.

They have way too much at stake, and it would be a bad look to put Alonso in the race but then see either Pato O’Ward or Oliver Askew not get into the field. O’Ward, in my opinion, is the priority. If he fails to make the race this year it could be bad.

The pressure is on that team, and they have to take care of business. They have to take care of their two primary drivers, and when you have a rookie and a driver who failed to qualify last year, they need all of the team’s attention.

Back to Fred. If McLaren isn’t in the cards, he’s kind of in a precarious position. Penske and Ed Carpenter have already said they don’t have room, and beyond that, do any other Chevy teams have the chance to win he is looking for?

I mean, winning the race is all Alonso is looking to do. Yeah, he loves being in a race car, loves the challenge and loves competing, but he’s got a career goal of winning the 500, not just getting into the race and driving around. Can he find a situation that works for him? Outside of spending his own money on a venture, I don’t think that he can find the situation, not to mention the manpower, to put together a good enough organization to win the race.

At least for this May. Here’s my pull-out-of-my-you-know-where, I-don’t-know-what-I’m-talking-about opinion. He starts his own team, puts together a guy to organize it — my choice is John Cummiskey, and I’m not kidding — and goes after it in 2021.

And if he’s looking for a PR guy, I’m here!

Ryan Newman Update

I was so, so happy to see that NASCAR driver Ryan Newman has been released from the hospital after surviving one of the nastiest crashes I’ve seen in a long time.

When you go back to the moments right after the crash, and the hours that passed before we were given an update on his condition, it was really easy to fear the worst. I know I had a lot of trouble sleeping Monday night, and just had this weirdly sick feeling in my stomach all day Tuesday.

This one hit me hard. Ryan survived that crash because of a massive effort by all racing sanctioning bodies to make this sport as safe as possible. But we learned in that moment that maybe things weren’t that safe, and that the sport is still crazy dangerous. That’s a wake-up call to even those of us who have followed racing for decades.

Seeing him walk out of the hospital today was amazing. His daughters still have their dad, and Ryan looks like his life will go on as normal. That’s beautiful.

But the thing that still fills my ADHD brain: why do they still race that way? NASCAR is a sanctioning body that has revenues in the billions of dollars every year. They could end this crazy ass pack racing any time they wanted to. Science is science, there has to be a way to provide good racing without pack racing. There has to be.

The problem is, does NASCAR care about this issue? I don’t think so. In fact, their brand is centered around this. How often do you see commercials centered around pack racing and the spectacular crashes that are involved?

Now that he walked out of the hospital on his own power, does Newman’s crash join their marketing highlights?

I’ve said it so many times before, my focus on on sport. Racing is a competitive sport, it’s no different to me than baseball, basketball or football. A race is a competition, and I feel that is the priority. For far too long, racing has made decisions based solely on what’s best for the fans.

Yeah, fans are the lifeblood of racing, as well as other sports. However, you don’t make them the priority when determining the product on the field, the court and the track. I go to Wrigley Field and see the Cubs play several times a year — all Major League Baseball, the Cubs, their opponent, and the Ricketts family (the owners of the Cubs) owe me it a great customer experience and a nine-inning baseball game.

I love it when the Cubs win. I’ve also been at games where they have lost — badly. Games that are already decided in the second or third innings. Those games are boring, but it’s no one’s fault, and nothing needs to be changed. Fans are the lifeblood to sport, but once the game (or race) starts, they are just witnesses to what goes on the field, not the determining factor.

Racing has gotten away from that. The Indy 500 only owes us a 500-mile race. It isn’t Roger Penske’s job to give me some sort of “Game 7” moment. It’s to provide me with a great fan experience, which doesn’t necessarily center on the race, that’s it. I am just a spectator to the competition that is going down on the track. That’s gotten lost.

Is pack racing exciting? Hell’s yeah! I went to both races at Daytona in 2013 and it was highly entertaining. But since then, my opinion on that kind of racing has changed.

I just don’t find the idea that plate — or is that tapered spacer — racing, is real racing. Is it exciting? Sure. But the longer I go on, the idea of putting human beings in race cars and making racing “exciting” because of the possibility of those cars being involved in a massive crash where everyone cheers is something I can’t get behind.

I don’t care what level of racing you are talking about, pack racing leads to wrecks. It happened in the IRL days and it happens to NASCAR. People try to talk about the “precision racing” that pack racing brings, but really, how good is anyone at that kind of racing? Ultimately, someone hits someone else, no matter how good the drivers involved are. It is way too much to ask even the best drivers to race that way without hitting each other.

What was scary about the Newman situation is that for the first time in a long time, cars didn’t bang off each other like pinballs, fly in the air, and come to a stop where the driver didn’t jump out of his or her machine to cheers from the crowd.

That scared us, and it freaking should. We shouldn’t put people in those kinds of positions for the sake of entertainment. We shouldn’t line cars up time after time and try green/white/checker finishes because we feel we “owe” the fans a green flag finish. That’s not competition, that’s entertainment. And if you are going to do that, then don’t call it racing. Don’t award a championship, don’t make it like it’s something special.

Call it made-for-TV racing, because that’s all it is.

Racing is dangerous, sure. But I hope we have evolved to the point where we are left with a decision — is this kind of racing in the best interests of the drivers?

Thankfully, IndyCar made the decision that it wasn’t. We haven’t seen a pack races in a while, and I’m glad. We see close, tight racing, especially at the Indy 500, but the drivers take good care of each other and still provide finishes that are incredibly exciting and memorable. It can be done.

Over the course of the past several years, I’ve gotten to know almost two dozen IndyCar drivers. What I’ve come away from those experiences is that I care about them as people. I truly worry about what happens to them when they take the track, and I’m relieved when the race is over and everyone is in one piece.

Back in 2012 I had a conversation with Pippa Mann about pack racing, and it changed me, because how she described that kind of racing was flat-out scary, and beyond what we should expect from drivers.

I believe in sport, and because of that I believe decisions should be made based on what is in the best interests of the drivers. They are the ones putting their lives on the line, and if they express any sort of trepidation about a form of racing, their voices deserve to be heard!

I don’t think that pack racing is in the best interest in the drivers. Full stop. Fans shouldn’t be entertained by 20-car crashes, and drivers (human beings) shouldn’t be forced to race that way just to entertain people.

Racing involves a high amount of risk, but my hope is that we all evolve to the point where setting up human beings to race with the “big one” as an expected form of entertainment is no longer an option. Instead, let’s set up races so that the best combination of car, team and driver are identified on a certain day.

If that driver wins by 30 seconds, or 10 seconds, or 0.014 seconds, that’s just what happens. Just the same as if the Cubs win 10-1, lose 10-1 or win 3-2 on a walk-off base hit in the bottom of the ninth.

That’s racing, and while it’s not always “exciting”, it’s real. That’s what we should be going after.

That’s my soap box, and I’m sticking to it.

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