By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
In sports, there are stars, super-stars and mega-stars. The mega-stars are those names that are so big that they transcend their sport and become part of the popular consciousness. Someone that doesn’t watch sports can still tell you that Tom Brady is a football player, and you’ll find LeBron James on the basketball court. Mention Dale Earnhardt Jr., and you know we’re talking NASCAR.
While the drivers are well known to those that follow the series, the Verizon IndyCar Series lacks a true marquee star that is instantly associated with the sport. I dare say we haven’t had a mega-star in the series since the days of A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.
Drivers like Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr., Rick Mears, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy and more recently, Dario Franchitti have all reached a certain level of disctinction, but nothing near the ‘household-name’ status. Certainly the Series itself represents just a small footprint in popular culture, and I don’t expect them to produce the next Michael Jordan, but there is no reason they shouldn’t push advertising efforts towards a single name to craft a star.
A few years back, some felt that Sage Karam would be the new face of IndyCar. However, his efforts failed to perpetuate a career beyond a partial season with Ganassi, and one-off appearances at Indianapolis.
On accomplishments alone, Scott Dixon fits the bill, but Scott is a low-key guy and he likes it that way. Josef Newgarden certainly fits the bill, but his appeal thus far hasn’t broadened past the open-wheel fan base. This is not to say that his new role as a Penske driver will not raise his stock significantly, but there is a guy in the series who has already begun to make the move towards a larger fanbase: James Hinchcliffe.
As a person, Hinchcliffe is just likeable, there’s no better word to describe it. He’s affable, outgoing, and has a tremendous sense of humor. He has built his own fantasy world that he calls Hinchtown, where he is the self-proclaimed Mayor. Who can forget when he took over for Danica Patrick in the Go Daddy car, and showed up at the track with a wig of flowing black locks, calling himself “Manica”?
In addition to his fun-loving side, he is also able to speak intelligently and passionately about the sport that he loves. He is generally supportive of the series, but he is outspoken when he needs to be.
Not only is he charming and handsome, but he’s also the kind of guy you’d like to sit down and have a beer with, giving him a universally broad appeal. Incidentally, Hinchcliffe has his own line of beer brewed by Flat 12 Bierworks: Hinchtown Hammer Down.
His story is also compelling. He nearly bled to death following a practice crash at Indianapolis, and his recovery is nothing short of amazing. His story, while not unprecedented in racing (Niki Lauda and Alex Zanardi come to mind), is a perfect example of the adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
In popular media, an appearance on Celebrity Family Feud with some of his fellow IndyCar drivers resulted in an invite to The Steve Harvey Show where Mr. Harvey attempted to play Matchmaker, setting up Hinchcliffe on various dates.
He later danced his way into America’s living room every week for an entire season of the highly-rated Dancing With the Stars television program. The attention that came along with this put him on a variety of daytime, prime time and late night talk shows and entertainment news programs.
Extra curricular activities aside, what really should define the face of the Series is performance on the track. This is where Hinchcliffe’s case is perhaps the strongest. Since returning from the aforementioned injuries, Hinchcliffe has driven like a man on a mission.
While his 2016 season failed to produce a victory, he took the pole at Indianapolis in a nail-biter of a qualifying session. He nearly won Texas, getting nipped at the line by Graham Rahal by a few inches.
In this rather young 2017 season, he looked to be a likely winner at St. Pete until a caution period shuffled the running order. At Long Beach, he took the win, much to the delight of the crowd.
Watching Hinchcliffe this season, it is quite obvious that he is one of the most complete drivers on the track. In Long Beach, the car was on rails, set up perfectly and he rarely put a wheel wrong all afternoon.
Hinch is in his third year with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports, and he has found a home with the ever-inspiring Sam Schmidt. Paired with teammate Mikhail Aleshin, this team is every bit as strong as the Penskes and Gannassis of the world.
With the Honda program seemingly on equal ground with the Chevrolet, James Hinchcliffe is certainly a favorite for the title.
There is, however, one stumbling block that Hinchcliffe cannot overcome. Many feel that the face of IndyCar should be a young American driver.
Born and raised just outside of Toronto, Hinchcliffe has followed in the footsteps of some of the finest talent to come out of Canada, including Paul Tracy, Patrick Carpentier, Alex Tagliani and the late Greg Moore.
Personally, I don’t have an issue with making a Canadian the poster boy for the series. Heck, he’s North American, that’s good enough for me.
Who cares if the borders of Hinchtown are a bit farther North?
This is the guy IndyCar needs to rally behind.