James Hinchcliffe to the rescue
By NICHOLAS DETTMANN
ELKHART LAKE – A struggling team has turned to IndyCar star James Hinchcliffe for help.
In what was likely the shortest phone conversation Hinchcliffe has had in his lifetime, he’s at Road America this weekend during an IndyCar off week ready to help.
Hinchcliffe is racing with the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship Series in a Prototype this weekend at Road America.
The series was created when the NASCAR Grand-Am Series merged with the American Le Mans Series following the 2013 season.
“I’m one of those guys that thinks he was born in the wrong era,” Hinchcliffe said. “I wish I lived in a time where it was easy to get between series’ every week, be in a different car.”
It is the first time Hinchcliffe, the always upbeat and joking Canadian driver, has been at Road America since 2007, doing so in a Formula BMW.
“I love this track,” Hinchcliffe said. “This is my favorite track in the country.
“It was a very short conversation when I got the call.”
It was also a deal that was put together close to the last minute. It was 6 p.m. Tuesday.
“It was short, but it was pretty straightforward,” Hinchcliffe said of how the deal came about.
“They gave me a call to see if I was, A, free and, B, be interested and those were both two quick yeses and here we are.”
Road America has personal significance to Hinchcliffe.
In 2004, Hinchcliffe picked up his first professional racing victory, racing a Formula BMW, the first of three in a row in the series that season, at Road America. The next year, he won a Star Mazda Series event.
“It’s got that old-school charm,” Hinchcliffe said about Road America. “It’s still a little hairy in some places. It hasn’t been too sanitized. Not that I’m against improving track safety or anything, but I think you should still have gravel traps, you should pay for mistakes on the track.
“All these asphalt run-offs everywhere is kind of lame.”
In 2004, the victory was a breakthrough for him after being so close in a handful of races before Road America.
“It was a doubleheader weekend,” Hinchcliffe recalled. “In the first race, I pitched it off in Canada Corner, ironically enough. It was one of those seasons where I finished second I think four times and we were kind of getting close to the end of the year and I was getting frustrated we didn’t have a win.
“To go from the gravel trap to victory lane was a nice feeling. It set off a string of three straight wins.”
Hinchcliffe is not alone from the IndyCar Series at Road America racing with the sports car series that is on hand with four other series – Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge by Yokohama, Cooper Tires Prototype Lites powered by Mazda and Mazda MX-5 Cup.
Rookie Jack Hawksworth is also at Road America this weekend, racing a Prototype Challenge entry, with TUDOR.
Other drivers with IndyCar ties at Road America this weekend include Katherine Legge, Scott Sharp, Christian Fittipaldi, Scott Pruett, Bruno Junquiera and Townsend Bell. Even some drivers with stock car ties are at Road America, including Colin Braun and Andy Lally.
Lally finished seventh in the NASCAR Nationwide Series event June 21 at Road America.
“The racing here is always phenomenal,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s one of those old, classic race tracks. We don’t have many of those left. This one has definitely got a special place to me.”
Hinchcliffe was hand-picked by car owner Peter Baron to race the car, along with Franklin, Wis., native Scott Mayer.
Baron’s team has struggled this season and have spent hours trying to get everything in line. After a successful test session last weekend at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia, Baron believes the program is back on track and Hinchcliffe is the perfect driver to showcase that belief.
“The goal for this weekend is to get out and show we have a successful program again,” Baron said. “And to build on for the 24 Hours (of Daytona) next year.”
Honda Performance Development developed a new, 3.5-liter, twin-turbocharged Daytona Prototype version of the production J35 engine for 2014, with the Daytona Prototype Honda Riley package making its debut at the Sebring 12 Hours. The results weren’t what they hoped for.
So they went back to work, with the biggest problem being the engine temperature control. It was a four-month process.
The build-up to Daytona will be capped with the season finale, the Petit Le Mans, a 10-hour race Oct. 4 at Road Atlanta.
“That’s going to be a good benchmark with how it’s going to do,” Baron said.
The IndyCar Series returns to the track Aug. 17 at The Milwaukee Mile, a place Hinchcliffe has two top-five finishes in three years.
Follow Nicholas on Twitter: @dettmann_wbdn