A quick quiz: If you’re a 30-year old guy with an intensely competitive fire burning beneath a laid-back, fun-loving demeanor, you know things are going pretty well for you when:
A) you find success making a living as a professional race car driver in an ultra-competitive, high profile series;
B) you just spent an enormous amount of time over a three-month period dancing cheek-to-cheek with a stunningly gorgeous and talented woman;
C) you’re able to relax with friends and enjoy a brew that literally has your name on it;
D) all of the above.
If you’re James Hinchcliffe, the answer is D, and he's quick to acknowledge his good fortune.
"Living the dream, as they say," said Hinchcliffe in a phone conversation with The Pantagraph earlier this week.
Things could actually get even better for him with a victory in this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first of 17 races on this season’s Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.
The event, run on a 1.8-mile temporary street circuit through downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., begins with practice on Friday and three rounds of qualifications on Saturday. The 110-lap main event takes the green flag on Sunday (11 a.m., ABC).
"Obviously we’re all excited to get back to work after a pretty long offseason," said Hinchcliffe. "It’s the first time we’ll see some of the new car and driver combinations and where we stack up in the competitive order."
Hinchcliffe said limited testing time in the offseason makes Friday’s practice session crucial.
"On a race weekend, we have so little track time that every second you have is invaluable and you have to maximize that," he said. "You’re hoping that everything goes smoothly and according to plan. If it doesn’t, the teams that can identify and solve the problems the quickest will be the most successful."
Hinchcliffe, who now races for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports (SPM), won the St. Pete opener while driving for Andretti Autosport in 2013. It was the first of four career IndyCar wins dating back to his 2011 rookie-of-the-year campaign.
Also highlighting his résumé is the pole position he won in dramatic fashion for last year’s historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
In mainstream pop culture, however, Hinchcliffe is best known for joining partner Sharna Burgess in winning the hearts of millions across the nation in last fall’s 23rd season of "Dancing with the Stars."
He and Burgess advanced through the entire eight-week run before finishing second on the Emmy-winning show, which pairs a celebrity (Hinchcliffe) and a professional dancer (Burgess) against other pro-celebrity duos.
Hinchcliffe said Burgess, who choreographed the routines, was fabulous at alleviating any concerns he had going into the competition as an amateur.
"One of the great things about Sharna was, while she was teaching me the steps she would notice very quickly what I could or couldn’t do," he said. "She could then adjust the routine."
Hinchcliffe said he noticed a parallel between that and racing.
Just as Burgess worked hard at preparing the dance routines, the engineers at the SPM shop in Indianapolis have been busy over the winter creating a baseline setup for St. Pete.
However, there’s still the unknown in the equation until the car actually hits the track. That’s when Hinchcliffe will get a hands-on feel for the car’s strengths and weakness in each area of the 14-turn course.
After a few laps on Friday, he and the SPM engineers will put their heads together to determine what adjustments need to be made for the optimum performance in qualifying and the race.
While noting the similarity, Hinchcliffe says there’s also a big difference. In dancing, he said, once the routine is established it’s all about practice and repetition. Racing is infinitely more fluid. A small change in the wind, for example, can make a big difference in the handling of a 1,700-pound car.
The track changes as rubber is laid down. The car’s grip changes from the laying down of said rubber, as well as getting lighter when fuel is burned. The tire and fuel strategy is in constant flux because of the unpredictability of caution flags.
"In dancing, it’s stick to the routine," Hinchcliffe said. "In racing, it’s all about being able to adapt on the fly."
Hinchcliffe’s adaptability came in handy during his pole-winning run last year at Indy. The current generation of Indy cars are impressive specimens of technology whereby the drivers are able to adjust a number of things from inside the cockpit.
Hinchcliffe said he adjusted the gearing while in full flight in the first turn of his Indy qualifying run, a move that ultimately paid dividends in his coming out on top.
"That's just where experience comes in," he said.
The gear change came at the opposite end of the track where just a year earlier his experience was nothing short of horrifying. A violent crash sent a steel rod from the car’s suspension into the cockpit where it impaled him through his right leg and into his left.
Were it not for the quick response of the Holmatro Safety Team, there’s a distinct possibility that Hinchcliffe would have bled to death in the car.
Hinchcliffe’s recovery from the life-threatening injuries was nothing short of remarkable. He was back in a race car at the start of the following season and, shortly thereafter, winning the pole position for the biggest race in the world.
Considering the severity of the injury to his legs, most remarkable may be his fancy footwork with Burgess less than a year and a half after the accident.
As the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Hinchtown," a fictional community with a real-life website, Hinchcliffe stays busy away from the track with his "Mayor on the Air" radio show and podcast on Sirius/XM Radio.
While Hinchtown’s largest industry is motor sports, its economy has diversified with the addition of a craft brewing business that produces Hinchtown Hammer Down Beer. The product launch came with a gala, "Can Prix" event in Indy.
"Everybody will be happy to know it’s not brewed in a bathtub in the basement of my house," said Hinchcliffe, who grew up in suburban Toronto and now lives in Indianapolis.
"I got together with the people from a very established and reputable craft brewer in Indianapolis (Flat12 Bierwerks) and we came up with ideas on what kind of beer we wanted to make."
The golden ale is sold year-round across Indiana and Kentucky, as well as in his native Ontario.