ST. PETERSBURG — James Hinchcliffe is a mayor.
Albeit a self-proclaimed one of the aggrandizing, yet always entertaining Hinchtown — his official website is www.hinchtown.com — but Hinchcliffe is transparent, hiding nothing from his fans. Not his smile, not his infectious personality. Not even his dry, sarcastic sense of humor.
“He’s a living, walking comic show,” Andretti Autosport teammate and friend Ryan Hunter-Reay said. “Never a dull moment, that’s for sure.”
Hinchcliffe might crack wise, but he’ll defend his title this afternoon at the IndyCar Series season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Last year’s race was Hinchliffe’s first career win, propelling him to two more wins during an up-and-down year.
But the 27-year-old Canadian driver is still joking, whether he’s getting a new engineer, a new sponsor or giving his teammates a hard time for being, well, his friends.
“You guys know Hunter-Reay parks his mega-yacht out there (in the harbor) for race week, right?” Hinchcliffe joked while using a GoPro to film the reporters interviewing him.
Ribbing aside, Hinchcliffe needed a new sponsor after losing the GoDaddy green so affiliated with the No. 27 car because Danica Patrick drove it prior to him. In October, Hinchcliff signed with United Fiber & Data (UFD), a tech company founded by three members of the rock band LIVE and their Think Loud Development company.
Its a perfect match.
“(GoDaddy was), honestly, a tremendous partner two years with me, three with Danica,” said Hinchcliffe, who finished fourth at St. Petersburg in 2012. “They did a lot for IndyCar and a lot for me personally, but at the same time, I’m very excited about the new sponsor.
“With GoDaddy, I had this irreverent sponsor who were not super in-the-box corporate image people. That allowed me to be the natural (fool) that I am.
“With UFD, the people behind them are very much fun-loving. They’re rock stars. It’s essentially owned by the band LIVE. My owners are rock stars. They get it. They don’t mind having fun, letting me be off the wall. I think this partnership is going to produce some pretty fun things on track, off track.”
Hinchcliffe might have been knocked off track by losing engineer Craig Hampson, who guided Hinchcliffe’s three wins. Another off-track obstacle could be Andretti Autosport switching from Chevy to Honda engines just as Hinchcliffe is adjusting to a new engineer.
Nathan O’Rourke joins Hinchcliffe after two seasons with Josef Newgarden at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
“I stole Josef’s engineer,” Hinchcliffe joked. “I went to his house where he normally keeps his engineer in a cage in the basement. I broke in while he was sleeping. Nathan made a lot of noise, rattled the cage. It woke Josef, which made for an ugly altercation on the main floor. I was able to use chloroform. I said, ‘Josef, does this smell like chloroform?’ Then Nathan and I made it out the window.
“Seriously, (Nathan’s) young, hungry. He hasn’t won a billion races like Craig, but he’s really keen to get some results. I know he’s going to work hard. The chemistry is there. He’s very logical and not super emotional, which is sometimes good in an engineer.”
Hinchcliffe has also embraced the Honda engine the same way he embraces life. Vigorously.
“It’s interesting to see how an engine built under the same rules could feel as different as this one did. It’s fast,” Hinchcliffe said.
“A lot of changes this year, but change can be fun.”
That seems to be Hinchcliffe’s goal. To have fun, then go out and win races. He could become the first consecutive winner at St. Petersburg since three-time winner Helio Castroneves in 2006-07.
Maybe then they’ll make him the mayor of St. Petersburg.
“My first win here, it was proof the class clown could still be serious when he needed to,” Hinchcliffe said. “(Confidence) frees your mind up when you’re in those circumstances, again knowing that, ‘Hey, I’ve been here, I know I can do it. Let’s focus and get the job done,’ rather than over analyze and make a mistake.
“I’ve done so well here, that if I ever leave Indy, (St. Petersburg is) on the short list to call home.”