IndyCar is returning to live competition virtually unopposed on television and Canada’s James Hinchcliffe is ready to take full advantage.
The Oakville, Ont., native will be on the grid Saturday night as the Genesys 300 runs at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. It’s the first race of an IndyCar season delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic but it’s still a return to form well ahead of other professional sports like the NHL, NBA, or Major League Baseball.
“I’m really hoping that it’s not just racing fans that are tuning in, but sports fans, just people that are craving some real life sport,” said Hinchcliffe on Friday. “Hopefully it exposes our sport to another chunk of sports fans that maybe weren’t avid watchers before and we could put on a good show and hopefully make them fans for life.”
IndyCar also built up its following in the early stages of the pandemic, airing virtual online races as real drivers —including Hinchcliffe — competed with each other on the iRacing simulator.
Hinchcliffe is eager to get back on a real track and “feel the wind in his hair” but was pleased with the reception iRacing got from IndyCar fans and a broader demographic of sports fans. It was a bright spot for him as IndyCar had to cancel six of its races, including the Honda Indy Toronto that was originally scheduled for July 12.
Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order on May 28 allowing sporting events to have spectators up to 25 per cent of a venue’s capacity, IndyCar has elected to keep the stands at Texas Motor Speedway empty.
“Nobody wants to have the stands filled with fans more than me but we’re just not in a position to do that yet,” said track president Eddie Gossage said in a statement. “While the state will permit us to operate at 25 per cent of capacity, there are still too many unanswered questions for an event that is just one week away.”
Hinchcliffe is disappointed on behalf of the fans, but says that, from a driver’s perspective, when the race starts all they can see or hear is the road and the other cars.
“It’s unfortunate for the fans that they can’t be there, that we don’t get to share this with them. There’s nothing quite like being at an IndyCar race in person,” said Hinchcliffe. “Compared to other sports I can think of, being in a hockey game or basketball, baseball, football, we don’t get the same sort of stadium effects from the fans that players in those sports do.”
Hinchcliffe began 2020 with his season in doubt after being cut loose by Arrow McLaren SP in the off-season. But a sponsorship deal with Genesys and a three-race deal with Andretti Motorsport got Hinchcliffe back on the IndyCar schedule.
After Texas he’ll be back behind the wheel on July 4 for the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then again for the Indianapolis 500 at the same venue, which has been moved from its traditional date on May 24 and shifted to Aug. 23.
“I think everybody’s eyes are already looking to August and the Indy 500,” said Hinchcliffe. “It’s crazy to think that we didn’t get to do it when we normally would have this year.
“Being in Indianapolis during the month of May and over Memorial Day weekend was kind of eerie not having everything going on and the normal buzz you feel in the city, so I think everybody’s excited to see if August can be the new May.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2020.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press