Rising IndyCar star James Hinchcliffe smiles when he describes his 2014 season's "terrible luck." He's steadfastly optimistic when he talks about crashing out of the Indianapolis 500 after claiming the second fastest qualifying time and leading 14 laps; or how two weeks earlier his race ended with a concussion from flying debris he doesn't remember hitting. He doesn't even seem the slightest upset that after winning three Indy races in 2013, he managed just a single podium visit (a third at Mid-Ohio) this year.
"It all makes you stronger," Hinchcliffe says with a slight grin. "It makes you want to push harder."
His season highlight was the double-header weekend in his hometown of Toronto where he finished eighth and then a disappointing 18th. The fact that he got to drive at a race he grew up loving in front of diehard fans, that made it a win of sorts.
Though he enters his fourth IndyCar season with mixed results, Hinchcliffe has been a big winner online, amassing a Twitter following on par with series champions. His community of fans has been dubbed "Hinchtown," and he's the mayor. His easy-going attitude hits a chord, but he's quick to thank sponsors that never constrained him to what he calls "slick, scripted PR speak."
"They've let me be myself. Which is just a goofy Canadian kid that likes to drink beer." Still smiling, he adds, "I also give out a lot of free beer."
As a craft beer lover, one of just two in the IndyCar drivers with Charles Kimball, Hinchcliffe connected with the owner of his favorite Indianapolis brewery, Flat 12 Bierwerks. Before long, Hinchcliffe and Flat 12 collaborated to create Hinchtown Hammer Down Golden Ale. The crisp, easy-drinking beer brewed with Canadian hops was designed to suit the weeks around May's Indianapolis 500, but has since grown to a year-round favorite for the brewery.
Hinchcliffe hopes to follow up with an IPA (his favorite style) and a porter or stout. But why launch a small-batch beers when so many athletes go for international endorsements?
"Well, I'm Canadian," he jokes. "So I was born drunk."
For the 2015 race season, Hinchcliffe opted to leave the powerhouse Andretti Autosport — who's owner Michael Andretti publicly hoped to re-sign Hinchcliffe — for the smaller Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Switching from a four-car to a two-car team, he says, should give his squad more time to concentrate on themselves.
"I might not have the hospitality bus any more,"Hinchicliffe says of Schmidt Peterson, "But at its core they're a race team that's proven they can beat up on these big teams."
When talking about the future, Hinchcliffe quickly notes he doesn't set numerical goals — race wins for instance. "So much of your success is dependent on variables outside your control," he says. "You might drive well enough to take four championships, but never win one."
"The only time I get hyper-critical is over a flaw I've done, because that’s what I can control," Hinchcliffe says. "Otherwise, you can really do yourself a lot of damage psychologically."
Instead, he focuses on improving what he can control. For next year, qualifying times and pit stops are at the top of his list, followed by his post-pit laps. Then, of course, he's still got a couple new beers to name.