It started as a normal morning. The last thing I remember is just being on a practice run, we were trying to run in some traffic, I was following [fellow driver Juan Pablo] Montoya and then that’s it. It’s kind of funny because people talk about, “Well, what was it like coming back, with all the bad memories and blah blah blah.” My last memory was fine. The car was running well, everything was great, sun was shining.
I woke up in ICU, there were doctors, bright lights, lots of machines hooked up to me. My family was there and Marco Andretti was there. I kind of put two and two together that something had probably gone wrong. But I couldn’t talk, I was on a ventilator, so I was writing, asking what happened. By that point my surgery had been done and they’d gotten the artery fixed so everything was okay.
I think because I had no memory of it I was massively curious on finding out as much information as I could about it. I found myself, three, four, five days after the accident, sitting in my hospital bed and I started interviewing — for lack of a better term — my doctors, my family, my teammates that came in, any other drivers, eventually the safety crew, the track doctors. I wanted to know everything. Watching the video wasn’t tough because, again, to me it’s no different than you watching the video. I’m as connected to it mentally as you are. It looks like some guy’s in a car and he hits the wall and it looks really painful. But I don’t see myself in it. It’s weird.
At first they didn’t understand what had happened to me, essentially. I was concussed, obviously in shock. I was complaining about lower back pain — not uncommon for an accident like that. Probably because I had a suspension piece that had clipped the tailbone on the way through. They could see that I was dazed, that I couldn’t get myself out of the car. When they first tried to lift me up they put their hands under my legs and the one guy said why is it so warm and he pulled his hands out and they were covered in blood. It was like, ‘Alright we need to get him out of the car.’ So they separated the car, they pulled me up and as then they pulled me they heard this clunk and they looked in the car and they saw the suspension piece fall into the seat. And that’s kind of when it started to click: A) where the blood was coming from and B) that I was heavy in the car is because I was stuck. The piece had gone right through and lodged in the other side of the car. So they separated it, it popped out and that was how they were able to get me out.
I got shish kebabed. Normally if you’ve been impaled by something, you’d leave it in, like the golden rule, right? The problem is that part was still attached to the car. And because an artery was hit I was bleeding too fast. To try and find some way to remove that and me all in one? There was just no way. I was 90, 120 seconds away from dying as it was.
What’s so fortunate about the whole situation was Indy is the closest track to a Level 1 trauma center of anywhere we that we run. Its four miles down the road on the same street. So they put me in the ambulance, they skip the infield medical center and just bee-lined it straight for the trauma center. In about five minutes I was there. Police escort, they shut the roads down in front and ambulance driver just gunned it. At this point they’re trying to get fluids through, because I’m bleeding profusely. They get me into the ER. They thought they kind of had the bleeding under control but my surgeon tells this story where he takes a step back from the bed and realizes that, he looks down, and under the bed was a pool of blood. I had bled through the gurney. So they bee-line me into one of the ORs and got in there and that’s when they found the artery and were able to stitch it up.
Back on Track
There’s nothing I could have done differently. There’s nothing my team could have done differently. It was a freak mechanical failure on a spec part that probably was caused by some metallurgic reaction during the process of it being made six months prior, four thousand miles from here. It’s like the Apollo 13 thing, right? Nothing you could do.
Mentally coming back was easy. I don’t mean to belittle the situation; obviously it was a very serious situation. But I’m very passionate about what I do, I acknowledge there’s risks in what I do, I accept those risks. And so as soon as I was told “You’ll get better, you’ll be allowed to try driving again,” I was like “Yeah, alright.” Mentally I was already back in the car, that’s all I was focused on.
I wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t really nervous – I was anxious. Because the only thing you don’t know until you know is if you still can. For me the big thing was, was I still going to be able to drive at that level? I might be able to drive at 95 percent, but at 95 percent every other guy on the race track’s going to beat me. So that was my only worry, was that something clicked subconsciously that wasn’t going to allow me to do it at that level anymore. And when I got out there, five laps into the first run I was like, “We’re good.” It was a couple laps just getting used to everything again, remembering how all the buttons worked, and then it was back to work.
-James Hinchcliffe, who holds pole position in the Indy 500, running this Sunday (as told to Aaron Stern)