“I’m the luckiest unlucky guy”
When he was fresh out of surgery, hooked up to maybe 10 different machines following his horrid, life-threatening May 18 crash after qualifying for the 99th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, James Hinchcliffe had only one thought: can I drive again?
He couldn’t ask that question with his mouth as he was on ventilator, but could with a pen and paper and, while it might shock people outside of the sport, shouldn’t be news to any fans or members of the Verizon IndyCar Series community. That is, as Hinch himself notes, “How racing drivers are wired.”
Less than a month later, the Mayor of Hinchtown is contemplating a final surgery that could come within the next 4-6 weeks – far sooner than any physician might have expected after his expansive loss of blood (he thinks he lost more than the human body normally holds) when the suspension piece on his No. 5 Arrow Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM) Honda pierced a vein and wedged into his pelvis.
That final abdominal surgery, as he explains, would be to “undo some things done during the first surgery and will put me down for a couple of weeks afterwards for recovery. I’t s a difficult pill to swallow, but it’s necessary and needs to be done. The sooner that happens, the sooner we get back into recovery and into the car.” After that final surgery, there would be another 4-6 weeks of recuperation before Hinch can resume his gym workouts and full training, which would make a race date this season, if not out of the question, very, very highly unlikely.
“It’s the nature of racers,” Hinchcliffe notes. “We’re wired wrong; we’re absolutely insane and this is what we live to do.” As competitors, every racer knows this kind of accident “can” happen but it’s a subliminal thought. “If it does [happen] it’s not going to stop us from getting back because that’s the nature of competitive people.”
A great communicator through his hinchtown.com website and through social media interaction, Hinchcliffe is still amazed about the bounty of well wishes emanating from that crash and the number of people that have been in touch. “The support from people is an overwhelming thing and so appreciated. I sit and stare at these reminders that people care about you. It’s part of that motivation to get better.”
For now the progress would appear slow to someone as athletic as James Hinchcliffe. He’s had a best day of walking over 4,000 steps (including stairs) and today, June 10, he’s a bit behind (but it was only 2PM and he did have an earlier doctor’s appointment) of “only” 2,400 steps. “We’re getting there. There are good and bad days; some days it’s easier to move, others not so much but the bad days are becoming fewer… “
Getting permission to get on an elliptical machine has helped. “When you have had injuries, you’re not using your legs as much, the more you clot. The fact that I had a complete ‘oil change’ makes that more of a risk as well. Movement is very good but, at the same time you don’t want to overdo anything or aggravate anything. That has been a big challenge,” Hinch says, “trying to stay active but at the same time giving the body the rest it needs to recover, making sure you don’t push it too hard,” something racers have a tendency to do.
For now a big goal is to get off blood thinners, keep moving and prepare for that final surgery that will take the Mayor back to the seat of the No. 5 Honda car. He’s in constant contact with the SPM team, his engineer (Allen McDonald) and the entire crew. “I’m still part of this team.” He advised substitute Conor Daly about racing Toronto the day before he spoke with us, helping his friend prepare for the weekend ahead. “I obviously have a vested interest,” he says.
The pain level is going down as his enthusiasm for recovery ramps up and Hinchcliffe is almost completely off medications. “One of the most uncomfortable parts of it has been the fracture to my pelvis. Obviously there’s not a whole lot you can do about that, and at the same time there’s really nothing you can do to alleviate any discomfort.” The first few days out of the hospital, right after the 500, were the most difficult.
At this point he’s not cleared (beyond the elliptical) to exercise most of his body but he was told he could keep his forearm strength good. “I had my trainer drop off anything that was grip-strength related so I can hold onto the wheel when I eventually get tossed back in a car. It’s largely an existence of trying to rest up and get better,” which has him watching races whenever he can. Hinch does state, “Daytime television sucks in this country, that’s for sure!”
With visitors streaming in and out of his Indianapolis are home and girlfriend Kirsten keeping him entertained, Hinch has been reading a lot and experiencing “the best vacation you never wanted.”
He’s been to the SPM shop, looked at the tub of the car that crashed and looked at the damage the rocker failure caused. “The part that failed is one that we have almost no recorded failures of – ever. I know a lot was spoken about mileage of pieces in the aftermath of the crash. I know a lot of teams changed rockers, whether they were mileaged or not, after my accident.
“That is literally a piece that has almost a zero percent failure rate, so it really was a bizarre situation in the first place. Obviously with the suspension coming through the tub, again, that was another situation we haven’t seen in quite some time. Immediately, there were adjustments made and bits added and things done to prevent that from happening again in the future.”
But Hinch, racer that he is realizes, “I was just unlucky. At the same time I was incredibly lucky, not only for the Holmatro Safety Team being there. As the doctors will tell you, if that piece had been five millimeters in another direction it might not have been a survivable injury. I’m the luckiest unlucky guy,” he says.
Right now Hinch’s impetus is toward getting well enough to have that second surgery, to sit through the next recovery and to get back into the car and start testing for the 2016 season when September rolls around. “I don’t have fears of second-guessing [myself] getting back into the car. The only thing I worry about is making sure I’m at the fitness level I need to be at when I get the chance, the approval and the clearance to get back in.”
With a 12-pound muscle mass weight loss from this injury, he’s got a lot of work to do to be ready but for James Hinchcliffe, as for most racers, getting back into the car is job one. “I obviously am hating the situation of not being in the car but you relish the opportunity to focus solely on the return and that first time back.” With his fitness level and athleticism, “All these things help the healing process. We’re trying to milk that for all I can to get better as soon as possible.”
In the meantime he’s looking to get medically cleared to, at least, travel to the races and help out in any way possible. “To be on the stands, sit in on the debriefings, it’s going to give me a much better understanding of what’s happening,” as the team works to develop his Honda car. “To me, this is still a new beast, something we’re trying to figure out. The more I can be present for that, for all the learning that’s happening, the more involved I can be, the better. As soon as the doc says it’s all right, you’re going to see me sitting with a headset on trackside, for sure.”
Words and Photos By Anne Proffit