IndyCar’s Next Generation of Awesome

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Ever the comedian, James Hinchcliffe was on point with his routine on Media Day morning. He even joked when fielding questions about his injury in Turn 3 of IMS last year, saying they, “Went a bit off piece – literally and metaphorically.” But it wasn’t all fun and games. He divulged some information about a neck injury that he sustained in his accident this past May, which was not widely reported. Hinchcliffe did not hold back with the seriousness of the neck injury, divulging after the press conference,

“The disc that connects your skull to your spine suffered a massive trauma, it was sprained and bruised. Basically, the HANS device among many other things saved my life. For as bad as I injured it with the HANS device, it would have been absolutely game over without it. One hundred percent.”

Hinchcliffe discussed how drivers have this ability to throw self-preservation out the window when they are focused. It doesn’t necessarily make sense but he says that despite what he went through last May, he is far from ready to hang up the helmet. In fact he is “just as motivated, just as committed, and just as stupid as ever.” He’s still the same old Hinch. And still able to give Marco Andretti grief for showing up in a plaid button down shirt when everyone else was in sponsor polo shirts and team jackets.

Andretti will continue his pursuit of a third IndyCar win in this, his eleventh full-time season in the series. He will do so from behind the wheel of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda. He stated that with the refinements made by Honda with the aero kit design, they have an improvement over last year, but only time will tell how it ranks against the Chevys. Andretti voiced frustration in not capturing a win last season, and falling behind in points to teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay due to that fact, even though Andretti had a more consistent finishing average.

Graham Rahal returns with Rahal Letterman Lannigan Racing this year as their sole full-time driver. He will once again pilot the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake sponsored Honda. His appreciation for racing continues to deepen as he grows as a driver. The accomplishments of his father, while impressive, were never truly understood until he himself started attempting the same feats and many times, succeeding. One accomplishment that has remained elusive for the younger Rahal however, is a trip to victory lane and swig of milk on Memorial Day weekend. When asked what it would mean to him, to win the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, Graham noted another big anniversary that a win at Indy this year, would mark for him personally:

“For me, the Indy 500 is the race that transformed the Rahal name forever in 1986. And that was 30 years ago. So to win 30 years after that… (paused in reflection) I won Daytona 24 overall 30 years after [dad], won my Atlantic Championship 30 years after [dad]. I hope this tradition continues! You want to win it every season. But the 100th would be pretty damn cool.”

Listening to Rahal recall his dad’s Indy 500 win in 1986 plastered a smile across my face. Why? Because that was my first 500. I remember it like it was yesterday – which is pretty cool because it’s also my furthest back memory. I’m not going to lie to you guys, being able to watch another Rahal capture an Indy 500 win in person would be amazing. Plus, we are all from Ohio so that’s just icing on the cake… or whipped cream on the milkshake if you want to incorporate the Steak ‘n Shake sponsor in the analogy… which I do.

Speaking of Steak ‘n Shake, their activation last year had just about everyone talking. Their presence on track and online was impressive to say the least. The latter of those, which mostly involves social media, was a topic that took hold during the presser. Engagement, fan interactions, and the importance of all its aspects were discussed.

Newgarden notes that while he loves the connection that social media provides, it’s also a balancing act when you crave privacy and need to protect it. Looking back at old posts and photos, he can see his own transformation as a person and professional, taking a jab from Hinchcliffe who oh-so-kindly reminded him of when he used to take shirtless photos on the beach! Thankfully, this group is no stranger to poking fun at one another and it’s all done in good spirit.

wp-1455240677600.jpgHinchcliffe went on to talk about the importance of being accessible and how that in turn can make them role models, simply because they are professional athletes in the public eye. Because of that, he suggested an app that won’t allow them to tweet if their heart rate is above a certain level. In all seriousness though, he is well aware of how much a simple reply to a fan on Twitter can mean, and consequently how it adds to their experience of IndyCar as a whole.

I love that. I love that he gets it. I love that all these guys get it. They care about the success of this series, not just because it’s a career choice, but also because they respect what it is and what it means – the tradition, the generations of families (both fan and driver), and the product itself.

My hope is that the direction of the sport will be driven by guys like Hinch, Rahal and Newgarden… and by all the teams that have so much invested and want nothing more than to see this amazing product succeed. As long as we focus on that being the goal, and not only appreciating the sport, but marketing it at the level it deserves and presenting it consistently to new markets and fans, the success will write itself.

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