Race against James Hinchcliffe on a go-kart track, the invitation said.
I let it loom, unopened, in my inbox for several days before deciding to do my very best to get out of it.
After all, the Oakville, Ontario, native is a six-time NTT IndyCar Series race winner. He won pole for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 by averaging 230.946 miles per hour, or 371.672 kilometres per hour, across four laps of the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In fact, he nearly freaking died at that same track the year before, and he got right back into a race car the second his health would allow, because attempting to push speed to the very edge of human limits is, as it turns out, the very thing he lives for.
Me? I watch IndyCar races on TV while sitting on my couch eating Cheetos and armchair officiating on Twitter. In exactly what way am I qualified to share anything resembling a racing surface with this man? I decided I’d spare myself the shame and sit this one out.
At least, that was the plan. It was quickly thwarted by a conversation with my editor.
“Have you confirmed that you’re going to this?”
“Well, I wasn’t….”
And so, I find myself at K1 Speed in North York, strapping on a helmet and silently wondering just how painful this thrashing is going to be.
At least it’s for a good cause. Honda Canada is enticing us to give it a go by declaring that for every driver who manages to best a lap time set by Hinchcliffe, they’ll donate $1,000 to Make-A-Wish Canada, a charity that raises funds to grant wishes for children with life-threatening medical conditions.
As much as he’s a keen supporter of this cause – and has actively helped raise money for it since his partnership with Honda Canada began in 2014 – Hinchcliffe isn’t sure he’s fully on board with the idea of being beaten by anyone, much less some Cheeto-eating scribe.
“I was very torn in this whole deal,” he says. “I wanted to drive slow for the kids. But at the same time, it’s not really in my DNA. They asked the wrong guy if that’s what they really wanted.”
So, he’s refusing to throw it. For any hope I might have of raising some money for these kids, that’s Strike One.
Strike Two is that I’m over-the-top anxious. I’ve heard of ridiculous things happening to race car drivers at events like this: an overzealous rookie dumps a professional into a wall, causing some sort of sidelining minor injury. What if I do something stupid and I’m singlehandedly responsible for dashing Canada’s only hope of seeing a hometown hero atop the podium at this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto at Exhibition Place?
“James basically T-boned a guy in the first round earlier this morning,” a Honda Canada representative tells me. “He said, ‘It looks good on TV.’ I think you’ll be okay.”
MORE RELATED ARTICLES
It looks like there’s no talking my way out of this thing. Resigned, I head out on track to accept my defeat.
First up is a practice session. In my heat, I surprise myself by going third-fastest. If I can repeat that in qualifying, that’s good enough to get me into the final to race against Hinchcliffe.
The kart that’s randomly selected for me in the qualifying session doesn’t handle as well as the first one. Plus, I need to scrub a couple of laps because two guys decide to race each other around me. I’m sure I’ve blown my chance.
But I haven’t. I’m third again. I’m going through to the final. And, in fact, mine is the third-fastest time overall, so I’ll start in the second row. Hinchcliffe is starting at the back of the grid.
We take a break to catch our breath, during which I catch up with Jean Marc Leclerc, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for Honda Canada. With 11 years headlining what today is the only Canadian stop on the IndyCar calendar, plus four years of personal sponsorship for Hinchcliffe – and upping the ante even more by having Acura Canada become presenting sponsor of the IMSA Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park last weekend – I have to ask: why pour all of this support into racing? What’s in it for Honda Canada?
“I think it has to do with certain generations of people, how they view Honda, and how closely that connects Honda to racing,” Leclerc says. “If we think of Formula 1 with Ayrton Senna, the glory days of Formula 1 with McLaren, a lot of people of a certain age remember that in the ’90s. The connection is very clear, to that generation.
“The newer generation, I think we need to rekindle that through the activities we have today. You want to relate to a brand that’s exciting, number one, and that shares the same values in some way that you have.
“That’s what we’re trying to do with the various activities that we have, whether it be racing or environmental. That’s really what it’s about. It’s connecting with people at a much higher level that will hopefully translate over time with consideration to our brands.”
I get the tap on the shoulder: it’s go time.
As I’m strapping on a helmet once more, I’m repeating a mantra to myself that I decide is my best possible outcome: Let James past; don’t be last. If I don’t create any unnecessary trouble for Canada’s top IndyCar racing star and I manage not to thoroughly embarrass myself, it’ll be as good as a victory.
The green flag drops. I fend off some early challenges to hold third position through the opening turns and earn myself a nice gap from the rest of the field.
Roughly two and a half laps later, I feel a force approaching from behind. I don’t even need to look: there’s no question that it’s Hinch. I give him plenty of space through a quick pair of right-hand turns, though he doesn’t really need it. He’s past with zero effort and off like a shot.
And then I realize: holy crap, I’ll probably never again in my life have a chance to follow an active IndyCar driver on a racetrack and try to pick up a little bit of race-craft. So, I follow his lines through the turns and tail him for as long as I can muster. I think I manage to hold on for most of a lap before he’s too far ahead of me to track.
Apart from one incident where someone tried to barrel up the inside of me and I held my line to shut the door – judging from the skidding and thump against a wall I heard shortly afterward, I’d guess that technique was effective – the rest of the race was uneventful. I finished in fourth place.
I can’t say that things went perfectly well in the sense that I didn’t win and I wasn’t able to improve on my starting position. (Perhaps I have more racer in me than I care to admit.) But on the other hand, only one person passed me, and that was Hinch. And I didn’t crash into him and break his wrists. I even received a little trophy for finishing on the podium because someone decided that the professional racer shouldn’t count in the final results.
Honda Canada expected that no one would be fast enough to beat Hinchcliffe’s fastest lap time and trigger a donation to Make-A-Wish Canada, so they wrote a cheque for $25,000 anyway. It was a good day.
And what about Hinch’s good day? Does he think he can live up to the hopes of the hometown crowd and become only the second Canadian ever to win the Honda Indy Toronto? What’s a reasonable expectation for Sunday’s race?
“A win,” he says emphatically. “We’ve had a competitive car all year. We’ve had some not-awesome luck. But if you look back to the last street circuit, which is actually the one that we relate most to Toronto, it was Detroit. In Detroit, Race Two, we were running with Alex(ander Rossi) and Josef (Newgarden) for the win until we got taken out. So, I’m cautiously optimistic.
“If we roll off the truck with a good car, I think we can make the Fast Six (fastest qualifiers). And from the Fast Six, I think anybody can win.”
Let’s keep the good luck rolling. Go Canada!