USA TODAY US Edition
Hinchcliffe takes up a recollection
Post-crash, driver extracts accounts from lifesavers
The word “fear” is never associated with a race-car driver unless you’re referring to him as being “fearless,” an adjective that comes with the job description and is as standard as four tires, a fire suit and a steering wheel.
But imagine the fearlessness of a driver who had absolutely no recollection of a horrific crash that nearly killed him yet goes through painstaking lengths to piece together the incident in his mind by interviewing all the people who saved his life that day.
That’s what IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe did after his disastrous accident during a practice run at last year’s Indianapolis 500. It was part self-therapeutic, part self-resolution and part morbid.
Canadian-born Hinchcliffe, who makes his home in Indianapolis, told the story during an interview before Verizon IndyCar Series testing this past weekend at Phoenix International Raceway in preparation for the Phoenix Grand Prix on April 2.
“For me, I kind of took on this almost obsessive curiosity with the accident because I did have no memory of it,” said Hinchcliffe, 29. “For me, it was a super bizarre situation where I’m driving my race car and doing my job and everything is going hunky-dory, and the next moment, as far as I’m concerned, I wake up in ICU on a ventilator and on life support and don’t quite know how I got there.”
Hinchcliffe was powering his No. 5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda around the Brickyard at 223 mph when his suspension came loose. His car hurtled into the wall, and a steel rod from the suspension’s wishbone impaled him through his right thigh and into his left leg.
The rod pinned him inside the cockpit, and he began to lose massive amounts of blood. Though he was semiconscious for several minutes after the crash, Hinchcliffe had suffered a concussion during the collision and couldn’t remember what happened next.
“With no memory and obviously it being a pretty serious injury, I really did take on this fascination with what happened to me and how the doctors were able to save me and how the safety guys got me out of the car,” he said. “For a lack of a better way of saying it, I essentially went around and interviewed everybody that had a hand in that day to sort of get their firstperson accounts of what all happened, and I tried to just kind of re-create it all because I was just super fascinated.
“I think it was easier for me in a sense because I had no memory to talk about it and to be curious about it and to want to know about it, and so that’s what I did. I interviewed my surgeon. I interviewed the safety guys. I interviewed other people at the hospital, my friends, my family, the other drivers, and just kind of asked everybody what that day was like for them, and I was able to kind of piece it all together in that sense and kind of told the story that I had managed to put together from all the information I got from everybody else.”
Ask him who the biggest hero was that fateful May 18, and Hinchcliffe, who has four career IndyCar wins, will tell you there were too many to count.
There was the safety crew that rushed to his aid and figured out a way to extricate him from the chassis. They had no procedure on how to do it, but they freed him in the nick of time nonetheless.
“That was just thinking on the fly and incredible people doing an incredible thing,” Hinchcliffe said.
There was the ambulance crew and emergency medical technicians who smartly drove him straight to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital instead of stopping at the infield care center for triage. During the ride, they pumped some 22 pints of blood and fluids into Hinchcliffe, whereas the human body typically holds 10 to 11 pints.
“That’s possible because they were putting it in before they plugged the leak. They were putting fresh blood in me, and I was spitting it back out,” he said. “It wasn’t all blood. They don’t carry that kind of blood in the ambulance. What they carry is fluid.
“What’s important is to keep your blood pressure going and keep your organs running. Even as you’re losing blood, you need fluids pumping through your veins and through your heart to keep everything running and your blood pressure up. So they put in a saline solution at first. Once we got to the hospital, they plugged me in with the heart lines and started pumping more blood into me.”
Then, of course, there were the surgeon, doctors and nurses who helped pull him through.
“They’re the ones that physically got into me, cut me open and stitched me back up from the inside out and made sure that my recovery was going to be smooth by the actions and the decisions that they took that day,” he said.
“On top of that were the people that took care of me once I was starting my rehab and the rest of it, so the list is long. There’s no one person that had a bigger role than the other, but there was a lot of people that without (them) I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”
When he visited the hospital to tour every room and elevator he spent time in and to talk to the people who saved him, Hinchcliffe said his surgeon told him something chilling. He was literally two minutes from death’s door.
“There was a time on my way up to the OR from the shock room in the ER where they couldn’t find my pulse anymore,” he said. “My surgeon said, ‘There was a minute there where I really didn’t think we were going to get you back.’ For a guy with that kind of experience to say that, and obviously have that kind of belief in his own skill and ability, that’s a pretty sobering thing to hear. Because that’s really how close it was.”
When he was healthy enough to travel, Hinchcliffe joined his race team later in the season to watch and stay abreast of developments in testing and new components for the Honda car. He would stand on pit wall, take part in engineering meetings and help in any way he could.
But Hinchcliffe’s recovery was not complete until he climbed back into the car, which he did toward the end of September for testing at his favorite track in the USA — Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. It’s a classic road course through the woods that reminds him of his hometown track in Ontario. It was the perfect set- ting to make his comeback.
That’s probably why it took only a couple of laps to get his groove back.
“There was maybe some — ‘apprehension’ is probably the best word — at first,” Hinchcliffe said. “Just kind of strapping back in and getting comfortable in the car with the warm-up lap, the installation lap and making sure everything is hooked up right.
“That felt a little foreign at first. I almost didn’t feel like I was sitting in my car. I almost felt like I was sitting in someone else’s car. Once I got out there and got running at speed, it was like riding a bike. It all came back real quick.”
IndyCar drivers embraced Hinchcliffe when they saw him at Phoenix International Raceway, offering handshakes and hugs while asking about his recovery.
“It’s interesting,” driver Will Power said. “You have a lot of time to think and wonder if you’ll be as good when you get back in and have the same confidence. But once you get back in the car after an injury like that, it all comes back to you. And he’s looking fitter than he’s ever been, so I think he’s going to have no problem.”
Hinchcliffe doesn’t think about the crash so much anymore now that he has retraced it through his mind with the help of others. And once he returns in another five weeks for the first IndyCar Series event at Phoenix International Raceway in 11 years, he won’t be thinking about it then, either.
The 1-mile oval is so short and so fast, he said, “You almost don’t have any time to think at all.”
“But everybody’s stoked, man,” Hinchcliffe said. “I mean, this is kind of one of the classic races. It’s always been one of those classic events and venues that from the start of IndyCar racing has been on the calendar.
“It’s obviously a different layout than it was the last time we were there, but we just really think it’s going to produce a great race. I can’t wait to get back.”