Sitting on my couch watching Wind Tunnel on SPEED this past Sunday, a clear and concise thought hit me like a ton of bricks.
Every open wheel fan — regardless of rooting interest, manufacturer loyalty, or level of “it ain’t what it used to be” crumudgeonry — should approach the final three races of the 2012 INDYCAR schedule with a single wish in common, starting with the Go Pro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma on August 26th.
Everyone, including Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and especially Randy Bernard, should pray that James Hinchcliffe claims his first IZOD IndyCar Series win before this season ends.
I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by implying that James must win for the long-term health of the Series. The sport has survived and at times thrived through decade after decade, and while its popularity is admittedly not what it once was, it is still a major form of motorsports with worldwide name recognition able to bring in top flight drivers and teams.
Survival is not the goal of this collective prayer — but thriving is.
James Hinchcliffe has shown an ability to move the needle that no male INDYCAR driver has in years, and he is doing so without the added benefit of being married to an actress or starring on a reality TV show. Hinch is where he is now due to his quirky sense of humor, amazing ease and grace in front of the camera, ability to interact with and engage fans on social media and in person, and of course his immense talents behind the wheel. He has shown the ability to mobilize his fan base, turning an off -hand comment into a full-steam-ahead Twitter and write-in campaign to supplant Danica on the GoDaddy homepage, and has even begun suggesting specific hash tags for his fan base to use, such as the #redglovesrule prominently featured in his merchandise last night on Wind Tunnel.
Oh, and did I mention that he co-hosted Wind Tunnel this past Sunday due to more help from his fans?
And perhaps most importantly, he has done all of this without seeming forced or strained a la NASCAR drivers and their canned sponsor references, which is no small task in today’s world of snarky social media.
Impressive and surprising in his debut season for Newman/Haas Racing, Hinch narrowly missed out on podiums at Long Beach, New Hampshire, and Kentucky, making it readily apparent that he possessed legitimate skills across all of the disciplines that INDYCAR competition requires. With GoDaddy sponsorship lined up for 2012 at Andretti Autosport but unsure beyond that point, Hinch has so far made the next step in his career smoothly, claiming podiums in Long Beach and Milwaukee while garnering eight top-10 finishes in 12 races.
It’s hardly fair to ask more of someone who is already ahead of schedule, but a win for James in one of the last three races of the year could prove extremely beneficial to the sport as a whole. He has already proven to be on his way to becoming one of the most recognizable faces of the sport, and he only needs one more feather in his cap to solidify that title.
Having seen the INDYCAR landscape post-Danica, it’s a good bet that Randy Bernard won’t hitch all his wagons to James just because he wins a race. But he will be well-aware of this idiom: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” The previous face of the sport had marketability, good looks and media savvy, but she lacked the results to be a true all around torch bearer for the sport. If Hinch can claim a win before the season is out, he will be perfectly positioned to assume that mantle going into 2013, and that’s something that would make life easy for INDYCAR’s marketing department.
Adding some urgency to this issue is the loose end of Hinch’s GoDaddy sponsorship, believed to be out at the end of the year barring a re-up from the web domain giant. A trip to victory lane for the folks in green could go a long way toward helping Michael Andretti convince them to continue to support an INDYCAR sponsorship in addition to Danica’s Nationwide/Cup ride. Retaining such a high-profile sponsorship would be a coup for INDYCAR as a whole, proving the financial viability of large sponsorships in the IZOD IndyCar Series and perhaps helping to draw additional sponsorships in.
With Hinch well-respected by his fellow drivers and the team owners, a victory would prove popular across the paddock, and it might just benefit the other drivers and teams as much or more than it does the Mayor of Hinchtown himself.
I would venture a guess that it would benefit us fans more than him as well. He might even have a hash tag ready for us to use in our celebratory tweets!