James Hinchcliffe has slipped comfortably into Danica Patrick's former race car, if not specifically into her driving shoes.
IndyCar's 2011 rookie of the year has taken the Michael Andretti Autosports car driven by Patrick to a 10th-place finish in the points last year, and become a regular top five finisher and legitimate contender for the series title.
In the process, he has displayed a sense of humor, going so far as to don a woman's black wig at introductions for the opening race of the season. He also has a website, Hinchtown.com — a place where he has declared himself mayor — and tweets regularly with his growing fan base.
While some might have been apprehensive to follow Patrick, one of the most popular competitors in motor sports, Hinch, as he is known to his friends, has embraced it.
"Danica was the biggest thing in our sport," said Hinchcliffe, a Canadian. "She was great, but it took attention from other people. Now, there are opportunities for our other drivers to show their personalities. And I think that's happening."
Though he's been in the big league for less than two full seasons, he's been training for the situation much of his life. He moved around a lot with his family growing up and learned how to make friends fast in new schools. It's a talent he has utilized as he's climbed the racing ladder to the top of the open wheel racing series in the United States.
"I'd use humor to break the ice," he said.
At the first race in St. Petersburg, Fla., he imitated Patrick during driver introductions. Patrick is now racing stock cars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
"It was a joke, to pass the torch," Hinchcliffe, 26, said. "A lot of people didn't even know she wasn't around any more. I thought it was a funny way to break the ice. It was respectful and it worked. Even all these months later, people remind me of it."
He's very alert to the advantages of using social media, too. In addition to tweeting, he makes videos for his Hinchtown website.
"I make the videos when I'm bored," he said. "And the tweeting, I find it a remarkable way to connect with fans. To a lot of people, we're just race helmets in cars. They know you by your name, but they don't really know who you are. Racing doesn't have a physical appearance. If you win the race, you might get 30 seconds of interviews. We're much more hindered, but being social with twitter, I can reach 20-plus thousand people at once. It's crazy to think about."
Before the season started, when drivers were asked who would take Patrick's place in terms of sex appeal in the series, several drivers immediately said Hinchcliffe.
"Who is sexy?" Team Penske driver Will Power said. "Wow! Hinchcliffe."
"I think if he'd grow his hair long and straight, shaves that beard, maybe he could be," said Ryan Briscoe, who also drives for Team Penske.
The beard is gone and the hair is in a fashionable cut. And Hinchcliffe has done Go-Daddy commercials like Patrick did. In fact they've done some humorous ones together. But that's as close to being like Patrick as Hinchcliffe wants to get.
He does not want to finish his Indy car career with a single win, as she did — or as it stands right now, with none. He does not want to be known more for his personality, looks and humor than for the substance of his racing.
"I don't want to even think about it, because I want results," he said. "Hopefully, it's not something we run in to. I'd like to get that first win and put it behind me."
Hinchcliffe said he tries every week to take one race at a time and not get ahead of himself. Sitting in his team's entertainment compound at a recent race, Hinchcliffe had no problem coming up with examples to keep himself calm.
"It has taken Ryan Hunter-Reay [his Andretti teammate] over a decade to become a contender," he said. "Will Power has won more poles than anyone else, but is still looking for his first championship . . . Helio [Castroneves] has won the Indianapolis 500 three times, but not the championship.
"I'm the new kid on the block. It's an accomplishment just to get here."
Hinchcliffe said it's not easy to beat Power or Scott Dixon. And when he looks at Dario Franchitti, he realizes the four-time champion needed 11 years of competition before he won his first title in 2007.
"But it seems like he's won every single one since," Hinchcliffe said. "Ryan is having the best season of his career. Experience goes a long way. Right now, I'm comfortable where I am."
Hinchcliffe has made a point to be present for the finish of most races. By doing that he was accomplishing several things. One, he is piling up points in the IZOD IndyCar Series Drivers standings, where he is now seventh, and getting valuable track time. He's also completing laps, having driven 1,459 laps this year.
"For me, it's finishing races and getting that experience," Hinchcliffe said. "It's what these other drivers have over me. There's no defined way to win a race or a championship. Experience is the No. 1 thing. If I can be around long enough to have as many races as Dario and the others, I'll know what I have to do in certain situations to win.
"The key is to just be here long enough to do it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun