James Hinchcliffe, left, and his sponsor Eric Sprott ham it up for the camera at the Fermenting Cellar in the Distillery District on July 7, 2011. (VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR)
It's offficial. James Hinchcliffe of Oakville has been named to replace Danica Patrick in the high-profile Go Daddy-sponsored car in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
In a surprise announcement (there was no IndyCar release or media conference held by either the Internet giant sponsor or the team Hinchcliffe will drive for, Andretti Autosport), Hinchclifffe confirmed the move to the USA Today newspaper.
"I'm stepping into her heels, if you will," the personable Hinchcliffe said about replacing Patrick, who has left the IndyCar series to go racing in NASCAR.
"But that's part of what makes this deal so exciting because they did such a good job with Danica and her Go Daddy Girl," he told the newspaper. "I hope that makes me the first Go Daddy Guy - although I hope they don't put me in a bikini (a reference to Patrick's highly publicized appearances in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, among other men's magazines)."
Hinchcliffe's willingness to promote himself in a self-deprecating manner (he once put himself into a dog washer for a YouTubed video to promote his sister's business) helped him land the job. That, plus his amazing talent as a racing driver that saw him with the Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year title last season after missing the first race of the IndyCar season.
Go Daddy chief marketing officer Barb Rechterman said the on-track results counted in the decision to hire him but so did "Hinchtown," the Internet home of the GTA driver.
Hinchcliffe, 25, created it five years ago - and calls himself "the Mayor of Hinchtown," because he thought "all driver sites were boring. A lot of drivers, because of sponsors, get forced to hold back their personalities, and some really good characters get stifled because they're supposed to stick to a certain image. I'm not that, and now I've got a sponsor that's edgy and encourages that kind of personality. It just makes so much sense. We can do a lot of fun stuff together."
Hinchcliffe, who has the word "go" written on the sole of his right foot and "stop" on the left, is representative of the new generation of drivers who realize auto racing is as much a business as it is sport and entertainment.
"We've all realized you have to be 80 per cent businessman and 20 per cent race car driver, but you also have to stand out, because there's a lot of guys who can drive a car fast," he said.
"With the sport being so sponsor-driven these days, if you want to stand out as the spokesman for a company, you have to be so much more than that. That was the concept behind 'Hinchtown.' At first people thought I was nuts. As they years went on, the site started to get its own personality."
The ride was originally supposed to have gone to Dan Wheldon, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who was killed in a crash at Las Vegas Speedway last October.
"There's no doubt that weighed on me from the first phone call," Hinchcliffe told USA Today.
"It's pretty common knowledge that Dan was a shoe-in with Go Daddy and Andretti. I look at Dan Wheldon as a tremendous race car driver and a champion but also a tremendous person and human being. And if that's the guy that Go Daddy wanted, to know that I was the next guy in line and thought of along the same lines is an incredbily humbling thing, and it makes me really proud.
"I'm going to think about him every time I get in that car. There's no doubt that a part of me will be driving for Dan this year."
Go Daddy's Rechterman said the company never considered leaving IndyCar despite Patrick's defection because it likes the series' international presence (it will race in Toronto early in July and then go to China later in the season).
She said the firm will also use Hinchcliffe in its somewhat-controversial commercials that previously starred Danica. I fact, some observers have suggested they could appear in some commercials together.
"If I have to be part of racy advertisements, that's fine," Hinchcliffe said. "That's where my personality and the edgy attitude of Go Daddy are going to fit well together. Hopefully we can make a similar splash like with Danica, but maybe appealing to a different demographic."
Jerry Chenkin, executive vice president of Honda Canada Inc., said today at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that the company is thrilled for Hinchcliffe and is looking forward to the next Honda Indy Toronto in July.
"We're delighted to be continuing our sponsorship of the Honda Indy Toronto for a fourth year and relish the fact that we are going back to real racing with the IZOD IndyCar Series this year - three new engine manufacturfers and a new chassis supplier and we couldn't be more excited.
"We had the opportunity meet James last year, he came up to our campus, and what a wonderful personality he has. He's a great ambassador for the sport and we wish him all the best with Go Daddy."
Hinchcliffe is the second Canadian to be confirmed as a 2012 IndyCar series driver. Alex Tagliani of Montreal was named Monday to drive the Bryan Herta Autosport entry. Herta was the team Wheldon drove for when he won last year's Indy 500.
Of the top-flight Canadian Indy racing talent, only Paul Tracy of Scarborough is still looking for work.