ELKHART LAKE, Wis. - James Hinchcliffe's smile and sense of humour were on full throttle Monday, four-plus months after life-threatening injuries put his IndyCar career on hold.
The Canadian returned to the cockpit with his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team for a test session at the 14-turn, 4.048-mile Road America course that is expected to host a June 2016 IndyCar race.
Hinchcliffe, a native of Oakville, Ont., was severely injured May 18 during an Indianapolis 500 practice crash. A broken part of suspension from Hinchcliffe's car pierced his upper left thigh, and safety crew members successfully kept the 28-year-old from bleeding to death as he was quickly taken to a hospital.
Besides two surgeries, Hinchcliffe said Monday that he also suffered a serious neck injury in the accident, and recently was cleared to "start training his neck."
Hinchcliffe's recovery was a long one, he didn't want to rush the process, and said doctors left decision-making up to their patient. He said all went smoothly, in and out of the car, during his morning test session.
"I wasn't going to lie just go get back in the car sooner," Hinchcliffe said. "I wanted to make sure when I was back, I was back for good. The first couple of runs, absolutely no ill effects whatsoever. Nothing's leaking. So I think we're all good to go."
Hinchcliffe admitted he had no nerves or hesitation with climbing back into the race car. The desire to get back to work was a motivating factor for many months. The racer was running his first full-time season with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2015, after spending three seasons at Andretti Autosport.
Hinchcliffe is a five-year veteran in the open-wheel series, with four victories, including a win five weeks before his accident, in April, at an inaugural road course event in New Orleans.
"We're wired wrong," he said. "We're not right in the head, racing drivers in general. I probably should have felt more anxiety than I did. But it's what we do. It's our lives, it's our passion and nothing was going to keep me out of that car today. Absolutely nothing."
Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is Hinchcliffe's good friend and an Andretti Autosport driver, said his former teammate has been upbeat and positive throughout his recuperation. Hunter-Reay was pleased to see that Hinchcliffe didn't miss a beat with his on-track pace.
"If you have a big wreck and you get right back in the race car, it's easy to put behind you," Hunter-Reay said. "But the months off and the rehabilitation and all of that, that's when it becomes hard to get back in the car, and that's when it's hard to get back up to speed and get every last ounce of speed out of the car. He did an excellent job with it today, and I can't say enough about what he's done with it. He's got a lot of heart."
Hinchcliffe said he's pumped to prepare to run at one of his favourite tracks. Next year's race at Road America will be the first for the IndyCar series since 2007. Practice and qualifying is scheduled June 24-25, and the race is set for June 26.
The event will mark Hinchcliffe's first at Road America in an IndyCar. He does have experience at the track, with a Pro Mazda race win at the circuit in 2005, competing in Atlantic races in 2006 to 2008, and running a Tudor car in 2014.
Hinchcliffe kept his emotions in check at Road America, considering the significance of his recovery, and said he might have a little cry Monday night away from the track.
But he had an ultimate goal with his four-plus months of his road to recovery: claiming the top podium spot.
"Winning again," Hinchcliffe said. "That's it. That's all of our motivations for getting up in the morning, for going to the guy, for going to engineering meetings, for coming testing. For everything."