The sun glistened brightly against the clear blue sky, shining upon the shoulders of the pedestrians below. The smell of fresh green grass filled everyone’s noses as they made their way to the track. Armed with lawn chairs, sunglasses and a hunger for a great time, the fans were smiling and ready for another great IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. – and it was only the Friday practice.
However, the fans weren’t the only ones laughing and joking around at Barber that day. The IndyCar drivers themselves were some of the most humble, genuine athletes I’ve ever met. They were hardworking and dedicated, but also light-hearted, easy to talk to and, sometimes, downright goofy. Their fans love them because they’re easily accessible, real and down-to-earth – and behaving this way is a simple relationship-building tactic that often gets overlooked when athletes become famous.
Take James Hinchcliffe. The self-professed “scrawny, Canadian kid” laughed and looked at his feet, as he explained why his left shoe said “stop” and his right shoe said “go.”
“I use this foot to go and I use this foot to stop,” explained Hinchcliffe, gesturing to his feet. “Now that seems pretty commonsensical, but when the guys that you race against think that you need a reminder about which pedal does what, they tend to stay away from you on the racetrack.”
At that point the enthusiastic crowd around him began to literally kneel at his feet and take pictures of his shoes. Hinchcliffe acknowledged the fans and said they are the reason IndyCar drivers have a career in racing. Hinchcliffe said there’s also a bond between the racers themselves as well.
“I make a point to get to know the guy that I’m racing against because, again, my life is in his hands. I don’t know who he is, I don’t trust him – you’re going to race a guy differently that you don’t know.
“As a result, the camaraderie around here is awesome. We play pranks on each other and make fun of each other all the time. It’s like a big fraternity,” Hinchcliffe said.
This friendship was further emphasized when fellow driver Josef Newgarden ran behind Hinchcliffe, proclaiming with a grin that Hinchcliffe was “one of the difficult ones to work with.”
Hinchcliffe responded in an equally light-hearted manner: “I’ve never seen that man before in my life. I have no idea who that was.”
At just 22 years old, Newgarden looks more like the newest member of the Backstreet Boys than an IndyCar driver – but don’t let that fool you. He is currently the reigning 2011 Firestone Indy Lights Series champion, which is the little brother to IndyCar. Newgarden also said that his fellow drivers offer advice, and he believes that their easygoing attitudes set them apart from many other athletes.
“Most of these guys are pretty chilled out in this series — they’re pretty cool, pretty easy to talk to,” he said. “I think IndyCar drivers in general are a lot cooler than other racing people. They understand where it’s at – we’re just regular people.”
While a sense of rivalry exists among the drivers, there wasn’t a cutthroat, aggressive attitude in the air that Friday at Barber Motorsports Park. The guys seemed like brothers, as opposed to enemies on the racetrack. A sense of competitiveness was surely present – and probably was more prevalent on race day – but that was always balanced with a laugh or joke from one of the drivers.
And I think that’s why people love IndyCar the way they do and why the sport has such a positive public image. You don’t see many IndyCar drivers getting into brawls with one another or refusing to speak to each other in a press conference. Hinchcliffe’s and Newgarden’s PR reps were standing by them during our conversations, but didn’t really have to interject. It’s amazing how something as simple as being open, humorous and kind with everyone works as some of the best PR for the drivers. It was a refreshing experience and one that will make me pay more attention to the sport of IndyCar racing.