Canadian James Hinchcliffe was confirmed last week as driving Newman/Haas Racing's second car for the balance of the North American races on the IZOD IndyCar Series calendar.
James, you have to be pretty excited to finally get behind the wheel of that No. 06 car for a race.
"For sure. It's a great result, a great accomplishment from a lot of people that have been working really hard to make this deal come together. Incredibly thankful to Newman/Haas for the faith they've showed in me to bring me onboard this year. With Sprott, Inc., sponsoring the car, a Canadian company, it's extra special. Bringing a lot of cool elements together for my first race.
Although you never know what everyone else is doing at an open test, you personally had a very good test with Newman/Haas Racing. Knowing you were quick with some of the front-running cars, you have to be confident entering what is your debut?
"I think if there is a silver lining missing the first race at St. Pete, I get a debut at one of the only two tracks I've actually driven the IndyCar at. The test certainly went very well.
"It's tough. A test day you have five hours to lay down a single lap time – that's all people really see. Race weekend is very different. The practice sessions are only an hour long. That first segment of qualifying is only 15 minutes to go out there and get the job done.
"It's definitely a more challenging task. But I think we can certainly be encouraged by the pace we showed at the test. The car was super competitive. Both Oriol [Servia] and I were setting competitive times there by the end of the second day. I think we have reason to be cautiously optimistic.
"At the end of the day, it's still going to be my first race. There's a ton for me to learn, a lot I'm going to be going through for the first time. I think we definitely have controlled expectations heading into the weekend."
You are the latest in a line of drivers who have moved up through the Mazda Road to Indy and Firestone Indy Lights, joining drivers like J.R. Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball and Sebastian Saavedra on the grid. Talk a little bit about the preparation that Firestone Indy Lights gave you to make this step up.
"I'll tell you, I was so happy when I drove the IndyCar for the first time, because it just really proved what the series and what Firestone Indy Lights has done with the Road to Indy, because the car drove so similar that it was the first time I've ever really seen a development series be so relevant to the next step.
"It had such a similar feel. I was instantly comfortable in the car. It was all because of the time I spent in the Lights car. I've been telling everybody there's a 20 percent rule. In terms of the IndyCar, you have 20 percent more power, 20 percent more downforce, 20 percent better brakes, it does everything 20 percent better, but fundamentally it's a very similar feel.
"I think that speaks volumes for the level of preparation you get competing in Firestone Indy Lights and I think why you'll see a lot of these drivers that have graduated be successful fairly early on."
How did your sponsorship with Eric Sprott and Sprott Inc. come about? Also, why did it happen now instead of two weeks ago?
"Well, obviously for us, when we're out searching for partners for an IndyCar program, we looked at prominent Canadian companies. Certainly Spott, Inc., is right up there, one of the most successful companies certainly in its industry. The financial industry is a very fast-paced performance-oriented industry. I think there's a lot of parallels there between that and motor racing.
"So when we first approached the company, they seemed very open to the idea. Mr. Spott took the idea quite early on. We talked back and forth and went over a bunch of different scenarios. I think ultimately they saw those parallels, that there were a lot of possibilities there for them.
"For us it was a great combination. Add onto the fact it's a young Canadian driver, a prominent Canadian company, I think that was a very big factor for them and something that meant a lot to them, being able to support an up-and-coming Canadian athlete. It took a little while to get it all together, but I think ultimately it was a bit of a no-brainer and a win-win situation for everybody.
"In terms of why it could have happened a couple weeks earlier, when you're dealing with any company in any sort of potential sponsorship, certainly the magnitude of sponsorship required to go IndyCar racing, it's a lengthy process. It's not just somebody pulling out their wallet out of their left pocket, taking out a bit of cash. There's a lot of things to go through, a lot of due diligence to be done by all the parties involved. Ultimately, the big thing is you don't want to rush something and get it wrong or push someone into a certain time frame and ultimately scare them off.
"What we're trying to do between Newman/Haas and myself and our partners is build a long-term program, hopefully something that can be successful for a few years. We wanted to make sure that all the groundwork was laid, all the pieces were in place to do that, not jumping out of the car every other weekend not knowing when we were going to be racing again. If that meant we had to sacrifice some time at the beginning of this year to make sure we had a long-term plan in place, that was a risk we were willing to take and a sacrifice we were willing to make.
"I think that was the right choice. It's paid off now. I think the damage was limited. We only missed one event. Hopefully we can just build on this for years to come."
The last time Newman/Haas had a rookie driver miss the first race, he went out and won the next race. You're not feeling any pressure from what Graham did at St. Pete in 2008, are you?
"Thanks a lot for driving that one home! It's quite a statistic. It would be very, very tremendous if we were able to repeat that. But I'm certainly not going in there thinking that's something we have to do, no."