James Hinchcliffe was only 18 months old the first time he attended an Indy car race in Toronto, and he hasn't missed one since. He calls it the reason he first fell in love with racing.
The Oakville, Ont., native attended the event yearly with his family of motorsports fanatics, idolizing the Canadian drivers. He first took the wheel at 9, go-karting in nearby Uxbridge, insisting he showed no immediate signs of talent for motorsports, other than a fervour to some day master its controls.
Today at 26, in his third season racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series, he has three wins on the year and comes home to drive in the Honda Indy Toronto on Sunday.
But the track that gave him fond memories as a child has handed him tough luck as a driver. Hinchcliffe has tempered expectations for his showing on the tricky road course that snakes around Exhibition Place.
Local reporters lined up to interview the gregarious Canadian on Thursday, along the shore of Lake Ontario. The second-year driver of the GoDaddy.com-sponsored car for Andretti Autosport held court with them one by one, hanging out in a nearby park in front of a sponsored food truck, fulfilling every whim of camera men requesting he get behind the wheel of the truck or go inside to make a "Hinch Burger," his concoction of bison meat, melted Swiss cheese and ketchup.
The hours of interviews and photos just days before a big race didn't appear to faze the quick-witted Hinchcliffe, who was engaged and able to laugh at himself in a way pro athletes rarely display publicly.
"It's weird to see my face on a sign like four times on the Gardiner [Expressway] – sorry folks have to see that," he said with a laugh. "I remember when this was Paul Tracy's race or Greg Moore's race. I get it that now that's my role, and I want to do as good a job with that as I possibly can."
In March, Hinchcliffe earned his first career IndyCar win in St. Petersburg, Fla., and followed it up with a May win in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and one in Iowa in June. But he's also had six results outside the top 10, including a dead-last finish at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., where he crashed out in the first lap.
Toronto and its 11-turn, 2.824-kilometre technically-demanding course has been no picnic for the Canadian.
Last year, engine problems forced him out of the race after 27 laps. He finished 14th in 2011, after a promising start went awry when he and fellow Canadian driver Tracy bumped tires.
He's known now in auto racing as the likeable and savvy "Mayor of Hinchtown," who has a clever website and has taken over the popular green GoDaddy.com drive left vacant by Danica Patrick's move to NASCAR. His trio of wins have worked in tandem with a marketable personality to elevate his popularity.
"He's been to this race every year of his life and he's worked so hard to get here and his podiums show he has a very bright future," Honda Indy Toronto president Charlie Johnstone said. "He was the kid standing in line to get Greg Moore's autograph or to get a glance at Paul Tracy. He's a very humble Canadian guy, but he gets the fact that it's now him that the kids want to see."
He will race a few miles away from where he once watched the Toronto Blue Jays win a World Series, in a city he appreciates now more than he did before moving to Indianapolis. Some 20 of his family members will be on hand to see him race.
"It's a very tricky course, and bad luck has also been a part of my results here so far," Hinchcliffe said. "You have good and bad stories from every track you compete at, but you keep your chin up and your right foot down."