Getting Back in the Car

I was pinned to the car like a shish kabob. I hit the wall at over 200 mph, and the impact forced a metal rod through my lower right thigh and out through my upper left thigh. It went in one leg, struck an artery and came out clean on the other side. Shish kabob.

The immediate concern was bleeding to death.

The safety crew at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway saved my life. They had a lot of trouble getting me out of the racecar because I was literally pinned in by that metal rod, but they worked some sort of miracle to get me out of the car and into an ambulance. That’s when they realized how bad it was. They saw how much blood I was losing. They didn’t even stop at the infield medical center. They just drove by and slowed down just enough for the surgeon that was on hand to jump on, and they took me straight to the hospital.

I was in shock, and I had also suffered a massive concussion, so I had no memory of the crash or anything that happened immediately after it. As far as I was concerned, I just woke up in the hospital and the hard part was over.

I was genuinely pretty curious as to what had happened, and I wanted to re-create it as best I could.

So I started interviewing people.

I’ve become pretty good buddies with my surgeon. When you go through something like that with someone, I think it’s pretty natural. So one day, when I went in for a standard checkup, I had him take me on a tour of the hospital — the James Hinchcliffe edition. He took me to each part of the hospital I visited that day I arrived and explained everything that happened at each stop — what the doctors were concerned about and who was doing what and why.

We started where I arrived in the ambulance, then went straight into the shock room, where they hooked me up to a transfusion machine to start pumping some blood back into me. Then we went down the hallway and up the elevator to the operating room, where they had to go in and find the artery and seal it up to stop the bleeding. Then we stopped by the ICU room I lived in for two days.

It was massively educational, and in some ways it was kind of therapeutic to hear the story.

But even after I learned exactly what happened and how, I still didn’t remember anything, and the whole thing still felt like it happened to somebody else.

It really hit home for me when I started talking to my family and my close friends about what happened. I could see the emotion in their eyes, and I could see how upset they had gotten and how traumatic the whole thing had been for them. That kind of made it a little bit more real. That’s when it felt like it had actually happened to me.

The other drivers left the race track in the middle of practice to visit me in the hospital and see how I was doing — during Indy 500 week, no less, the biggest week of our season. Then they went back to the speedway and strapped back in and got back to work. That probably wasn’t easy for them to do — it was probably hell. The fact that some guys were willing to do that was incredible.

But that’s what we do. We get back into the car. 

I planned to do the same.

In fact, one of my first questions when I woke up in ICU was, “When can I get back in the car?” The doctors stared at me in complete disbelief, like, How is a guy in the condition he’s in asking when can he get back into the machine that did this to him?

It’s because we’re wired wrong. This is our passion, and we accept the risks that come along with it. I don’t expect anybody who’s not a driver to understand it. It’s just what we do. We get back into the car.

Two weeks ago, at Road America in Wisconsin — after 133 days of surgeries and healing and rehab — I did just that. I got back into the car for the first time since I was skewered at Indianapolis.

I had the same feeling pulling into Road America as I did when I first went there as a 17-year-old kid. I remember I stood at the side of the fence and got to watch the guys drive these incredible machines around this amazing racetrack, and thinking, This is it. This is the point of all this. This is why we do it, to get to drive a car like that around a track like this.

When I was thinking about getting back into the car in the days leading up to it, I think the only concern I had was that I might have changed somehow. Like maybe I didn’t have it anymore. There are a lot of good drivers, but it’s so difficult to find that last little bit that puts you on the same level as the top drivers in the world. That margin that separates the good from the great is so small, and I wondered if an experience as traumatic as what I went through would have any effect once I got back behind the wheel. It could be that half-percent change that drops me out of the class of contending and being a winning driver at this level.

That was really the only fear — that something that I couldn’t control and couldn’t feel might have changed inside me that would make me unable to perform at this level.

I got into the racecar, and it was kind of weird doing the install lap — the test lap where we get preliminary data and measurements — because I hadn’t done all that procedural stuff in such a long time. These are things you do at the start of every session or every test — things that, as a driver, you’ve done a million times. You get in, you flip the switch, you push that button, you do your radio check — you do all these things, and I hadn’t done them in four months. So it was a little bit weird at first. I was going a bit slower than normal to make sure I did everything right, and that kind of caught me off guard. I was thinking, If taking the install lap takes this much mental capacity, what’s driving the car at top speed going to be like?

It probably took about five laps before the sensation of driving the car took over and I felt completely comfortable. After that, it all came back pretty quickly. I was back in my element. Every lap, I was pushing a little harder. When I got to that point — the point where I could push the car and push the limits — that’s when I knew I was back. I still had that extra half-percent.

I thought I’d have more anxiety than I did. I thought I’d be more nervous. There were a lot of questions going into that day, but in the end, it all came together, and ultimately, we had what I would consider a super-successful test day.

Driving an IndyCar around that track had been a dream of mine for so long. Road America is probably my favorite track, and I had never driven an IndyCar there — I had only watched — and that made my return to the track even more special. During that first run, I was just grinning from ear to ear, both because I was back driving the car, and because I was driving it there, at Road America. It was just so much fun trying to make an IndyCar do things that it doesn’t necessarily want to do. I felt like it was my first time driving an Indy car. I was that giddy about it.

I still don’t remember what happened that day on the track at Indianapolis. It’s just a part of my memory that isn’t there. Through hearing my friends, family and doctors talk about it, I think I have a pretty clear picture of what happened and a full understanding of the reality of that situation.

I could have died that day. I could have taken my last breath in an IndyCar or laying on an ambulance gurney. Thanks to the help of a number of trained professionals, I’m here today, and I’m back doing what I love to do, even if that means risking the same fate I escaped that day.

In a way, I think the fact that I don’t remember the crash or the immediate aftermath made it easier to get back into the car, because the last memory I have of strapping into a car isn’t a bad one. My memory stops before all hell broke loose on the track that day. Even if I did have some recollection of what happened, I think I’d still be right back in the car like I am now. Everything would be the same, except maybe there would have been a little bit more apprehension and anxiety when I first got back on the track. But even then, I feel like it would only last until I got those first few laps under my belt. That’s when you get back in that comfort zone of pushing the limit, and you realize this thing is not trying to kill you.