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Star power: Canadian IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe looks to break through


James Hinchcliffe's strong presence on Twitter and his regularly updated website impressed new employer Andretti Autosports as much as the fact he won IndyCar's rookie of the year award in 2011. Hinchcliffe waits in his car during a practice session at the Edmonton Indy auto race on Saturday, July 23, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

TORONTO - Driving at the front of the pack with one hand on the steering wheel, James Hinchcliffe is in his element.

But not only is the Canadian IndyCar driver in the midst of schooling a bunch of reporters on a go-kart track, he's also posting a Twitter message directed at NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski, who caused a stir earlier this week after tweeting with fans during a rain delay at the Daytona 500.

"Anyone can tweet under a red flag, this is tweeting under green! Impressed, @keselowski?!" Hinchcliffe wrote Thursday, attaching a photo he had just taken from the driver's seat.

It's hard not to be impressed by Hinchcliffe.

The 25-year-old from Oakville, Ont., is just as comfortable on the track as he is in front of a microphone a vital skill set in the world of motorsports. In fact, Hinchcliffe's strong presence on Twitter (@Hinchtown) and his regularly updated website (www.hinchtown.com) impressed new employer Andretti Autosports as much as the fact he won IndyCar's rookie of the year award in 2011.

"James is tech-savvy, fast, got a good, large online presence and is that right, edgy personality we think will work," John Lopes, Andretti's chief marketing officer, told The Associated Press in January.

On this day, he is making a 20-hour stopover in Toronto to meet the media between a visit to sponsor Go Daddy's headquarters in Arizona and car testing in Indianapolis. If Hinchcliffe is tired, you'd never know it.

Chipper and friendly, he goes through a battery of interviews before taking to the track and quickly making his way through the field from the back of the grid.

Everything appears effortless.

"I was coached very young to understand that racing's so much more than driving a race car," Hinchcliffe said in an interview. "It really is a big function of who you are off the track and what you can bring. The media's a big part of what we do, the sponsor's are a big part of what we do. Driving a race car quickly a lot of people can do that.

"So you've got to be someone who can do that, but also bring all these other things to the table."

These are the qualities that seem to have Hinchcliffe perched on the edge of stardom. In joining Andretti this winter, he is now part of one of the best-funded and most successful teams in the series.

His rookie season included three top-five finishes for Newman-Haas Racing and Hinchcliffe expects even bigger things of himself as a sophomore. But with the IndyCar season-opener just over three weeks away in St. Petersburg, Fla., these are anxious times as well.

"I'm really looking forward to getting back to normal, which is racing every weekend," he said. "We've got a new car there's a lot of cool unknowns heading into that first race. I'm just anxious to get it going."

It promises to be a sombre event.

Driver Dan Wheldon was killed in a fiery wreck during the final IndyCar race last season, a painful loss that was felt throughout the tight-knit racing world. Prior to his death, Wheldon had agreed to drive for Andretti in 2012 and Hinchcliffe has essentially filled his position on the team.

"I think the fact it happened in the last race made it linger longer," said Hinchcliffe. "It's going to come up now because it's the first race since Vegas and because St. Pete was Dan's home race, that's where he lived. I think that'll be good closure for everybody.

"We didn't have that after Vegas everybody went their separate ways and we haven't had everyone all together ever since."

While calling Wheldon's death a "very cold reminder" of what's at stake in racing, Hinchcliffe never wavered in his desire to continue coming to the track.

His introduction to the sport came through go-karting as a kid and he's been hooked ever since. To this day, his parents remain his biggest supporters, even with the dangers highlighted by Wheldon's death.

"They were surprisingly (accepting), they understood," said Hinchcliffe. "They understand that this is so much a part of me if I didn't have racing I wouldn't have anything. It's not just a job for me.

"This is my life, it always has been."


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