Cars in a parking lot
In the 1969 movie The Italian Job, there are three Mini Cooper Ss, two Jaguar E-Types, a Lamborghini Miura P400, many Fiats, Innocenti, Lancias and Fords, various Alfa Romeo Giulias, an Aston Martin DB4 and of course: Michael Caine.
A fan of the original Brit hit, the car-centric caper inspired Canadian IndyCar racer James Hinchcliffe’s choice of first car: the reissued Mini Cooper S.
But maybe it was destiny.
“My father’s first car — my father grew up in England — and his first car was a Mini and when BMW announced they were going to be remaking the Mini it was right around the time I was going to be getting my licence and I decided that I wanted to have the same first car as my old man,” Hinchcliffe says with pride.
“I’ve had two (one new, one used) because they’re just the best little car out on the road.”
On the track, the 25-year-old is now behind the wheel of Danica Patrick’s old ride (earning him the nickname “Manica” which he hilariously played to by donning a long black wig for this season’s racing premier). Currently ranked fifth in the IndyCar standings, he’s being taken seriously even if he does get “funny looks” when mentioning his Mini Cooper S.
Unapologetic, he says it was an easy choice.
“It was pretty much the only thing I wanted,” the team Andretti Autosport racer says.
“I didn’t go out and test-drive a bunch of cars. Obviously, I’m a car guy so I’d been researching it and I know a lot about a lot of cars. I just decided that’s the one I was going to buy and it was a pretty easy decision.”
Hinchcliffe has driven the smaller, original Mini (a rusty, beat-up 1959 Austin Cooper), and is clearly smitten.
“It’s the original that I fell in love with — that’s what’s in the movie and that’s what really drew me to them in the first place, so one day I’ll have one.”
Growing up, his father had, at one time or another, British sports cars by: Morgan, Marcos, Triumph (TR4), Austin Healey (a ’59 Bugeye Sprite) as well as a MGB, which was the first car Hinchcliffe Jr.“drove.”
“I would sit on my dad’s lap and steer it around,” the Oakville native says.
“I was six years old — and I still remember the feeling of getting behind the wheel of that car: equal parts terrified and over-the-moon excited.”
For the racer who got his start on the go-kart track, it’s clear the appeal of his Mini lies with the car’s handling and manoeuvreability.
He recalls taking his sister out for a ride and inadvertently giving her a bit of a scare as he cornered with gusto. “That’s what was so fun about the Mini: it handled like a go-kart.”
Currently driving his second Mini, he says he even finds longer jaunts to be surprisingly comfortable. And of course sneaking in and out of gaps in traffic and squeezing into parking spots are a bonus.
“It’s big enough to get me to the airport but it’s small enough no one asks me to help them move,” he says with a laugh.
On the road, Hinchcliffe characterizes himself as reserved, focused and at times a bit of a nervous driver. He admits: “Street driving just throws so many curve balls at you.”
Racers may exude a devil-may-care attitude but the affable and funny No. 27 says he doesn’t take chances.
“I have a release for driving fast: I get to go do that in a car built for that in an environment built for that and driving on the road frankly terrifies me,” he says.
“Because I’m on a racetrack with a bunch of professionals in a nice safe environment, going in the same direction, without kids and dogs and where anyone can go write their G1 test and technically get behind the wheel of a car.”
On the track, the Go Daddy-sponsored racer has won the respect of his peers, though he concedes he’s still earning his stripes.
“It’s important to me to have the reputation of a guy that people can trust, that people like going wheel-to-wheel with and believe they’ll come out the other side in one piece: and that means a lot to me as a driver.
“I think consistency is obviously key to playing the long game and to winning championships. The biggest thing is it sounds goofy but it goes back to the whole clichéd line: To finish first you must first finish, right?
“And these races are so long and it’s all about protecting the car and your equipment and being there in the last stint instead of trying to win it all in the first stint.
“Not making a mistake is a big part of it but at the end of the day you’ve got to be aggressive — you’ve got to push — and sometimes that’s going to lead to mistakes; so there’s definitely a fine balance. You can’t be too complacent and just go out for a Sunday drive or else you’re never going to find yourself in the winner’s circle.”
Racing aside, if the upbeat and indefatigable “Mayor of Hinchtown” ever wants to take time to appreciate his first set of wheels he can — having sold it to a friend.
“I still know where it is — it still lives in Oakville, so I can go by and see it.”