IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe reckons with the risks of his sport

Behind the scenes of James Hinchcliffe's Body Issue shoot (3:55)

IndyCar racer James Hinchcliffe explains the physical toll that racing takes on his body, and he relives a dangerous crash that put that body in jeopardy. (3:55)

James Hinchcliffe, Chris Paul, Liz Cambage, and NFL stars such as Myles Garrett and the Eagles offensive line are featured in ESPN's 2019 Body Issue. To see interviews, pictures, videos and more, visit our full 2019 gallery.

"MY FRIEND, I have seen so many crazy scars on so many race car drivers, but when people see this ..."

James Hinchcliffe is beaming. That's not uncommon. The 32-year old IndyCar racer smiles pretty much all the time. Even now, disrobing for cameras to pose atop the world's most famous racetrack. He's known for it. Not the nudity, the smile. But he is also a racer's racer, a road course ace, six-time IndyCar race winner, Indianapolis 500 pole sitter, even a Dancing With the Stars runner-up. The wheelman they call Hinch is a competitor first and foremost. And, yes, that even applies to scars.

Hinchcliffe never hesitated over his Body Issue invite. He was eager to add his name to the racers already seen in these pages -- from his friend, rival and fellow DWTS alum Helio Castroneves to drag racer Courtney Force, wife of another IndyCar pal, Graham Rahal. But Hinchcliffe also wanted to make sure when stripping bare on the high holy ground of Indianapolis Motor Speedway that his scars were visible.

"Honestly, when you see them, they don't make a lot of sense until you know how I got them," he says of his unusual markings. Most are located in, ahem, tricky areas. But the most prominent is to the right of his belly button. "But as far as 'How'd you get that scar?' goes, I like my chances of winning that race. At the very least I'm certainly in the running."

For us mere mortals, scars are stories. That extra white line on your shin from the time you fell off your bike. That raised bump on the back of your hand where an art class miscalculation stuck an X-Acto blade into your skin instead of the construction paper.

But for racers, scars aren't stories. They are Dostoyevsky novels. John Force wriggling his half-missing right knee, blown apart by an exploding Funny Car tire at the Dallas Motorplex in 2007. F1 legend Niki Lauda tipping his ballcap to reveal his burned-up scalp, a lifelong reminder of the 1976 German Grand Prix. A.J. Foyt walking bowlegged on permanently bent knees and left heel-turned-bag of bone fragments since Road America in 1990.

Racers' bodies make football players' bodies look like porcelain. But those slashes and dashes and surgical dots serve only as punctuation marks to a racing career -- everything but a period. None of the drivers listed above let those crashes -- or the scars they caused -- keep them from the racetrack.

"We are simply wired differently than anyone else. Forget other athletes. I mean all other human beings," Hinchcliffe explains, pointing to the 1999 death of his hero, Canadian Greg Moore, as more inspiring than frightening. "When we are injured, no matter how bad, our first question is what I asked when I woke up in the ICU in 2015. We don't ask, 'Am I going to live?' We ask, 'When can I get back into the race car that just tried to kill me?' They're like, 'We just spent the last six hours trying to save you from the car and now ... you're just throwing our work out the window?' It's just how we're wired."

Hinchcliffe, at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, is in incredible physical shape. Most IndyCar drivers are, so as to best outmuscle a 1,600-pound, 700-horsepower machine that never wants to do exactly what you need it to, for hours at a time. That's built via even more hours on bikes, cardio machines, weight benches and mechanical racing simulators so tricked-out they would make Poe Dameron queasy.

That toughness might have kept Hinchcliffe's heart beating and brain firing on May 18, 2015, just long enough for safety crews to retrieve him within seconds of sure death. During a routine pre-Indy 500 practice, a suspension part that never fails did, instantly rendering useless the crucial right front tire and pile-driving his Dallara DW12 into the Turn 3 wall at more than 220 mph.

Another suspension part, a rod meant to collapse in violent crashes, did not. The force of the blow against the retaining wall -- 126 g's, the most recorded in IndyCar history -- hammered the carbon fiber nail through the protective tub Hinchcliffe was in, through his right leg, clipping his tailbone, and then through his upper left thigh.

"I'm not trying to brag here, but I kind of am," he says. "The only way you get these scars that I have is to get shish-kebabbed. And that's what I was: shish-kebabbed."

Safety crews were puzzled as to why they couldn't lift him out of the cockpit. The rod that was in him was also stuck into the side of the tub and was holding him down. It had pierced his left femoral artery, the primary blood supplier to the leg. James Hinchcliffe was bleeding out. The safety workers figured he had about 120 seconds, so they pulled the car apart to extract him. When they did, the rod yanked from his body and jerked back into his seat with a thunk.

Had Hinchcliffe been at any other track, his story likely would have ended here. But Indianapolis Motor Speedway shares 16th Street with Indiana University Health Methodist, motorsports' best-known hospital, both the saving grace and final resting place for an untold roster of Indy 500 racers. It was there that doctors discovered Hinchcliffe's sliced artery, only after he had bled through the gurney into another pool of red on the ER floor. And it was there that he asked the "When can I race again?" question -- perhaps the one facility on earth where it wouldn't be met with eye-rolling.

He was told it would be about two weeks before he could walk again. He was walking in four days. He was told he'd be in the hospital for at least a month. He was out in 10 days. Finally, he was told he wouldn't be back in a race car for at least half a year. It took him only four months. "It still wasn't fast enough for me," he says, laughing. "As an athlete, you turn every tiny exercise, every day, every week into a competition, into a game. 'If I win the next hour, or even the next few minutes, I'll get to the long-range goal faster.' Everything is a 500-mile race."

But between the games and the work, Hinchcliffe found himself in an unfamiliar place. A dark place. The happiest dude in the room suddenly wasn't. He grew an unkempt beard and toned down his usually prolific social media habits to keep his rehab efforts private. Support poured in from fans and most of the IndyCar paddock, but he also learned what all racers do when laid up: that most fellow drivers would rather visit a torture chamber than the halls of a hospital.

As Robert Duvall's Harry Hogge explained in Days of Thunder: "Drivers can't stand to be reminded of what can happen to them in a race car. They don't go to hospitals. They don't go to funerals. You get a driver to a funeral before he's actually dead, you've made history."

Hinchcliffe doesn't deny that: "We lack that self-preservation gene that most people have, and we all understand that there's an inherent risk in what we do, and we accept that risk. But as long as you're in the car, you can't ever think about it."

The racer's golden rule states that as soon as they do think about it while in the cockpit, it is time to exit that cockpit for good. Any nanosecond focused on anything other than the car in one's hands and the track ahead is time wasted -- death courted.

Rick Mears, the four-time Indianapolis 500 champion, was famously fearless. He raced trucks in the desert with broken bones, and at the height of his IndyCar powers in the early 1980s, he won races despite facial burns suffered at Indy and crushed feet earned at a triangular racetrack in Quebec. But late in 1992, with chances left for an unprecedented fifth Indy 500 title, Rocket Rick shockingly hung up his helmet.

"I broke my foot and sprained my wrist badly at Indy in May," Mears recalls. "For the first time in my life, I woke up in the morning and the first thing I thought of wasn't how to make my race car faster. It was pain and self-preservation and other stuff. It was like a switch flipped. Once that switch flips, you aren't the same again. So it's time to go."

In summer 2015, Hinchcliffe worked hard to evade that switch. His greatest allies were those racing friends who sucked it up and parked their born-in aversions to visit. He leaned on his boss, owner Sam Schmidt, a quadriplegic since a 2000 race car crash.

"There are things you will never know about yourself, from your body to your mind, until you are there in that bed or in that rehab facility, on your own with what seems like an impossible mountain to climb," Schmidt says. "You learn to take the little victories each day. Some days don't have a victory, so you focus on the next one. James needed to know that. I told him that. I hope it helped him like it did when people said those things to me."

It did. Those words and a new perspective have ridden with Hinchcliffe every day since, through his Indy 500 pole position tearfully earned one year after the crash, his victories in the Long Beach Grand Prix and at Iowa Speedway, his marriage to longtime girlfriend Becky Dalton and, yes, his 2016 near title run in Dancing With the Stars.

Perhaps the greatest gift from that day wasn't realized until Aug. 19, 2018, when Hinchcliffe was caught up in a multicar crash during the opening laps at Pocono Raceway. He was OK, but teammate and fellow Canadian Robert Wickens suffered multiple fractures, the most serious to his spine. The 30-year-old was paralyzed from the chest down, but unlike Hinchcliffe, he chose to broadcast his rehabilitation over social media, from his first foot movements three months after the accident to driving a hand-controlled pace car through the streets of Toronto in July. Frequently seen by his side? James Hinchcliffe.

"My injuries weren't as bad as Robbie's. Still, I've been there," Hinchcliffe says. "I know what the hospital and the rehab room smell like and feel like. I know what it's like to be on that operating table and think, 'Again, really?' So what I told Robbie was what I learned. Any time you are having a bad day, you know what? It's just a phase. I don't know if that phase is going to last a day or a week or a month, but one day you will be able to look back ... and acknowledge how far you've come since that time."

When James Hinchcliffe looks at his scars, that's what he sees. Not the rod that skewered his body. Not the pond of blood. Not the ticking clock. Certainly not the fear. He sees marks earned and lessons learned.

"Having a couple of scars, like, whatever, no big deal. If it helps tell the story and ... I can help somebody understand that without having to go through something like that, man, job done. It's all worth it if just one person sees it that way."