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Mind of a Motorhead: James Hinchcliffe on thrill-seeking and taking calculated risks

Dr. Kenneth Carter, Professor of Psychology at Oxford College of Emory University, gets to know James Hinchcliffe to see if he can key in on the secrets to the IndyCar Series driver's success on the race track.

(Editor’s note: Mind of a Motorhead is a series in which motorsports athletes from various disciplines (such as IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe) will be analyzed according to surveys of their personalities. Series host Dr. Ken Carter, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Oxford College of Emory University, writes below on what he learned about Stewart in the latest episode.)

In 2011, James Hinchcliffe was the IndyCar rookie of the year. In 2016, he was the pole-sitter for the Indianapolis 500 just one year after a horrific crash almost cost him his life at the same track.

In this episode of Mind of a Motorhead (watch the video above), Hinchcliffe spoke with me about his personality and those of other race car drivers.

You might expect all race car drivers to score off the chart on a thrill-seeking questionnaire. But Hinchcliffe’s scores on the Sensation Seeking Survey weren’t particularly high. His highest score wasn’t even on the part of the scale that measures how much people like frightening activities.

Hinchcliffe admits he doesn’t like frightening activities.

“I wouldn’t bungee jump,” he said. “I did skydive once, because I wanted to experience it. Now that I have, I would never jump out of a perfectly good airplane again.”

Fear and thrill aren’t what he’s after.

“The thing about racing is you never want to be out of control,” he said. “You never want to be frightened. It’s not supposed to be thrilling. It’s a calculated risk. I’m in a car that’s built to keep me safe with six safety belts and a helmet … and a safety team.”

Hinchcliffe’s highest score? It was for the part of the scale that measures how much people crave adventures, called experience seeking. Experience-seekers seek out encounters that are unique rather than dangerous, e.g., trying new foods, meeting new people or going to new places.

These experiences can affect sensation-seekers emotionally, intellectually or interpersonally. They’re not simply the visceral physical thrill (and danger) of going on the world’s highest roller coaster or running with tigers.

But Hinchcliffe wasn’t always an experience-seeker. That desire and quest changed after his 2015 crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that required multiple surgeries.

“I used to be one of these people that was always like…I’ll do it next time… I’ll try it [later]…And then I realized after that there might not be a next time…Now I always say ‘yes’ to stuff and always give it a try because you never know if you are going to get that opportunity again.”

About those in his sport he observed, “There’s a huge correlation between intelligence and success at this level. This is very much a thinking sport. It involves split-second decision making.”

Curious about your score on Sensation Seeking? You can take a test at this link or read more about sensation seeking in my book, “Buzz! Inside the Minds of Thrill Seekers, Daredevils and Adrenaline Junkies.

You can watch the video above or by clicking here or you also can watch by subscribing to the Motorsports on NBC YouTube channel.