JR Hildebrand – too good to be forgotten

One of America’s finest open-wheel talents is staying realistic about the prospects of a full-time ride and even an Indy 500-only ride. And that’s why he also admits sports cars are coming onto his radar.

What are your plans for 2016? Dennis Reinbold admits he’s been talking with you quite a bit and there are rumors you could partner with Sage Karam in a Dreyer & Reinbold Indy 500 team.

Dennis and I have talked, but I’ve been in conversations with a couple of teams over quite a long period of time. I’ve been building a sponsorship platform for the past couple of years, and it’s growing. That’s what you need if your dream is to get back to full-time racing. And the fact it hasn’t resulted in a full-time drive yet is something outside my control – and the sponsors’. I wish I could be more specific, but I can’t.

Everyone’s sponsorship program at this stage is about the 100th Indy 500, but I’m always looking for opportunities to expand beyond that. Over the last few years I’ve been putting a lot of effort into developing a program that has value and can grow over time. I have not been one of those guy who’s just bounced around to wherever I could find a drive. Instead, I’ve tried to apply more method to the madness – as much as anything, for the sake of my own sanity! And I think that has been the right move.

But there just isn’t a lot out there in terms of drives. I mean, Oriol [Servia] has nothing, and if anyone had a spare car sitting around, especially at Indianapolis, he’d surely be a guy you’d look at. The thing is for the Indy 500, where there should be a bunch of extra seats, the drives are still hard to come by unless you have money. That’s the nature of the beast right now.

There aren’t a lot of industries who are interested in funding racing in a significant way, and oil and gas are doing terribly right now, which definitely isn’t helping anybody. And I’d say the tech market hasn’t really been tapped, but then again there don’t seem to be that many tech companies interested in IndyCar in the same way that someone like Verizon has been.

So there’s a big financial gap that is hard to bridge, and you have to take a more creative approach.

Are you annoyed by – or feel held back by – this perception that you’re an oval specialist, because that’s what you’ve been brought in for by Ed Carpenter, and it’s also where your best results have come?

Yeah, I guess. I kind of understand it, even though I can give myriad explanations for that. It’s funny you should mention that, because I was rewriting my résumé the other day and I realized that if I’d stopped racing before 2011, skipped a year or two, and then picked it up, my road course résumé is quite strong. When I won the Indy Lights championship [2009], all four of my wins came on road or street courses.

I’ve been competitive at the 12 Hours of Sebring and pretty much any road course. I mean, I’m glad people look at me as someone who can be put in an IndyCar on an oval and go and do a good job. But I certainly don’t want to be considered an oval-only guy… and certainly not an Indy-only guy. I mean, just last year at the Grand Prix of Indy, we were going to finish fifth, and that’s after not having raced an IndyCar on a road course for two years. And when I tested alongside Josef [Newgarden] at CFH Racing, we were a hair apart when I’d not been in an IndyCar for a year.

I’m not saying you could put me in anybody’s car and I’d go win races straight away, but given seat time, absolutely I believe I can be competitive. And even if I’ve been part time since 2013, I believe I’m better equipped now than I was as a rookie.

You’re 28 and as I listed the other day there are lot of hungry and frankly younger potential IndyCar drivers in a holding pattern at the moment. Do you feel like maybe the chances have passed you by, and you’ve fallen through the cracks in the system?

I don’t think so. I hope I’ve proved over the past couple years that I can just jump in an IndyCar and go do a good job, and I think there’s value because having that experience gives me something proven over the younger kids who haven’t had a chance yet. Of course back in 2010, I was in their position – no experience and battling for rides against drivers with experience.

But in the end, the battles we’re all facing right now are pretty much the same – they’re about finance. It’s not as if anyone is going to get hired off the street.

I look at the situation Ryan Hunter-Reay was in, when he went through a period of not being full-time, and I see that as encouraging because he was able to work his way back into a program at Andretti where they clicked and have found a lot of success together.

So no, I don’t feel like time is running out. Like I said, the sponsorship platform I’m building is growing in the right direction. It’s just a matter of things falling into place. And then having a backup plan.

I know open-wheel is your dream, but what are your thoughts on sports cars?

I’m going to be at Daytona scheduling meetings and handing out my résumé, for sure. There’s a lot to be said for the tracks that IMSA goes to, the level of competition across all classes. Obviously when ALMS and Grand-Am merged, that made for a lesser number of total seats, but…I’m anxious to pursue whatever the options are over there, while continuing to plug away trying to get back full-time in IndyCar.

I still don’t think it’s smart to just go and grab random drives across the motorsport spectrum, but definitely this year I’m going to do a bit more outreach and look at a wider range of opportunities.

Would you want to go the prototype route because they’re faster and more fun, or would you prefer GTs so you can tie yourself up with a manufacturer maybe for the rest of your career – kinda like Oliver Gavin and Johnny O’Connell?

I’d be very open. I want to be able to establish longterm relationships, I want there to be an endgame rather than just looking at these things on a year by year basis. I mean, Johnny O is a great example of a guy who’s made a living racing awesome cars with great success and as a result he’s had reasonable stability. There’s nothing about his career that I’d consider a downgrade from what I’m doing, so racing GTs would be equally enticing as prototypes, even though prototypes are obviously quicker. I’m not going to shy away from an opportunity to develop a longterm relationship with an OEM.

I assume that means you’d also be open to scouting for rides in the Pirelli World Challenge paddock, too…

Yeah, absolutely. I haven’t done yet, but it does seem to be the spiritual reincarnation of the old Trans-Am series, so that’s cool. The racing’s badass, and so are the cars. 

 

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About this article
Series IndyCar , PWC , IMSA
Drivers J.R. Hildebrand
Teams Dreyer & Reinbold Racing , Ed Carpenter Racing
Article type Interview