Prodigious American talent J.R. Hildebrand will contest a second full season of Firestone Indy Lights competition in 2009, replacing outgoing series champion Raphael Matos at Andretti Green Racing/AFS Racing. Hildebrand shifts from RLR Andersen Racing where he finished fifth during his rookie season, winning his first race at Kansas in April.
"I'm ecstatic to have the opportunity to drive for Andretti Green Racing this year in the Firestone Indy Lights," Hildebrand said. "It's quite clear that the team earned their spot at the top of the championship standings last year for a reason. I feel with the experience I gained in 2008 combined with the success the team had that we will be one of the teams to beat next year."
The title earned by AGR/AFS broke a string of three championships in four years for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in Indy Lights. AGR/AFS won four races in 2008, three by Matos and one by Arie Luyendyk Jr., as they defeated Schmidt's best title hopes Richard Antinucci and Ana Beatriz.
AGR has also branched into running the A1GP Team USA program in an effort to provide more road race training for IndyCar pilots Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick. Whether Hildebrand gets a chance at that seat remains to be seen.
Hildebrand's accomplished a fair amount in his racing career, receiving the Team USA Scholarship in 2005 and winning the Formula Ford 2000 championship a year later prior to joining the Atlantic ranks in 2007 with Newman/Wachs Racing.
A difficult decision saw him switch to Indy Lights prior to 2008 but given the series' alignment with IndyCar after unification last February, the opportunity appeared greater to advance there than from Atlantic.
Hildebrand's prior team is in the midst of testing drivers for the new season. Late in the season RLR Andersen saw their first driver, Andrew Prendeville, leave to pursue other opportunities. In the interim Daniel Herrington filled in and acquitted himself well on the ovals.
The North Carolina native should be in contention for one of the team's two seats, along with fellow young Americans Jonathan Bomarito, Jonathan Summerton and Joel Miller. The latter three have recently tested at Sebring and future tests are lined up for a couple others the team has on their radar. All three came close but no cigar to winning their respective titles in 2008 (Atlantic for the Jonathans and Star Mazda for Miller).
The Indy Lights off-season signing news has simmered in the last few weeks. A rash of announcements occurred in the immediate aftermath of the season finale at Chicagoland. HVM Racing will run the former Michael Crawford Motorsports team's two cars, while Genoa Racing announced a two-car program that could potentially affect their participation in Atlantic where they have raced the last two years.
The only driver confirmations were at Panther Racing with a couple of British rookies, Martin Plowman and Pippa Mann, continuing the team's recent trend of signing relatively unknown drivers from the UK. The strategy has worked in the past with Mark Taylor winning the 2003 series title and Dillon Battistini scoring a series-high four wins last year prior to leaving ahead of the final race.
The long off-season continues through to April at St. Petersburg when the first race is contested. A number of factors, namely the current economy, could play a significant role in who races where in the main support series to IndyCar for 2009.