Returning to fulltime IndyCar competition for the first time in four years, JR Hildebrand has a golden opportunity to refire his career. But it’s near-vital that he starts winning races, as he himself admits. David Malsher believes he can do it.
JR Hildebrand has got to win this year. It could be while surrounded by the cacti at Phoenix International Raceway, the woods of Elkhart Lake or Watkins Glen, the dustbowl of Sonoma in mid-September. But somewhere, that #21 Ed Carpenter Racing-Chevrolet needs to be covered in confetti, its driver soaked in champagne.
It’s not just me who feels this way; the man himself said it. There it was, in a press release from Sonoma Raceway, where Hildebrand and teammate Spencer Pigot tested on Tuesday. The quote read: “A successful season for us is me picking up my first race win, wherever that ends up being. That is absolutely a goal of ours – to be in the Winner’s Circle…”
The Sausalito, Calif. native is not known for bold statements of bald ambition, but then it’s been eight years since he last had reason to be so positive when looking at the season ahead. Back then, he was driving for Michael Andretti in Indy Lights, and his confidence was not misplaced. He won the 2009 title and, after his first couple of IndyCar starts with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2010 – including fastest race lap in only his second start! – he spent two-and-a-bit years at Panther Racing.
As a series rookie in 2011, Hildebrand scored one of racing’s most infamous and agonizing second places at the Indy 500, and for his dignified composure in the aftermath, he was rewarded by team owner John Barnes with a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle SS. Two years later, an early shunt in the same event would see JR dismissed.
Since then, he’s made just nine IndyCar starts, the last seven of which have been with Ed Carpenter Racing/CFH Racing in the Month of May. Now he gets a permanent gig there, and he has a conspicuously different outlook. Just last month, he admitted: “There’s been a little bit of caution over the last couple of years, knowing that [GP Indy and the Indy 500] are the only events I’m going to be doing during the year, so feeling the need to come away with respectable finishes. When you’re racing fulltime… you feel better about the little calculated risks that, when you’re in an extra car in an extra program, you don’t take.”
So now it’s time to take those risks. He’s again demonstrated dignified composure over the last four years, and he’s again been rewarded with the keys to a Chevy. This one, however, is bang up-to-date and it’s one of the best in IndyCar.
Not that everyone will acknowledge that. It must have been irritating for Carpenter over the past couple of years to read so many articles that either stated or at least implied that Josef Newgarden was carrying the squad. Don't get me wrong, Penske’s newest recruit is a major talent, but even before ECR took over Sarah Fisher/Wink Hartman’s team in 2015 and thereby acquired Newgarden, Carpenter had visited Victory Lane twice as a team owner, and twice as a driver/team owner. Four years ago, the late Justin Wilson, a man of sound judgment, told me he liked the way Ed ran the team and wanted to sign up. These guys are good.
That does, of course, up the pressure on Hildebrand and also Justin Taylor, who race-engineered the #7 works Audi to runner-up in last year’s World Endurance Championship. He replaces Newgarden’s former engineer, the highly regarded Jeremy Milless, who has joined Andretti Autosport to run Alexander Rossi. So far the Hildebrand/Taylor combo seems to be clicking. Hildebrand turned the fastest lap at the Phoenix test last week – an unofficial record-breaking 193.234mph – and even his best lap without a tow was under Helio Castroneves’ pole speed from 2016. This week’s test at Sonoma, too, went well.
“It’s not a super-relevant time of year to be testing at Sonoma, but it’s our first roadcourse test all together as a group,” Hildebrand told Motorsport.com later that evening. “I haven’t been doing a lot of roadcourse driving over the past couple of years so I was getting re-familarized with the aerokit and the whole philosophy of how the car works, and it was a big learning process for Justin, too.
“We’ve been working at Chevrolet’s simulator a little bit, so the Sonoma test allowed us to see how well the sim work correlates to real life. Basically, it was about familiarization and validation.
“It’s tough to judge when there’s no one else there; you’re operating in a little bit of a vacuum. But both Spencer and I did definitely make gains in terms of what we’re looking for from the cars. And it gave Justin and I a chance to go over push-to-pass practices, longer runs with fuel-saves, and so on.”
For Denver-born Taylor, ovals have been a culture shock, yet not as much as the general nature of IndyCar test sessions.
“Justin’s come from the WEC environment where if you have track time, you’re on track,” said Hildebrand. “Even if your tires are smoked, there’s something to be done, something you should be collecting data on, like a fuel-flow sensor or whatever. So at Phoenix, where we were really limited on tires given how much time we had [six sets for 12 hours] he was pulling his hair out! ‘What the hell is going on? Everyone’s just sitting here!’ So he’s definitely trying to wrap his head around those procedural things.”
That otherwise positive Phoenix test ended on a somewhat sour note for the ECR team. Carpenter, who'd been second fastest in the test, encountered electrical issues, while Hildebrand shunted after clipping the rear of Will Power’s car as it slowed for traffic ahead.
“Apparently I have a thing for Penske bumper pods,” JR murmured wryly, referring to his snagging the rear of Castroneves’ car at Indy last year. “At least this time around it screwed me instead of the Penske driver…
“Completely unnecessary incident and not the way we wanted to end what had been a really solid couple of days of testing. But by the same token, if I'm going to wreck a car, I’d rather it was for that reason than because the car was handling badly and I lost it.”
A few years ago, this kind of accident would have aggravated the hell out of Hildebrand and maybe chipped away at his confidence. But this 28-year-old version is psychologically strengthened once more by having a team owner put faith in him, and money behind him, for a whole season. JR will be aware that certain figures within the IndyCar paddock doubt he can measure up to his predecessor in the #21 car and feel the ride should have gone elsewhere. But JR, while not overtly ebullient like Josef, now has the self-confidence to ignore the doubters and simply do his job.
"There’s a handful of races last year where I think that if you’d just shoved me in a car on race weekend, we’d have been capable of winning," he says without conceit. “So bearing in mind that a big target this year is to prove myself on road and street courses, it's good to know ECR has a good starting point. Now it’ll be a case of trying to optimize the package and myself over the weekend. Other places I think we need to all make gains as a team, and for me that’s where the learning process is most squarely focused. If we achieve that, we can be genuinely competitive consistently – which is the big thing.
“The way I look at it is that I’m racing for a team that has good data, I have a good teammate in Spencer and good resources to get to that point where we’re looking for the last tenth or two rather than looking for a much bigger chunk of time. So I think checking the box of my first IndyCar win is definitely on the agenda.”
Hildebrand truly believes in not only the team but also himself… and with good reason: he knows he brings far more to the table than mere pace. Successful IndyCar drivers in the current era need to be intelligent and don't come from the “all balls and eyesight” category, as the late Frank Gardner once described his fast but wild rivals. Aside from the occasional qualifying run with fresh tires on an oval, a driver who possesses only bravery and a great car will not beat the likes of Scott Dixon, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud. In the spec era, when you’re trying to shave off tenths or even half-tenths, wins can only come from a driver blessed with mental agility, tech savvy and application working in harmony with an understanding and adept race engineer, a quick-witted strategist, a bright data acquisition engineer, a slick pitcrew, a sharp spotter, etc. It takes a village to raise a winner’s trophy; no team owner is going to put the village idiot in the cockpit.
So that's another reason why Carpenter’s choice of Hildebrand makes sense. Stanford University last year employed JR as a lecturer for its vehicular dynamics program, and I can’t think of a current IndyCar driver better suited to that role. He’s a thinker, expresses explanations lucidly, and is constantly absorbing the complexities of operational procedure within a team. In fact, JR admits he learned a lot over the last three years of hanging with ECR, even on race weekends when he was merely an observer.
“It doesn’t just come down to executing on raceday,” he says. “It all starts before the weekend, creating a greater understanding of areas where you’re lacking and areas where you’re good. That helps you manage your limited track time efficiently by targeting specific aspects of the car. At Panther, we had a more reactive methodology on race weekends; at ECR we’re anticipating and doing more in-depth diagnostics.”
So what are Hildebrand’s expectations from the year as a whole?
“Josef and those guys finished fifth in the championship last year,” he replies, “and they had a shot at doing even better than that if it weren't for that Texas shunt. So I look at our situation and don’t feel much has changed from that perspective.
“It's putting a lot on me and the engineering staff to execute at that level, but it’s definitely within reach. And of course I want to get my first win checked off…”
Getting that nailed early could indeed be key to a top-five championship year for Hildebrand. The step from thinking you can win to knowing you can win provides a psychological boost that cannot be overemphasized. What's most encouraging is that already there’s a calm, self-assured maturity about JR which has replaced the pained, worried and occasionally defensive demeanor he adopted at Panther.
Various media members, myself among them, have asked him if he feels under pressure to perform as strongly as Newgarden, but he’s rejected the notions that his position is in any way invidious and that having a good car is somehow a burden. Instead, he’s grateful to his friend and former teammate for proving the pace of Ed Carpenter Racing on all types of track and grateful to Ed for putting faith in him.
So now it’s time. Hildebrand has got to win this year. It could be around the harbor at St. Petersburg, the five-wide 220mph headrush of Pocono’s tri-oval… Or, in one of those rare moments of racing redemption, it may even come in front of the towering grandstands of racing’s ultimate amphitheater, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In this instance, location hardly matters. Newgarden may have the golden ticket in IndyCar right now, but Hildebrand's green ’n’ gold ticket should be the next best thing. Which is why the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season is JR's 17-race moment of truth.