When JR Hildebrand lost his ride with Panther Racing in 2013, one of the first to phone was Ed Carpenter.
One driver to another, Carpenter had empathy for Hildebrand’s situation. Carpenter saw a capable, young talent who had come within a final-lap, fourth-turn crash of winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
As the Verizon IndyCar Series’ only owner/driver, Carpenter always reminds his No. 1 goal is to win the Indianapolis 500. So Hildebrand’s memorable rookie run, although regarded by some as a dubious distinction because of what might have been, still resonated.
“We went and had a beer not long after everything went down at Panther,” Hildebrand said in a Tuesday conference call.
They hit it off and set their minds to eventually working together.
“It was more of me reaching out just to kind of offer some encouragement,” Carpenter said, “because I’d been in similar situations, similar levels of uncertainty, and understood kind of what that can do to your psyche and confidence levels. … It was more just like, ‘Hey, don't let this affect you. You can do this. You've proven that you can do this. Let's see if we can maybe make something happen down the road.’”
That road has finally brought them together for a fulltime ride in 2017. Hildebrand, 28, was announced last week as driver of the Ed Carpenter Racing No. 21 Chevrolet. He replaces Josef Newgarden, who parlayed a career-best, fourth-place 2016 points finish into a deal with Team Penske.
Hildebrand drove for Carpenter five times the past three years, including three solid runs in the Indy 500 with a 10th in 2014, eighth in 2015 and sixth last May. Their connection blossomed from working together. Carpenter conceded that while he had conversations about several driver possibilities, Hildebrand was still at the top of the list.
“When we worked together the first May, I think it became more clear getting that firsthand experience working with him, and over the subsequent years kind of getting more of a sampling of just his talent, his teamwork, the type of guy he is,” Carpenter said. “He's always had the talent to be in INDYCAR even though he hasn't been fulltime in a little while. But that doesn't mean that he still doesn't deserve to be here as much as anyone else.”
When Hildebrand is asked about his best series race, ironically, the native Californian doesn’t mention the best finish, that second place to Dan Wheldon in the 2011 Indy 500. Hildebrand instead spoke of the three Indy 500 runs for Carpenter.
“I would honestly say, just in terms of how I felt about my own performance, this is not to blow smoke up Ed's rear end since he's standing here, but the last three 500s I've raced in have been when I felt most prepared and best about, like, my execution when it mattered,” Hildebrand said. “I felt like the environment here at ECR has been a big part of that. I think my maturation and sort of recognition of the things that really matter have also played a role in that as that's developed over the last few years.”
Carpenter, who only runs ovals, plans on driving the No. 20 Chevy with Fuzzy’s Vodka as primary sponsor in 2017. No one has yet been named to drive the car at Verizon IndyCar Series road and street events. Although sponsorship deals still have to be finalized, the owner plans on having Hildebrand driving in a couple liveries, presumably one with Preferred Freezer, as was the case with Newgarden. Hildebrand’s first test is planned for early December, Carpenter said.
Hildebrand quickly realized he had to keep himself busy when he wasn’t in a race car these past three years. He didn’t want to be one of those unemployed drivers always hanging around a track on race day, reminding everyone he’s still available and hoping something would present itself.
“Over the past couple years, it's been difficult because there's not necessarily a path to follow. There's no obvious way that this all works out well,” he said. “But I've managed to find other things that sort of supplement my interest in doing this and that's kept my sanity intact.”
He worked this past year in a “super-interesting, stimulating” venture in which he was invited by Road & Track magazine to be the “man” in a man-versus-machine battle in the Audi of Europe’s self-driving RS7. Testing was at Sonoma Raceway, his home track. That involvement enabled Hildebrand to develop a relationship with Stanford University, which had a similar program. He was recently appointed as an adjunct lecturer at Stanford to continue that program and offer input on vehicle dynamics programs.
A National Merit Scholar in high school, Hildebrand understandably was drawn to academics. His college acceptances had included Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which gave him a three-year deferral, but he pursued a racing career instead.
Hildebrand now returns to where had hoped to be all along and with the team he’s always wanted to drive for since sitting down to have that beer with Carpenter.
“It's definitely been my primary focus, to create a home for myself here, do the things sort of necessary to be in that position,” Hildebrand said.
His experience with ECR ensured the fire still burns to succeed as a racer.
“I think that really gave me a lot of energy to sort of sit there and go, ‘Yes, I want to be back here doing this, not just because I feel like I've got unfinished business, but because I really want to be here,’” he said. “I really enjoy it. I sort of am ready to take advantage of that type of opportunity.”