Some within the Verizon IndyCar Series community will question Ed Carpenter Racing’s decision to hire JR Hildebrand for the team’s race-winning No. 21 car when Juan Pablo Montoya and Conor Daly might have been available.
The better question is, why not hire Hildebrand?
Related: Hildebrand gets full-time ride with Ed Carpenter Racing
Yes, Hildebrand is the driver defined by disappointments earlier this decade. He was the race leader who crashed coming to the checkered flag in the 2011 Indianapolis 500. Two years later on the same Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, Hildebrand crashed another good Panther Racing car on the third lap as the team hosted Medal of Honor winners in a bid to retain the lucrative National Guard sponsorship. (A pink slip followed.)
But don’t forget who else Hildebrand is: Champion of the 2009 Indy Lights season that included James Hinchcliffe and Charlie Kimball, and his 46 Verizon IndyCar Series races over the past seven seasons have illustrated considerable doses of brilliance, bravery and chemistry. Truth is, the latter might have been the deciding factor for Ed Carpenter, who understands what Hildebrand brings as a teammate.
Despite being left out of INDYCAR's fulltime lineup since being released by Panther after the ’13 500, Hildebrand has been a good month of May fit with Carpenter’s Chevrolet-powered team. He has finished 10th, eighth and sixth in the past three 500s and held his own in a pair of IMS road races amid recent inactivity on such circuits. The bottom line: This close-knit team knows Hildebrand, and he knows it.
Hildebrand also knows how to represent an employer and its supporters, a skill set honed by two-plus years carrying the National Guard’s heavy flag. The California native has shown to be as calm visiting servicemen at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as he is driving a race car, and he will meet ECR’s needs off the track.
Remember, too, that Hildebrand is still only 28 years old and has the smarts to be a race engineer. His technical feedback is said to be good, his demeanor even better, and his Panther statistics were in step with those posted by Vitor Meira and Dan Wheldon before him.
Should Hildebrand have won the ’11 500? No question.
Did he throw away several race-winning opportunities during his time at Panther? Probably.
Is he still capable of winning the 500 that has eluded ECR? It would seem so.
And since the latter is the most important question, why not hire him?
Curt Cavin recently became INDYCAR's Vice President of Communications after 30 years covering Indy car racing.