The return to fulltime driving duties for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season has JR Hildebrand hungry for success, according to team owner Ed Carpenter.
Carpenter, a three-time race winner, is the only owner/driver in the series and will field a two-car effort again this season. He will pilot the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet during the oval races, while Spencer Pigot shares the ride for road and street courses – similar to last year. However, the departure of Josef Newgarden to Team Penske during the offseason has put Hildebrand in the No. 21 Chevrolet and back competing in every round for the first time since 2012.
The 29-year-old Californian has driven part-time with the Speedway, Indiana-based team at the Indianapolis 500 since 2014 – finishing in the top 10 in all three appearances – while also running the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course the last two seasons.
When Newgarden was injured in a frightening crash during the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway last June and was unavailable for team testing, it was Hildebrand who was called upon to fill the seat and provide the team with the data and feedback necessary for upcoming rounds at Road America, Iowa Speedway and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The end result: top-10s at those tracks by Newgarden upon his return, including an unyielding and dominant victory in the Iowa Corn 300 where he led an Indy car-record 282 laps. Newgarden credited and confirmed that the setup was mostly due to what Hildebrand found in testing.
Carpenter made no secret that the plan was to always get the 2011 Indianapolis 500 runner-up in a fulltime seat, but financial difficulties were the obstacle. Last year’s efforts helped confirm Hildebrand for the role for this season.
“Yeah, for sure, but beyond (Iowa), he was somebody that we wanted to get in the car more than what he was in the first place,” said Carpenter, a two-time polesitter of the Indianapolis 500.
“We just weren't successful in putting the funding in place to a high enough level to add in more races than where we were with Josef and our commitment to him as well. So yeah, a combination of things, but when he got a bigger opportunity to get in the car to go test at Iowa, Road America or Mid-Ohio … we already had a high level of confidence in his capabilities beyond Indianapolis.
“It's one of those things where he hasn't been able to show his full skill set from a broad perspective to you all (media) and to the fans in quite some time, but we've had a high level of confidence in him and, when things like that happen, it just kind of further cements those feelings.”
Despite running a program with a pair of drivers looking for that breakthrough first career Verizon IndyCar Series win, Carpenter doesn’t believe the mindset should change. He compared the situation to when he helped mentor Newgarden – who captured all three of his series wins after becoming involved with Carpenter.
“I don't think the goal is changed,” Carpenter said. “Obviously, JR hasn't won at this level, but we have full belief in him and believe in his talents and capabilities. We've got to get him over the hump. The first one's always the hardest.
“We were in the same situation in 2015 when we merged (with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing). Josef hadn't won any races or poles and Josef is a really talented driver, but I also feel like the team played a role in that, and our intention it's to do the same thing with JR. Obviously I want to get myself back in Victory Lane, too, and continue to see Spencer's development increase at a higher rate than what it did last year.”
The combination of changes also extends throughout the team, as Jeremy Milless – formerly Newgarden’s race engineer, moved to Andretti Autosport. Justin Taylor comes over from Audi’s World Endurance Championship team to fill the open slot, while Dan Hobbs will assist on the car, serving as the performance engineer.
Regardless of the changes, Carpenter expects a “big year” from Hildebrand, the 2009 Indy Lights champion who has logged a career total of 46 Verizon IndyCar Series races.
“He's highly motivated right now, extremely excited for the opportunity and wants to go out and do a good job,” Carpenter said. “He knows that he has things to prove to everyone, himself included, but he is motivated and I expect a big year. I think we'll be able to surprise a lot of people and maybe not surprise others, because he does have a lot of fans and a good track record up to the point that he wasn't fulltime.
“I was fulltime from 2004 to 2009,” Carpenter continued, “and then only did four races in 2010, 11 in 2011. You going through that period where you're not running as much and you wonder if you're ever going to really get a full crack at it, a really good opportunity again. When you kind of lose part of it, you feel like something has been taken away (and) I think it makes you stronger. It makes you realize why you want to do what we do and how bad you want it. I think that JR has gone through some of that.
“So it's one of those situations where you can say he's been at a disadvantage because he's been out of the car fulltime against a lot of our peers, but at the same time I think being out of a car in some ways makes you stronger, gives you an edge, puts things in perspective. So that when you do get out there, I think it intensifies your focus a little bit and makes you a stronger driver.”