Every athlete dreams of a second chance. That is exactly what JR Hildebrand has been given, but don’t expect that to change his mindset as the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series looms near.
The 29-year-old Californian returns to the grid in a fulltime role for the first time since 2012, replacing Team Penske-bound Josef Newgarden in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet at Ed Carpenter Racing.
Coming off of three consecutive top-10s in one-off roles for ECR at the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil (a feat that only Team Penske’s Will Power can match), Hildebrand confessed to taking a “conservative” route with those limited opportunities and believes it’s business as usual despite the return to fulltime status.
“In terms of the overall approach, it’s similar,” Hildebrand said. “I made a conservative effort to be a little bit more methodical about how we broke down problems and how we approach situations, even on race day. Just putting more time on the preparation side of what we're doing, which a lot of that frankly came from the team’s way of doing things.
“That was a little bit of a difference for me coming into that with ECR the last few years and just coincided with also being part-time,” said Hildebrand, who has finished 10th, eighth and sixth in the past three Indy 500s. “But I think that's something we will absolutely maintain. We’ll continue to do that.”
Although the expectation is much of the same now, the 2009 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion believes there could be some aggressive tweaks coming – due in large part to team chemistry.
“Going back full-time, I think you generate a high level familiarity with the people you're working with, a higher level of consistency and cohesion, in terms of how everybody is communicating,” said Hildebrand, who was also married in the offseason.
“I don't think for me personally I'll be taking more chances or something since I'm racing full-time, but I think as a group we will be able to have a higher level of understanding of where those little chances that you can take are and feeling better about (it).”
A veteran of 46 Verizon IndyCar Series starts, Hildebrand gave a prime example of the “little chances” some of the bigger teams do on a regular basis and hopes his team can replicate that ability.
“OK, we're going into qualifying like we're going to try something a little bit different or going to stuff a little bit out on to the edge, because now that's more of a calculated risk,” said Hildebrand.
“Whereas when you're racing part-time, everything is a little bit uncertain because it's a group of guys that are only together for a month at a time, and sometimes the tolerances aren't quite as fine in terms of everybody being on the same page. I think that's just something that all of the big teams do every weekend, like getting that last little bit and trying to fill in those little gaps, but that'll be something that we will be able to be more aggressive chasing those type of things.”
With Jeremy Milless – formerly Newgarden’s engineer – departed to Andretti Autosport, the push for team chemistry hit a small detour with new faces on the pit box of the No. 21 team.
Justin Taylor, formerly with the Audi World Endurance Championship program, will serve as the race engineer and Dan Hobbs is set to assist with the role of performance engineer – a duo that Hildebrand is eager to work with.
“We’ve got some fresh blood on the engineering side, but guys that I’m honestly excited about working with,” he said.
Hildebrand will follow up recent tests at Sonoma Raceway and Phoenix Raceway with a test Tuesday Sebring International Raceway in central Florida along with most of the rest of the full-season Verizon IndyCar Series teams. The 17-race season begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit March 10-12.