INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – JR Hildebrand looks and sounds like a different driver these days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He’s let his brown hair grow long and sports a beard and mustache. Appearance aside, there’s an air of confidence in the disposition of the Ed Carpenter Racing driver. And it’s not just because he was rewarded with a full-time 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series ride after five starts in three part-time years.
It’s more than that. Hildebrand and ECR have a history of strong runs in the Indianapolis 500. And two races ago, 29-year-old Californian Hildebrand showed what he’s capable of when, despite driving with a plate and 10 surgical screws to fix a broken bone in his left hand, he finished third in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on April 29 at Phoenix Raceway.
It was Hildebrand’s second-best finish in 50 career starts, surpassed only by a second in the 2011 Indianapolis 500. His qualifying effort of third at Phoenix was a personal best. That encouraging experience has him sounding even more excited for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28.
“In some ways, that relieved a little bit of pressure coming in here,” Hildebrand said Wednesday morning in Gasoline Alley. “We felt like, ‘All right, we’ve gone through a weekend of showing up somewhere that we expect to be good, where we’ve tested out well, and we were able to pretty smoothly just put all the pieces together as the race weekend went along.’
“I think that’s the same mentality we have here at the (Indianapolis Motor) Speedway. We know the cars will roll off the truck being pretty close. Conditions always kind of play a role, but the more comfortable you are with where you start, the easier it is to predict how things will change as the conditions vary.”
Carpenter’s No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet and Hildebrand’s No. 21 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet ranked first and third, respectively, in Tuesday practice on the no-tow list. The wound up 1-3 again on Wednesday’s overall speed chart.
“I’m not sure that means a lot because I know we weren’t trying super hard for that, which means nobody was,” Hildebrand said of teams concentrating on race setups in lengthy stints. “But it’s good to see, and I feel like the cars are at least where we expect to be. The cars feel like they’ve got a little speed in them.”
Mention Hildebrand’s name to Indy 500 fans, and most can’t help but think about the race he should have won. As a rookie with Panther Racing, he was one corner away from ultimate glory when he crashed in Turn 4 while leading “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing” in 2011. It’s been six years since Dan Wheldon benefitted from one of the most unexpected endings in race history to earn his second 500 win.
The topic is inevitably mentioned each May. Each time, Hildebrand doesn’t show a hint of bitterness or regret and gives a thoughtful answer to what could be a touchy subject.
That’s because Hildebrand is an incredibly smart guy who has always trained his brain to think through things. He was a National Merit Scholar in high school with several college acceptances from prestigious institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Instead of dwelling on the past, which Hildebrand has never done, he kept looking forward. Anyone stuck on 2011 hasn’t been paying attention to how Hildebrand has run in his last three Indy 500s — 10th, eighth and sixth.
He asserts with conviction that he’s driven better since 2011, when fuel strategy put him into position to win.
“The last couple of years here, I felt like we’ve just really done a good job,” he said during the Chevrolet test in April at IMS. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot over the last few years, working with this team. We’ve kind of started heading down a path; we’ve become pretty tight in terms of what we’re looking for and how that works and what that process is like. I feel like I personally in the car have been executing at a higher level over the last three years than when I finished second at Indy my rookie year.”
Carpenter’s offseason decision to hire Hildebrand as a replacement for Team Penske-bound Josef Newgarden shouldn’t have come as a surprise. When Hildebrand lost his last full-time ride with Panther Racing in 2013, Carpenter was one of the first to phone. Carpenter has always been a big believer in Hildebrand.
Instead of needing to rely on fuel mileage or catching a break with a timely caution flag, Hildebrand has grown to become a more consistent racer.
“The last couple of years, we’ve run races where we were not reliant on strategy to finish where we finished,” Hildebrand said of the Indy 500. “In fact, there were probably cars ahead of us that, all things being equal, wouldn’t have finished ahead of us had strategy not played a role.
“Over the course of many races, I feel like we’ve gotten to where we’re reliant much less as a group and as drivers on needing some strategy play to be there at the end. All things being equal, we’re much more likely to get race wins by being in that position than by being on the other side of it.”
He jokes that he received permission from retired Indy 500 winners Arie Luyendyk and Dario Franchitti – known for their flowing hair – to grow the longer locks. Now Hildebrand is locked in, once again, on joining them on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
“We, as a group, really have it dialed in here,” Hildebrand said. “We can rely more on our historical running here, and that goes a long way.”
Indianapolis 500 practice resumes from noon-6 p.m. ET today and will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
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