Former Indy Lights champion becomes newest driver of the No. 4
One day later, it’s all setting in for J.R. Hildebrand.
The opportunity. The responsibility. And the need to put some pen to paper and thank everyone that’s helped him reach the big time.
“At this point, I’ve been realizing that I have a lot of people I need to be writing ‘Thank you’ letters to,” said Hildebrand, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion and newest driver of the No. 4 National Guard machine for Panther Racing. “People that helped get me to this point, people that called on my behalf and things like that.”
“It’s probably the best opportunity that I could possibly hope for to be honest with you.”
After testing with Panther last week at Phoenix International Raceway, it was announced yesterday that Hildebrand would take over the No. 4 in a multi-year deal. He becomes the sixth driver to take the controls of that machine and will be tasked with bringing it back to Victory Lane for the first time since 2005, when Tomas Scheckter pulled off an upset win at Texas Motor Speedway.
But while Panther hasn’t won in a while, the two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champions haven’t degenerated into backmarkers either. The No. 4 was a threat to win on multiple occasions last season, particularly on the ovals. Even more importantly, John Barnes and Co. know how to get around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and have proven it with back-to-back runner-up finishes (Vitor Meira, 2008; Dan Wheldon, 2009) at the Indianapolis 500.
That knowhow may make Hildebrand yet another ‘500’ contender from the Panther stable in May.
“It’s huge,” he said. “That and their form on the ovals in general — they were inches away from winning a few races last year. Kentucky and Chicago stand out in my mind.
“I think that shows the development of the team and where they’re at in that realm of things. As a driver, that’s one of the first things you look at when you’re going to a new team or checking out a prospective new team. It’s where are they at in terms of resources and development. That’s a huge part of being able to run up front. There’s definitely some drivers and teams that have proven that’s not entirely necessary to be at the front, but those are few and far between these days.”
Another thing that jumped out at Hildebrand was the atmosphere and cameraderie between the Panther team members. Calling the group “a big family,” he continued on to talking about their manner in solving early problems during his test. The Firestone tires used on the machine had a major amount of stagger that was very different from the tires that the IndyCars used to run on at PIR.
That forced Hildebrand to do a lot of work in the cockpit to keep the understeering No. 4 in line.
“We went out in the first session, first run on track, and we weren’t expecting the stagger situation to be as big a deal as it was…I was turning right for most of the corners,” he said. “I came in [to the pits] and they couldn’t have been more calm and collected, and they chipped away with their methodical process. It was very easy to say, ‘Alright, we can go ahead and deal with it.’
“I guess I’d say that’s the thing…They’re a really good group of guys and beyond that, it’s a team that’s plenty capable of winning races. There’s lots of development and lots of smart guys that definitely have got their act together. Those two things combined should be good for lots of success.”
In addition, Hildebrand is looking forward to working with the National Guard and the brave people that serve in that military branch. He knows that this will require a different bit of representation as opposed to working with sponsors that are more typical in racing, such as soft drink or clothing companies. To that end, he’s spent some time getting to know the programs that Panther is involved in with the Guard.
“It’s a humbling situation to be a part of the program,” he said on that topic. “For me, especially, being an American, it’s a huge honor to represent the National Guard and the men and women that serve abroad and here… For me personally, it’s an added responsibility over typical sponsor functions, like say, doing autographs at a grocery store. It’s definitely different and hugely exciting.”
Hildebrand’s ascent to the top level of American open-wheel racing comes at a time that’s also hugely exciting. With Chevrolet and Lotus joining the series as engine manufacturers in 2012 and more potential good news on the driver front coming soon, it appears that IndyCar is moving forward on its road back to prominence.
But as we know all too well, there’s plenty of things to be fixed too. As a driver, Hildebrand acknowledges them all. But the one thing he wants is that the new 2012 engine/chassis packages work out as they’re expected to in terms of rules and regulations.
“I think, and this is my opinion, that if something happened where there’s big loopholes in the rules, you lose track of competition standards and you have one team totally kicking everyone’s ass by a lap and a half, and that’s not fun for people to watch,” he said. “…The biggest part of [IndyCar’s momentum] is those things, with the engine and the chassis ending up being what we think they’re going to be, not some hokey thing where there’s new rules every weekend.”
However, all that’s a little bit down the road. You gotta get through the present to see the future, after all.
And the present has J.R. Hildebrand ready to embark on his inaugural IndyCar campaign with a team that’s looking to get back in the win column, and get back to making history.
Thanks to J.R. Hildebrand and Panther Racing director of public relations Mike Kitchel for their appreciated assistance. Photo credit: Panther Racing.