OFFICIAL: Hildebrand heads to Panther

California native lands ride with two-time IndyCar Series champs

One of the better young talents in American open-wheel racing has found a spot on the IZOD IndyCar Series grid for 2011. As reported yesterday by multiple outlets, Panther Racing has announced that former Firestone Indy Lights champion J.R. Hildebrand will drive their No. 4 National Guard-backed machine in a multi-year deal.

Hildebrand recently tested for Panther at Phoenix International Raceway. He took part in his first two IndyCar events last season, racing for Dreyer and Reinbold Racing at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. In 2009, he claimed the FIL crown for the former Andretti Autosport/AFS collaboration with four wins and 11 top-5 finishes along the way.

He’s now the sixth man to drive the No. 4 and the first American in that seat since Sam Hornish Jr. left for Team Penske following the 2003 season. Hildebrand replaces former Indy 500 and series champion Dan Wheldon, who battled hard but was unable to collect any wins in his two seasons at Panther.

Here’s the full press release from the team:

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – (December 14, 2010) – Two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Panther Racing announced today it has signed California native JR Hildebrand to a multi-year contract agreement. The 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion will replace Dan Wheldon and take over the reins of the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing entry for the 2011 IndyCar Series season.

Hildebrand, of Sausalito, California, won the Firestone Indy Lights championship in 2009 after capturing a total of four victories, six poles, 11 Top Five and 12 Top Ten finishes in 15 starts in the series. Last year, he made his IZOD IndyCar Series debut with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and also started at Infineon Raceway, where he ran as high as fourth position and posted the fastest lap of the race. The 22-year-old has tested an IndyCar Series machine at Kansas Speedway in 2009 with the team formerly known as Andretti-Green Racing and also tested a Formula One car with Force India F-1 at Jerez in December of last year.

“I couldn’t be more excited to be at Panther Racing and a part of the National Guard,” Hildebrand said. “This is my first full-time IndyCar ride and the Panther No. 4 car is one of the best seats in the IZOD IndyCar Series, so to be able to start my career with a team with this kind of pedigree is just huge. I already feel with the small amount of experiences I’ve had here, and just being around the shop, that it’s going to be a great fit for all of us. I’m more than honored to be in a position to represent the National Guard, and I’ve already got a small taste of all the programs I’ll be a part of through this sponsorship, and I just couldn’t be more excited to get more involved in everything that goes along with this partnership. I’m certainly excited about this opportunity and I’m definitely looking forward to every piece of this program moving forward.”

Panther Racing CEO & Managing Partner John Barnes had Hildebrand on his short list of candidates throughout the offseason, but after a two-day test last week at Phoenix International Raceway, there was no doubt he had found his driver. Hildebrand now becomes the sixth driver to pilot Panther’s No. 4 entry, joining Scott Goodyear (1998-2000), Sam Hornish Jr. (2001-2003), Tomas Scheckter (2004-2005), Vitor Meira (2006-2008) and Wheldon (2009-2010).

“JR is an extremely impressive young man, and he’s going to be a great fit for the National Guard and Panther Racing,” Barnes said. “We took a very calculated and methodical approach to making this decision because anybody who represents the 350,000 Soldiers in the National Guard has a tremendous responsibility both inside and outside the racecar. We feel like JR is going to be a tremendous asset to the IZOD IndyCar Series, and what really set him apart is his ambition and his intelligence – this is a kid who was a National Merit Scholar, and accepted to M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). We tested him at Phoenix last week and brought along my friend Al Unser Jr. to help us with the evaluation, and all of us knew by lunchtime of the first day that we’d found the next driver of the No. 4 car. We know we all have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but our expectations are very high for the 2011 season.”

Unser Jr., the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, was immediately impressed with Hildebrand during the team’s two-day test at Phoenix International Raceway.

“He’s extremely talented,” Unser Jr. said. “He’s got a great team at Panther Racing, and he’s going to come across a lot of different challenges, and he’s very calm, very collected and mature. What I like about him is that he’s come out of Firestone Indy Lights, and he’s shown that series has been very good for him and all of that is very positive as he moves into the next phase of his career.”

This season will mark the fourth year the National Guard has been primary sponsor of the No. 4 car, and Panther has finished runner-up in three consecutive Indianapolis 500s with National Guard backing; with Vitor Meira in 2008 and 2009-10 with Wheldon. Last season the team finished ninth in the IZOD IndyCar Series points championship. Hildebrand becomes the first American driver to race full-time for Panther since Hornish Jr. in 2003.

“The National Guard is very pleased to welcome JR Hildebrand to our team,” LTC Bill Dones, Chief of the National Guard Advertising Branch, said. “For such a young guy, he’s had many impressive achievements during his career. That said, we think his best races are ahead of him. JR’s youth, along with his accomplishments, make him a driver whom the men and women of the National Guard will be proud to have representing them in the National Guard No.4 car. We look forward to our partnership and to joining him on Victory Lane in the 2011 season.”

Panther Racing has captured a total of 28 race victories in its history (15 IndyCar, 13 Indy Lights) and won back-to-back IZOD IndyCar Series championships in 2001 and 2002 and also collected the 2003 Firestone Indy Lights crown. This year will be the team’s 14th season of competition in open-wheel racing.