By Kirby Arnold, Staff Writer
INDIANAPOLIS – It’s pretty sweet being JR Hildebrand these days.
The 33-year-old lives a nice life in Boulder, Colorado, and pursues many of his racing dreams. He drove in the Daytona 24-hour race in January, started a racing podcast, hopes to race the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in June, and constantly plots cool ideas on how he’d love to see motorsport evolve.
And on Sunday, he’ll drive the Indianapolis 500 for the iconic A.J. Foyt Racing team in a car with a paint scheme that honors Foyt’s 1961 victory in the 500.
So yeah, it’s cool being JR.
“I’m not mad about it,” he said last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where this is the 10th anniversary of his first year at the track.
Ooooooooh yeah, the 2011 Indy 500.
If there’s a should-we-even-discuss-this-topic about Hildebrand, his rookie run at Indy would be it.
He was a half-mile from winning racing’s greatest trophy when he crashed out of the lead on the last turn of last lap. He’d encountered the slowing car of Charlie Kimball in Turn 4, drifted into the marbles outside the groove and pancaked the wall. Dan Wheldon passed to win the race as Hildebrand scraped down the main straight wall in a shower of sparks, broken car parts and shattered dreams.
Instead of immortality, he became the definition of how Indy can ruin the greatest of hopes, even when a driver is within seconds of reaching them. Touchy subject, for sure.
“I get asked about it all the time,” Hildebrand said.
To his credit, he doesn’t mind answering. It’s one of the most crushing losses in 500 history. Yet Hildebrand describes that day and how he has grown from it with genuine, thoughtful acceptance.
“I’m proud of myself, looking back at my younger self,” he said. “I’m proud of handling it as well I did.”
That’s not to say Hildebrand didn’t agonize over what might have been. He did beat himself up for a while.
“I had to learn just to cut myself some slack on it,” he said. “Yeah, it would be nice to already be an Indy 500 winner. It’s hard to imagine exactly how that would have changed my life or career. But at the same time, this is just the kind of stuff that happens. Good, bad or otherwise, it just happened to me on the last lap of the biggest race. I saw that (similar crash) happen right in front of me to two or three other guys earlier in that race that (many) don’t remember. I’m not mad about people remembering it happening to me.
“It took me a little while to settle down in my own head and give myself a break. I wasn’t really prepared for that situation, the way it went down without any warning, with that kind of closing rate. But I’m a more aware driver now than when I was a rookie. My eyes are probably up a little farther down the road. I know now that there’s weird stuff that happens all the time, particularly at the end of the race. We’ve got guys running out of gas, or whatever, and there are all kinds of situations that you have to really be on your toes for.
“But in terms of what I actually did in the car, given that I didn’t see it sooner, that’s kind of like, it is what it is.”
In his nine Indy 500s since, Hildebrand’s best finish was 6th in 2016 with Ed Carpenter Racing. He raced the past three years at Indy with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, finishing 11th, 20th and 16th for a small team that enters only the 500. He’s now with AJ Foyt Racing, a fulltime team that brought four cars to Indy (Sebastien Bourdais, Dalton Kellett, Charlie Kimball and Hildebrand).
“It’s always nice to have a change of pace sometimes, some fresh faces,” Hildebrand said. “We’ve got a really good crew of guys here. And working with a bigger squad is nice.”
Hildebrand will start 22nd in the 500, best of a Foyt team that struggled for speed in practice and qualifying.
The rookie JR Hildebrand of 10 years ago might not have handled the challenges of this month as well as he’s dealt with them now. But his desire to win is just as strong, and a decade of experience keeps the heartbeat down when things are tough.
“I’ve done 10 of them now and I know for sure that if we get this car on rails, I’ll take it to the front,” he said. “I know I’m a better driver here and I’m way more prepared, and I’m way better at giving feedback on the car and I know better what I’m looking for from it. It’s one of those things that makes me think we could be in a position to win this thing again. If I get in that situation now, 10 years later, I’ve got a million more tools to deliver, whatever the scenario is.”
Regardless how his month ends, Hildebrand will go back to his non-Indy life and pursue some cool things. He’s worked years to drive an IndyCar in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, and there’s a chance it may happen in June. He’s also a host of The Race IndyCar podcast, and when he’s not racing or talking about it, he’s constantly thinking of ways he’d like to see the sport progress by utilizing evolving technology.
“Over the last year I’ve taken a step back from everything a little bit more with Covid,” he said. “I’ve definitely started to think a little more seriously about some of the stuff I want to see somebody do that I think would be really cool.”
He’d love to take a spec Indy car up Pikes Peak, maybe even fitted with an electric motor – “Just to see how fast this (stuff) really goes,” he said. And what if there were a series where regulations were so open that development could happen relatively unrestricted?
“To me if you’re looking at technology in motorsport, that is the thing that’s fundamentally missing right now,” Hildebrand said. “Everything is regulated into a little vacuum somewhere. As a fan, or as a consumer, I have no idea how fast an electric IndyCar would be. We have no idea on the spectrum of performance how any of this stuff stacks up because it’s impossible, given the regulatory sets that are out there, for them to compete against each other in the same place at the same time.”
“Being such a fan – I love the history of the sport – there’s so much about the future of racing that could be really awesome. I’m sick of waiting around for cool (stuff) to happen, basically.”
Hildebrand will pursue an Indy 500 victory as long as there’s a team that wants him. That’s his main focus, his history, and he embraces it. Even the moment on the final turn in 2011 that, if it happened to someone else, they may choose to forget.
“I treat a lot of what’s happened in my career as acceptance at this point,” he said. “I can’t go back and change any of it. I’ve tried to learn as much as I can and I’ve definitely gotten better because of that. Having that mindset for me over the years has allowed me to focus and say, ‘OK, what do I want to do at this point? What’s still ahead of me that I would be so fired up to pull together and go make happen?’
“I’ve got no complaints. I’ve found a pretty good groove.”