Photo: Paul Hurley/Penske Entertainment

J.R. Hildebrand Embracing Fatherhood as He Eyes Return to Indianapolis

By Kirby Arnold, Special Contributor

As J.R. Hildebrand completes his rookie year as a father, he looks back on a time of supreme happiness with wife Kristin and their daughter Julietta Louise, who turns 1 late this month.

“It has been the most incredible 11 months of my life,” he said.

While this wonderful phase is just beginning, the 36-year-old Hildebrand is working to revive another – his career as an Indianapolis 500 driver. He missed the 500 last year when he didn’t land a ride for the first time since he was a rookie in 2011, but he hasn’t abandoned hope for this year despite nearly all of the seats already assigned.

His best possibility, with A.J. Foyt Racing, appears to have disappeared when team president Larry Foyt said earlier this month that he didn’t plan to run a third car in the 500. Hildebrand raced the third Foyt car at Indy in 2021 and 2022.

On an expected entry list of 35 cars competing for the 33 starting spots in the May 26 race, the only seat still unassigned is the second entry of Dale Coyne Racing. Veteran Jack Harvey drove that car in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg.

Still, Hildebrand won’t stop working to get back into the race.

“I am not completely out of options,” he said.

If there’s anything with more moving parts than an Indy car, it might be the behind-the-scenes work needed to land a ride in the 500, especially for a one-off drive like Hildebrand seeks.

“From the outside you often don’t realize how much communication is going on between a lot of people behind the scenes,” Hildebrand said. “It may seem like these deals just get done, but they often are very complicated for a very long time.”

Money, of course, talks loudly. If a driver can bring $1.2 million to a team, that’s likely enough to get him a week of practice, qualifying and, hopefully, a spot in the 500. But there are other factors that make it difficult for even successful veteran drivers.

Among them are a limited number of engine leases, whether a team has enough spares to field an extra car without limiting their other entries, manufacturer relationships, sponsor requirements, and a pool of available drivers that’s greater than the number of rides.

“If I could get that kind of money I could take it to most teams and get a deal done,” Hildebrand said. “But I’ve yet to put myself in a position where I have consistently gotten that kind of backing to just shop around. I’m dependent on a team to be able to hire me just straight up. Those options are limited, not to mention when you’ve got guys like Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter Reay who were kind of in a similar position (last year).

“I know in my mind and heart that I bring just as much to the table as those guys do in terms of my ability to perform on Sunday, but you’re talking about Indy 500 winners. That’s not saying anything about those guys; it’s my own level of self confidence. I’d love to be teammates with those guys because I’m sure I could learn a lot.

“The long and short of it is, the opportunities are slim to start with. The way it was shaking out last year, I recognized that fairly early on.”

With that reality, along with a baby on the way, Hildebrand shifted his focus toward family.

“I’m fortunate in this profession to (have made) enough money over 10 years doing it, and I wasn’t in a spot last year where I had to take a job,” he said.

“So I decided just to not run myself into the ground showing up to race tracks all over the place trying to put something together halfway through the season. I allowed myself to shift gears a little bit in a short-term fashion and be ultra present, enjoy the time leading up to the birth with my wife and be around. I basically spent most of last year as a fulltime dad.”

Hildebrand knew backing away from racing could impact his career. He was OK with that and would do it again.

“One hundred times out of 100,” he said.

Fatherhood was, and is, Job One.

“Thank God I had some innate recognition and appreciation that it’s going to be a lot of work, and I wanted that workload,” Hildebrand said.

“It’s naturally skewed on being a heavier workload on mom than it is on dad. It’s important that I earn my wife’s trust, that I understand what’s going on here as much as possible. Those things all matter a lot to me in my wife and I’s relationship and our new relationship with our little one. I look back on the last 11 months and I’m so glad that I have been able to be around as much as I have for those reasons.”

Dad duty at home in Boulder, CO, definitely lessened the sting of not being at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day. But…

“It still sucked,” Hildebrand said.

He made a few trips to Indy in May, including a Memorial weekend visit when he drove a midget at Lucas Oil Raceway Park in the Carb Night Classic.

“I had gotten a call from one of the (IndyCar) teams about two weeks before practice was going to start that was like, ‘Hey, we might need a fill-in,’ ” Hildebrand said. “I got some version of that phone call two or three times from May 1 to May 25. I was in Indy a lot over the month of May because I was getting a call to be back there for one reason or another.”

He was at IMS the day Indy 500 practice began, and that’s when it hit him what he was missing. FOMO at its FOMOST.

“I was getting my physical that morning,” he said. “I was in the garage area when the track briefly went green and all the cars were rolling on pit lane. I remember thinking, ‘I gotta get the f— out of here!’

“That moment hit me really hard that I really wanted to be out there. It’s not like I was stressed about this from a career perspective. It was a pure feeling of I just love doing this at this place and it’s bumming me the f— out. I’m here, but I’m not out there and I’m not gonna be. Because I was at the track somewhat frequently over the course of the month, it was super weird.”

Frustrating as it was, the experience convinced Hildebrand that it’s worth all the work it takes through the year to land an Indy 500 ride.

“If there was any question in my mind as to whether it’s worth the effort to get on the grid in a competitive car, or even in not a competitive car, it’s an experience I feel like I’m at my best when I’m there doing that,” he said. “There’s not a lot else that fills that same void in quite that magnitude.”

After driving in the Friday night midget race, Hildebrand flew home to Colorado the day before the 500 and watched it on TV.

“I wasn’t not going to watch it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it,” he said.

For a man who’d spent the previous 12 years on track at Indy, missing the 500 hurt. But he was home with the best remedy – his wife and baby daughter.

“I’m spending my time away from the track doing something that is also on a moment-by-moment basis extraordinarily important to me,” Hildebrand said. “It does change your overall outlook, for sure.”

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