By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter
JR Hildebrand looked pretty sporty following this last weekend’s ‘Prix View’ open test at the Phoenix International Raceway.
The 29-year-old from Sausalito, California, has not driven full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series since 2013, but you wouldn’t know that if you were trackside last weekend.
Driving his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Hildebrand blistered the 1.022-mile oval with a lap of 19.0401 seconds (193.234 mph) – the fastest in the track’s 53-year history. While the lap will not count for any official records, it is damn impressive given the circumstances.
“At the end of the day it has a lot to do with how well the team is prepped for coming here and the amount of information that I sort of have at your disposal to get out and go do it,” Hildebrand said.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t feel good going out and putting a couple laps down and doing it to where we felt — they were legit. We’re not just out there toying around.”
The test ended premature for Hildebrand after he crashed into the wall after making contact with Will Power with just under 30 minutes remaining in the test.
He not only outpaced his teammate and boss Ed Carpenter, he outdid the man he replaced – Josef Newgarden. Newgarden has moved on to Team Penske after driving for Ed Carpenter Racing for five years.
While the Team Penske squad was quick, Hildebrand outpaced his predecessor by just under a tenth of a second.
Hildebrand was a key part of Newgarden’s dominating win at Iowa Speedway last year. While Newgarden was on the mend from a brutal crash at the Texas Motor Speedway, Hildebrand tested at the .894-mile oval and developed a setup when Newgarden returned to the car.
Newgarden went on to lead an Indy car race record 282 laps on his way to winning the race and thanked Hildebrand for his efforts.
Since losing his ride with Panther Racing in 2013, the 2009 Indy Lights Champion’s race duties have been limited to the rounds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the IndyCar Grand Prix on the road course and the Indianapolis 500.
He produced some solid drives at the Indy 500, never finishing outside the top ten, however the Grand Prix has been troublesome, finishing 21st and 22nd.
While he has not been racing consistently, Hildebrand feels that testing for the team kept him sharp ahead of his IndyCar return.
“I’d been used to running as a GP and obviously on the speedway, but running at Iowa, running at Road America and then again at Mid-Ohio – those are all places where you’re doing something fairly different,” he said. “For me to have that added familiarity with the types of things that Josef was looking for in the race car – that was really valuable for me.”
To be coming into this year and have a little bit more of a sense of what’s fast, what’s not, what do I need for the car to be able to do and have started that process ahead of time.”
A veteran of 46 IndyCar starts, Hildebrand previously raced full-time for Panther Racing from 2011 until 2013. He is probably infamously known for crashing out of the lead in the 2011 Indianapolis 500 with one straightaway to go, handing the win over to the late Dan Wheldon.
The remainder of his stint saw a few bright spots but was otherwise rough. That was largely not of his own doing as Panther Racing was stuggling as a whole for a variety of reasons. He was let go unexpectedly after finishing 33rd in the 2013 Indianapolis 500.
Panther closed up shop in 2014 after a loss of sponsorship.
He now enters Ed Carpenter Racing, a small team that has taken it to the big dogs on a consistent basis.
Newgarden took the team to new heights when he joined the squad in 2015 when Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman merged with Carpenter. He was in contention for the 2016 series championship and ultimately finished fourth, just behind the Team Penske 1-2-3 of Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves.
With Hildebrand showing pace very early in the game, there is reason to expect that he can fill those shoes pretty quickly.
While the team lost veteran engineer Jeremy Milless to Andretti Autosport, they have responded by hiring former Audi World Endurance Championship engineer Justin Taylor.
Hildebrand noted that the pair has gelled right away and while Taylor does not have an IndyCar background, the “fresh perspective” is welcoming.
“It’s been great working with him so far,” he said. “He and I have got along really well right from the beginning.
There are definitely some differences, but I think as Ed would, I’m sure, back me up on this, having guys come in that have had the level of success that he has at teams like that, despite the fact that the teams are very different.
“He brings kind of a fresh perspective on things, which I think is something that’s good and keeps all of us honest in terms of just the normal way that we go about thinking about what we’re doing.”