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Can Josef Newgarden take his second straight INDYCAR title?

 

Newgarden mug

It will be tough for Josef Newgarden to repeat as Verizon IndyCar Series champion in 2018, but it won’t be impossible.

The Tennesseean already has three victories to his count for the season, which is winding down with the second of three straight contests – Pocono, Gateway, Portland – in three weeks. Newgarden has won at ISM (formerly Phoenix) Raceway’s mile oval, on the confining road course at Barber Motorsports Park and at every Indy car driver’s favorite circuit, Road America’s permanent road course.

Now, despite not testing on the 1.25 Gateway Motorsports Park, Newgarden and Team Penske return to a site where they were victorious in 2017, catapulting 27-year-old Newgarden to his first possession of INDYCAR’s Astor Cup, emblematic of the champion. For the short period Newgarden’s been racing in the IndyCar Series, he’s accumulated a total of 10 victories, seven with Team Penske and the balance with Sarah Fisher’s team.

Newgarden had a mid-season malaise, not performing to his personal satisfaction in the two races at Indianapolis (11th in the road course race; eighth at the 102nd Indianapolis 500). In the two Detroit contests he was ninth and 15th, while he took a 13th-place result in Texas. From there all finishes have been in the single digits, including a fifth-place result, one lap down at Pocono last weekend.

Newgarden action

Gateway will be Newgarden’s 115th Indy car start. He’s looking forward to the possibility of going back-to-back on the St. Louis-adjacent oval. In only one visit to this track as reconstituted the pole and race winner have both come from Team Penske: Will Power won pole for the race and Josef Newgarden took the race win. Newgarden, 66 points behind Scott Dixon and trailing last weekend’s winner Alexander Rossi by 37, is glad to be back on a racetrack after last weekend’s difficult event in Pocono, where Robert Wickens suffered significant injuries, his accident causing a near-2-hour delay in the proceedings.

“The quicker you get back to the track, the better,” Newgarden said. “I think that’s just always been the case with drivers. That’s what we do. That’s what we love. Wickens would want to do the same thing, I would think. I think it’s what brings us a lot of comfort, is going back to our job and our passion. What race car drivers are good at is compartmentalizing. You’ve got to focus on the task at hand when you’re on the racetrack. I don’t think you’re able to do your job if you can’t compartmentalize.”

With his success earlier in the season at ISM Raceway, Newgarden thinks the new aero kit, UAK18 has turned out to have a good short-oval package. “I think you can confidently say 80 or 90 percent of the events we go to this year, it’s been a perfect new aero package. Now I think we need some improvement on the super speedways, I think we need to be a little bit better. But the short oval package has been really, really good and I think it’s really just down to the configuration of the wings, the downforce levels, the work that Firestone has done with the tires, everything INDYCAR has done, it’s really worked out.”

Although the Penske team elected not to test at Gateway, Newgarden isn’t thinking that will be an issue. “I’ve got to hope that it’s going to be like Phoenix, which was an improved show. It’s a nighttime race, like Phoenix, so I am hoping it’s going to race like Phoenix. But I don’t know yet,” he advised.

Always an aggressive racer, Newgarden will be on the attack Saturday night when the Bommarito 500 takes place. He knows he’s got some ground to make up, even though the championship chase is pretty darn close. And he knows there’s 100 points on offer in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway, so the closer he can get to Dixon and Rossi, the better it’ll be for him in the quest to repeat and claim the No. 1 car number for another year.

“I’ve always just liked being in the attack mode. Last year I think we were pretty aggressive even when we were down in the championship and when we got in the lead we were aggressive. We kind of just stayed on it. My approach hasn’t really been different. I think if we were in the lead, we’d be attacking. That’s always my preferred way to go about it. I think Dixon, particularly, is probably going to be more safe and conventional in the way he runs. But I don’t think you’ll get that from a guy like Rossi. I think those guys will try and attack as much as Will and I will.”

The 248-lap Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline takes the green flags Saturday night, August 25 at 8PM. Weather is iffy for Friday – at this time – but looks good for race day. NBCSN is the broadcast partner.

Words and Photos By Anne Proffit

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Foyt Family Wines launches special vintage for 102nd Indianapolis 500

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Mario Andretti started making wines in the latter days of the last century. Several other Verizon IndyCar Series entities have joined Andretti, including his perennial competitor, A.J. Foyt, a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser and 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato.

Foyt Family Wines, which produces red and white wines from Sonoma and Napa Valley grapes in California’s revered wine districts, has produced a couple of vintages honoring the Greatest Spectacle in Racing; this year it has produced its third such vintage, the 102nd Indy 500 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

“This year we wanted to produce a higher quality, small-lot offering,” said Chris Perry, the winery’s managing partner. “We used two barrels and produced a big Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. We hope this wine will mirror the intensity felt when the green flag drops [May 27] on the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 and 33 cars roar into Turn 1.”

The bottle features the race’s logo over a printed shot of the Speedway’s famed Pagoda and the Yard of Bricks finish line, the latter recalling the track’s initial surface. The bottle features a strong chrome color on its design and each bottle has been hand-dipped in metallic silver wax to help protect this age-worthy wine.

This year, 2018, marks the 60th anniversary of A.J. Foyt’s first time qualifying for this most special race, one that Super Tex calls the “crown jewel” of the Verizon IndyCar Series. As the 500’s first four-time winner, Foyt, 83, has become an icon of the event. “People know me from one race, the Indy 500. It’s what made me,” he said. Of course Foyt has also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Rolex 24 at Daytona and NASCAR’s Daytona 500 during his estimable career.

Despite having a truly busy month of May with A.J. Foyt Racing’s on-track program, fielding three cars in this year’s 500-mile race, Larry Foyt, president of the race team said, “This year’s event is very special to us (because of the anniversary) and I want the best results for my dad.” Larry Foyt co-founded Foyt Family Wines along with A.J. Foyt IV.

“I’m really pleased with the outcome of this wine and its unique packaging,” Larry Foyt continued. “Our winemakers Tom Meadowcroft and Peter Kirilov hit the mark in my book, and continue to impress with their wine-making skills.”

While the team has its base in Waller, Texas, it has an outpost in Speedway, Ind., home to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Next door to the team’s midwest headquarters is the Foyt Wine Vault, a tasting room whose name is derived from an actual bank vault in the building.

Race fans, collectors, wine lovers and penologists who visit Speedway can take in the Indy 500 history while tasting over 10 Foyt Family Wines varietals. The Foyt Wine Vault features appetizers, sandwiches, plus charcuterie and cheese boards to accompany wine choices.

Foyt IV, a former racer in both the INDYCAR and NASCAR Cup series, and now an Indianapolis-area resident, manages the daily operation of Foyt Wine Vault. “We hope everyone comes out to see us and tastes this new wine over the next few weeks. We only produced two barrels this time so it’s going to go quick,” he said.

This Cabernet Sauvignon is produced in a standard, 750ml bottle and in 1.5L magnums. The wine is available exclusively at the Foyt Wine Vault tasting room or directly from the winery at http://www.FoytWines.com. The 102nd Indy 500 Napa Valley Cabernet’s 750ml bottle has a list price of $85; the magnum retails for $175. Tasting notes advise to drink it now or cellar for 10-15 years.

By Anne Proffit

Two books for children, young adults introduced at Indianapolis 500

book and coloring book covers1Enticing the next generation of racing fan can be a large job. There are so many forms of entertainment available to children and, in this computer age not everyone has the kind of attention span needed to engage.

Last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 provided the impetus for Chris Workman’s latest book, “The Spectacle – Celebrating the History of the Indianapolis 500.” A 64-page non-fiction tome written and illustrated by Workman debuts this month, self-published by Apex Legends and distributed by Cardinal Publishing Group. It tells the century’s worth of stories of the 500 in bursts of dialog between a father and child.

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Chris Workman – Anne Proffit photo

From the building of the circuit, Ray Harroun’s initial win in the 500 all the way to Alexander Rossi’s rookie victory in the 100th race, Workman designed his book so that it could be read and understood in snippets. “I designed the book so [a young reader] could jump to any section and learn about facts related to that topic,” Workman said.

“If they want to learn about the closest finishes in Indy 500 history, they can jump to that. Or they can learn about ‘Offy’ engines and who has won the race four times. The book is best enjoyed when read from start to end, but a parent wanting to read it to a pre-schooler can easily break it into multiple quick readings for bedtime, waiting at a restaurant or whenever the time allows,” he said.

coloring book1Workman’s fanciful illustrations and crisp writing are certainly enticing to both children and adults. By segmenting the book into 23 partitions plus a foreword by Andretti Autosport racer, Verizon IndyCar Series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, Workman allows the readers an intriguing look at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“The Spectacle – Celebrating the History of the Indianapolis 500” has been offered at the rational price of $19.99 and is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, as well as independent retailers and through library distribution. It’s the third racing book produced by Apex Legends, following “The Longest Day – A Childhood Race Adventure” and “Josef, The Indy Car Driver,” a true story about racer Josef Newgarden, currently racing for Team Penske.

Workman has also published a coloring book of “The Spectacle” for the artistic young race fan that parallels the book, albeit in far fewer pages. Altogether, this new offering is not to be missed. A portion of the proceeds from sales of this book are being donated to Hunter-Reay’s designated charity, Racing for Cancer.

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James and Christopher Hinchcliffe – Anne Proffit photo

There’s more to the Hinchcliffe family than racing and dancing, it appears. James Hinchcliffe’s older brother Christopher, by trade a teacher of legal and political philosophy has written a new book intended to appeal to the tween and teen who might be interested in motorsports – and learning about life in general.

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The first-time author, who has a doctorate in law from the University of Oxford in England, was driven to write the fictional “Chasing Checkers” through familial research. Brother James’ far-arching Verizon IndyCar Series career started, just as fictional racer Teddy “Chex” Clark’s ascension, from karting to racing school and through ladder series to the biggest race of his life, allowing Hinchcliffe to draw on James’ experiences and flesh out his subject’s story.

“Chasing Checkers” is set, as was the brothers Hinchcliffe’s childhoods, in southern Ontario, Canada. It follows the exploits of a would-be professional racer and recounts the driver’s preparation for a race that could propel him to the big leagues. At the same time, the book looks at his personal life and the real world challenges any aspiring racer faces in trying to make it to the top of the motorsports ladder.

Chasing Checkers book cover1

Christopher Hinchcliffe has, as does his brother, a way with words that makes this book really easy to read and yet doesn’t try to appeal to those with a lower reading level. As it’s aimed for youthful readers, the wording might not be to collegiate levels, but neither does Hinchcliffe talk down to his audience.

He weaves a grand tale of this up-and-coming racer, his family tribulations and his off-track relationships, as well as Clark’s manner of approaching his racing. We get to see the good, the bad and, of course the ugly, such as when “Chex” manages to lose concentration… and the ramifications of his actions.

This writer intended to skim through Hinchcliffe’s book and do a “Cliff’s Notes” review, but was drawn into the story, enjoying it immensely. While intended for audiences that may be maturing rather than mature, this is a tale any race fan can enjoy and share. It’s easy to find oneself nodding at some of the action involved and the politics that never seem to go away.

In showing the growth of Teddy “Chex” Clark’s racing capabilities, Hinchcliffe writes, “Teddy pressed on the gas and rocketed forward. He barely had to lift his foot through the first turn. So this is what downforce feels like. He remembered [his teacher] Greg explaining the concept to him. ‘Wings on a car ain’t like wings on a plane. They push you down. The faster you go, the more they push. That means more control for you, the driver. Yes, downforce is a beautiful thing.’”

“Chasing Checkers, a 298-page softcover book was initially published in March of 2017 and is available through Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and your local independent book store. In paperback format it retails for $11.99 and is also available as an eBook for $2.99. One can also purchase direct by contacting the author at http://www.chasingcheckersbook.com.

By Anne Proffit

Words and Photos By Anne Proffit

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement announcement shows him at his best

Dale mug

It’s not a normal Tuesday. I woke up, took the phone off its charger and there, greeting me at 5:30AM was the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr has decided to hang up his helmet at the end of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) season in November.

We’ve all known this day would come, especially as Earnhardt missed the second half of last season, recovering from concussion-like symptoms. During that time, Junior continued to run his JR Xfinity team, got to know his wife Amy even better and considered his future. He knew he wanted to continue to race if his body permitted; his multitude of fans wanted the same thing.

The 2017 season hasn’t been kind to the third-gen driver. He’s got no race wins, no stage wins and has no points that would place him in the end-of-season playoffs. He’s 24th in points and has been a pin-ball on many occasions in the early season, scaring anyone that follows the sport and this particular driver. He crashed out of the most recent event, held Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

When Verizon IndyCar Series four-time champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti had his career-ending accident in Houston in 2013, there were many that sighed relief as the Scotsman stated his intent to retire, helped by the excellent advice of Dr. Stephen Olvey, a physician responsible, in part, for saving Alex Zanardi’s life. Franchitti was told the next hit, when there was one, might end his ability to think coherently – something that took him a long time to do after the career-ending shunt – and another bad concussion could cause even worse symptoms than those he was experiencing at the time.

No doubt, Dale Earnhardt Jr has consulted with many people prior to making his decision to retire known. Wife Amy, employer Rick Hendrick, manufacturer Chevrolet, his sister Kelley and others close to him. Earnhardt started his 600th NASCAR MENCS race in California earlier this year. He’s got 26 Cup victories, including wins at the most prestigious Daytona 500, ten years apart in 2004 and 2014.

Fourteen times voted Most Popular Driver, Earnhardt Jr will be lauded from this day forth as he sets foot to any racetrack. He should be. Not only for his driving prowess, which continues to be top-of-the-line, but also for his humanity. And humility. When Earnhardt Jr crashed out of Monday’s Bristol race, postponed due to weather, he was, as ever, circumspect as he spoke with the media. The car had an oil problem. The crew noticed spills during his pit stop. “Went into Turn 1 on the restart and the car just went straight into the wall with oil all over the tires.”

Earnhardt action

Some drivers might have whined about it; Junior just spoke of the incident in a matter-of-fact manner. “We weren’t running that great, but we were working on our car and trying to figure out how to get it to run better. And get something out of today,” he said, “but we are going to have another bad finish. We have had a lot of them this year. It’s going to be tough.”

Interviews with Dale Earnhardt Jr have always been to-the-point. He never goes off-subject and never treats the media like the idiots we can often be. He bounded into the 600th race press conference at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana a bit early, answered all questions with a big smile and seemed genuinely happy to be there. He stayed later than expected and just seemed to eat it all up.

The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr from the MENCS garage and racetrack will be even more dramatic than that of Jeff Gordon, who has, not unexpectedly, moved to the television booth. We’ve watched this son of a seven-time champion grow up and mature before our eyes. From the time he joined NASCAR’s elite drivers on-track, expectations have been huge.

Sure he didn’t win a championship – and it doesn’t look good for his final season thus far – but he’s been a meticulous racer who has given as much as he’s been able, excelling when the car and the fates cooperate, wringing the best possible result when the car bites back.

This is a stunning development for NASCAR and for Hendrick Motorsports. The team said its plans for the No. 88 will be made later, once the enormity of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s decision settles in. NASCAR chairman Brian France weighed in: “His passion for the sport will leave an impact on NASCAR that will be felt over its entire history. Over his 20-plus year career, Dale has proven himself a leader with a deep commitment to so many areas of the sport – all the way to its roots.”

As for this writer, I’ve got to agree with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s teammates and friends in NASCAR, all of whom are happy for the driver. Over the course of his NASCAR life, Dale Earnhardt Jr has earned respect for his driving capabilities but even more for his humanity. “In sports, athletes like @DaleJr come along once in a lifetime: talented, popular, humble, honest, real – you don’t get that combo often. Well done,” tweeted Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive VP and chief racing development officer. I’ve got to agree.

Words and Photos by Anne Proffit

More than a racer, Sato is a vintner too!

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Add another Verizon IndyCar Series driver to the wine-producer list. We’ve seen bottles from Mario Andretti, the Foyt family, Jimmy Vasser’s V12, former INDYCAR driver Scott Pruett’s winery and now, Takuma Sato’s release of a unique and limited bottle Cabernet Sauvignon to commemorate his 2013 victory in the 39th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Driving at the time for A.J. Foyt Racing, Sato’s victory in the seminal street race makes him the sole Japanese driver to earn a win in the Indy car series. It’s also his only visit to Winner’s Circle in the series, although the former Formula One racer did come close to victory in the 2012 Indianapolis 500, crashing on the last lap and handing Dario Franchitti his third and final Indy 500 win.

“Long Beach has been my greatest accomplishment to date in my racing career,” the driver of Andretti Autosport’s No. 26 Honda acknowledged. “I really wanted to commemorate that fantastic day with a great Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I feel like the wine does a great job of remembering how special that day was.”

Sato remarksA connoisseur of fine wines, Sato worked with winemaker Meadowcroft Wines to select grapes from the Mt Veeder area of Napa Valley, a growing region known for its excellent Cabernet varietals. That the grapes are from the 2013 vintage made the selection to produce an even easier one for the racer to make. The lush red, called TS Wine, will be available exclusively at the Foyt Wine Vault in Speedway, IN this May.

“I wanted to thank Chris Perry and Tom Meadowcroft to helping to make this great wine,” Sato said. “It was really a fun process that I quite enjoyed. I also wanted to thank Randy Owens for lending me his artwork for our table. Randy’s fantastic painting that also commemorates that great win.”

In an independent evaluation conducted March 26, 2017, the 2013 Takuma Sato “Long Beach Edition” Cabernet Sauvignon rated an overall score of 92 points by The Sommelier Company. Reaching “Sommelier grade”, the 14.5-percent alcohol-by-volume bottle just missed – by a single point – the designation of an “investment grade” wine by the evaluators.

Foyt, Sato, FoytIn their judgment the tasters noted, “This is a juicy, velvety and intense Cabernet Sauvignon, with round, fresh fruit, lots of dried herbs and subtle oak. It opens up quickly and settles into its full character after an hour. The fruit is dark, underlined by piquant eucalyptus, mint and pine needles. Bitter, ashy minerals and beeswax make it highly typical as a Mount Veeder Cabernet.”

Evaluated in a blind tasting, Sato’s 2013 Cabernet was noted to have 7/10 complexity and balance, with 8/10 intensity. In non-blind tasting, its character was noted at 6/10 while typicity is rated at 9/10. Tasting notes reveal “clear, varied flavors from beginning to end, bringing complexity to the mouth.” Just like Sato, the intensity is high, especially “vigorous and persistent flavors on the palate,” the tasting notes continued. Tasters also noted the character as being satisfying, succulent, even complex.

The release price for each bottle of 2013 Takuma Sato “Long Beach Edition” Cabernet Sauvignon is $95. From the two barrels selected by Sato, there are only 600 bottles in this limited release.

Words and Photos By Anne Proffit

What about Alonso’s Indy 500 ride?

The news that Fernando Alonso will forego the most compelling Formula One race of the year at Monaco to compete in the 101st Indianapolis 500 this May 28th seemed like it arrived 11 days late. This has to be an April Fool’s joke, right, coming from McLaren-Honda at 3:10AM PDT on a Wednesday morning.

Fernando Alonso isn’t the kind of guy to hide his emotions, and it’s been easy, over the past year or so to see that he’s been thoroughly frustrated with the lack of technological advancement and racing pace at his chosen team.

The Honda power unit hasn’t come together with the chassis developed by McLaren; things just haven’t worked to his or the team’s advantage, nor for teammates past and present. Seeing this grand squad running mid-pack or lower has been a let-down for them as well as students and fans of the sport of motor racing. Seeing a two-time F1 champion languishing in the way-back, well, it’s not been fun for anyone involved.

So the news of this deal, which brings McLaren back to Indianapolis Motor Speedway after 38 years is compelling. Compelling. Discussions broached by Alonso began in Australia – as a joke – and the deal was sealed a short fortnight later in Shanghai. Things happen quickly when everyone involved thinks it’s the right thing to do.

As we all know by now, McLaren-Honda and Fernando Alonso intend to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The car will be a sixth (!) Andretti Autosport entry. Operations for the fifth car, announced this past weekend at the 43rd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for Jack Harvey – also an Indy 500 rookie – have now been directed to Honda’s top sports-car team Michael Shank Racing (MSR), which has been trying to get a foothold in Indy car racing since well before the advent of the DW12 chassis. Shank, a former driver had a chassis but no engine deal. This allows him to compete without having to purchase all the goods – again.

This arrangement with MSR allows Michael Andretti, who seemed a bit distracted during Harvey’s Saturday announcement in Long Beach, to assist fully in the running of the McLaren-Honda Alonso entry. He’ll have plenty of on-the-ground assistance from American Zak Brown, currently executive director of McLaren Technology Group.

Michael will take the direct line, by calling his race, to assist Alonso in the most important aspects of running Indy – respecting the track. CART’s 1991 champion, and a four-time Indy 500 winning owner knows this place well. After all, no one who’s raced at Indianapolis has had more success – without claiming victory – in the 500 than has Michael Andretti.

Many drivers have come to Indy with the idea of conquering these four turns 200 times. Many F1 drivers have arrived in the Circle City expecting to thrive and have had their lack of respect thrown back at them. Most recent ex-F1 entrants include Jacques Villeneuve, the 1995 Indy 500 winner, Jean Alesi and, of course Nigel Mansell, who lost an argument with Indy’s walls in his first attempt to claim a “Baby Borg” BorgWarner trophy.

Alonso will have benefit of Honda’s Brownsburg simulator and, no doubt, the McLaren team will get an enhanced program together for him at their Woking, UK headquarters’ simulators. At the same time, the Spaniard must keep his head together for his everyday job, which is racing his F1 car. As he works the simulators, he’ll have to remember that respect for this track is the number one subject on his agenda. A lack of respect for the track has claimed many bodies, some more renown than he and some less so.

This news makes me think of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ most recent winner in Long Beach. James Hinchcliffe completed his return to form last weekend with a true racer’s gritty ride to victory. This wasn’t handed to him; he earned it. The amount of work the Mayor of Hinchtown went through to gain his first victory since 2015 at New Orleans should be a lesson to Alonso.

Hinchcliffe knows the walls at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – they nearly took his life.

So while we’re all excited to welcome back McLaren to IMS and to welcome Fernando Alonso, we must make sure we don’t make them statistics in the darker side of Indy 500 lore. Monte Carlo is one of the most difficult and historic F1 tracks on the planet; Indianapolis Motor Speedway can claim the same directive for INDYCAR.

Here’s wishing a safe, fast and successful return for McLaren Honda and their driver Fernando Alonso. Even with all the attendant apparatus and personnel at their disposal, it’s not going to be all that easy for them.

By Anne Proffit

Hildebrand ready to claim success with ECR in the Verizon IndyCar Series

There’s a good deal of satisfaction in seeing a deserving driver get second, third or even fourth chances to make his or her way to the top of the field.

The announcement that JR Hildebrand takes over the Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) No. 21 Chevrolet full-time in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series has to elicit cheers throughout the Indy car world.

jr-pan-one

Like many drivers, including fellow American Ryan Hunter-Reay, Hildebrand has taken a circuitous path to his current situation. Starting at the age of 14, he’s raced karts, Formula Russell, USF2000, Champ Car’s Atlantic series before winning the 2009 Indy Lights title and earning a two-race INDYCAR deal with Dreyer & Reinbold the following year.

Hildebrand caught the eye of two-time INDYCAR champs Panther Racing and was duly hired for a multi-year contract in 2011. Driving the No. 4 National Guard entry in his first Indianapolis 500, Hildebrand led the race through pit stop exchanges after the mid-point but crashed on the final turn of the final lap while trying to avoid a rapidly slowing Charlie Kimball. He managed to limp a three-wheeled racecar to the Yard of Bricks to salvage second place behind the late Dan Wheldon.

Unfortunately, Hildebrand was involved in the 15-car crash that killed Wheldon at Las Vegas in October of that year, suffering a sternum injury, but he continued to race with Panther until the 2013 Indy 500, where he finished 33rd and last, prompting the team to release him.

Hildebrand ran some Formula DRIFT races with Tyler McQuarrie and joined ECR at the 2014 Indy 500. In one way or another, he’s been with the team ever since and now has the opportunity he’s been looking for – a chance to win an Indy car championship and that elusive Indy 500.

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It’s not terribly far-fetched either, that Ed Carpenter would consider JR Hildebrand as his full-time driver of this No. 21 Chevy; after all, when then-driver Josef Newgarden had a bad accident at Texas Motor Speedway in June, it was Hildebrand that filled in, performing scheduled testing for the team. And please remember, he’s finished in the top 10 in every May race he’s competed in with ECR, including a sixth place result in this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500.

When he first became connected to Ed Carpenter Racing, it was a conjoined team with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. He had Brent Harvey as his engineer in 2014, 2015 but when Fisher and husband Andy O’Gara left to concentrate on their indoor karting enterprise in Speedway, IN, Harvey moved to strategizing for the No. 21 car of Newgarden. Last year Hildebrand worked with veteran engineer, team manager and former team co-owner (Bryan Herta Autosports) Steve Newey; it’s unknown whether Newey intends to get back in the game full-time or not.

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Hildebrand and Steve Newey at Indy this past May

The engineering aspects is exceptionally important in Indy car racing because of the challenges in such a competitive series and also because of the coming season’s lack of innovation – all vehicle specs for Chevrolet and Honda aero kits are frozen. According to the team, there have been plenty of discussions about the pending engineering additions, but no decisions have bee made.

There’s nothing but optimism at the team, for both team owner Carpenter and his No. 21 driver Hildebrand. Newly married and now gainfully employed, Hildebrand can now look forward to knowing his 2017 plans and acting on them. The time he spent working with Newgarden’s team – now his – and the interaction he was able to have with them, with the car, with his Chevrolet engineers, it’s all going to assist the Californian going forward.

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The decision to continue working with Hildebrand who, like his team owner is a college graduate and who has a basis in engineering, was pretty much of a no-brainer. “ I think the chemistry of the team, the cohesion that we already have I think is going to accelerate this and make it less of a rebuild, but more of a continuation of what we had been than if we had gone a different direction,” Carpenter said when making the announcement.

Carpenter had discussions with many different drivers once Newgarden departed for Team Penske. Hildebrand, he said, was always atop the list. “JR has done a good job for us, has been patient with me as an owner and us as a team getting here. But every time we’ve had him in a car, at the Speedway, different races, different tests, even outside of last year, JR has always done everything that we’ve asked and then some. It gave us a lot of confidence that it didn’t need to be a difficult process, really we didn’t need to make it any more difficult than necessary, because the guy we needed was sitting right in front of us.”

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Being out of a full-time ride doesn’t keep your name at the top of most owners’ lists, but here, again, Hildebrand, who turns 29 early next year, had the benefit of working with ECR on a part-time basis for the past few years, keeping his hand in. “We all know how volatile racing is, both from a sponsorship perspective and from an opportunity perspective for drivers,” he said. Carpenter contacted Hildebrand shortly after his Panther ride evaporated and the duo decided, at that time, “We would work together to try to make something happen, whatever that would be,” Hildebrand said.

The familial atmosphere at Ed Carpenter Racing and the team’s drive to succeed as a smaller team in the difficult and competitive Verizon IndyCar Series have helped exacerbate Hildebrand’s maturity, inside and out of the race car. Even with the uncertainty of not knowing when or where his next chance to race would arise, Hildebrand kept with Carpenter’s team, gaining success with each continuing opportunity. “I felt like the environment here at ECR has been a part of my execution (in the car) when it mattered. I think my maturation and sort of recognition of the things that really matter have also played a role in that, as it’s developed over the last few years.”

Although ECR has not yet named their road-course driver in the No. 20 car for the upcoming season – or named an engineer for the No. 21 – both Carpenter and Hildebrand expect, once testing resumes after the first of the year that they will be properly prepared. “I think a big part of the focus for me,” Hildebrand said, “is being totally prepared to be able to [race] right from St. Pete, have there not be a period of sort of layoff and using the first few races to get back in the swing of things. I’ll be highly focused on being totally prepared to really hit the ground running when the season kicks off.”

Words and Photos by Anne Proffit