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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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