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Hildebrand Is Called Up By The National Guard

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 15 2010

J.R. Hildebrand is the new driver of the No. 4 National Guard-sponsored Panther Racing car in the IZOD IndyCar Series. (Photo courtesy of Panther Racing)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

As if there wasn’t already enough going through J.R. Hildebrand’s mind as he passed into the infield at Phoenix International Raceway last week. The 22-year-old open-wheel driver from California had to be greeted with this:

A track worker was using a shovel to remove wind-blown desert sand from the already slippery and tricky PIR asphalt surface upon which he was about to audition for a full-time, top-tier ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

“I can’t actually really tell you what I was thinking” about the site of shoveling man, Hildebrand said during a phone conversation Tuesday afternoon. “But it was definitely a bit of, ‘Oh man, I’m not so sure about this.’ “

But by the time Hildebrand broke for lunch that first day of the two-day test, he and everybody he was working with at PIR knew this for sure: Panther Racing and team sponsor National Guard had their man.

On Tuesday, that was made official as it was announced that Hildebrand would succeed Dan Wheldon as the driver of the No. 4 Panther car.

“Incredible opportunity,” Hildebrand said. “It’s a better opportunity than I could have imagined having at this phase of my career.”

Hildebrand’s career is in the early phase. The pro portion of it, at least. In 2009, he was the series champion in Firestone Indy Lights. He won four races and six poles and had 11 top-five finishes.

Last season, he moved up and raced twice for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. In his IndyCar debut, he started 18th and finished 16th at Mid-Ohio. At Infineon he ran as high as fourth, posted the fastest lap of the race but was later involved in a wreck.

Racing people have been following Hildebrand as he has been invited to test for several teams, including Andretti Autosport and the Force India Formula One team.

Hildebrand began casual talks with Panther’s managing partner and CEO John Barnes a year ago. As the 2010 IndyCar season wore on, and teams began to think of 2011, talks between Barnes and Hildebrand picked up.

Last week, Hildebrand was summoned to Phoenix. He knew what was at stake.

Asked if the PIR test was for nothing short of his racing future, Hildebrand said, “That’s certainly how I treated it. I can’t say for certain it was that kind of situation but it was certainly presented in a manner that it could make or break what was going to happen moving forward. So, there were definitely some sleepless nights leading into that.”

PIR is not an easy track – “crap” on the surface or no “crap” on the surface. It is a tricky miler which has not hosted an IndyCar event in years. The rubber on the track was left over from NASCAR cars. Hildebrand had never tracked a car there or, really, any place like it.

Which is why, he suspects, the test was held there.

“I knew there were going to be a lot of variables in play,” Hildebrand said, “things I wasn’t going to be able to control. We didn’t know what the track conditions were like. We did know ahead of time that tire that we were going to be using was a good tire but wasn’t the same specifications that they had previously used and it became a variable in and of itself and it ended up playing a huge role on the way things were going the days we were there. Certainly a lot of unknowns going in. And on top of that there was the unknown of what did all this mean in terms of the big decision which would be made down the road.

“I just did the best I could to prepare for it. But we had a really good test. I felt by lunch time the first day that we were jelling quite well together and that proved to be a big, major positive point moving forward.”

Attending the test, and consulting with Barnes, was former driver Al Unser Jr. A two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Unser liked what he saw.

“He’s extremely talented,” Unser Jr. said. “He’s got a great team at Panther Racing, and he’s going to come across a lot of different challenges, and he’s very calm, very collected and mature. What I like about him is that he’s come out of Firestone Indy Lights, and he’s shown that series has been very good for him and all of that is very positive as he moves into the next phase of his career.”

Hildebrand is a smart guy. He describes himself as a “math and science guy” who was accepted for admittance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Which may make him perfect for the task at hand. He will spend the 2011 season driving the equipment of the day – Dallara chassis with Honda engines.

But in 2012, the series is expected to move to the new racing platforms. With that, General Motors and Lotus engines are expected to debut. All in the paddocks will be forced into new, highly challenging circumstances. And when that happens, the teams with the most smarts may gain an advantage.

“I almost look at this as perfect timing for me,” Hildebrand, who was also a good baseball player in high school but who had 500 to 600 Hot Wheels cards in his room and no baseball cards, said.

Barnes, who offered him a multi-year contract, certainly thinks so. He loves that fact that his new driver is a National Merit Scholar, that he is an American driving for the National Guard and that he is driving for him.

“J.R. is an extremely impressive young man, and he’s going to be a great fit for the National Guard and Panther Racing,” Barnes said. “We took a very calculated and methodical approach to making this decision because anybody who represents the 350,000 soldiers in the National Guard has a tremendous responsibility both inside and outside the racecar. We feel like J.R. is going to be a tremendous asset to the IZOD IndyCar Series, and what really set him apart is his ambition and his intelligence.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 15 2010
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