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IndyCar PR Machine May Have Panther In Its Tank

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 30 2011

JR Hildebrand slides across the finish line and into history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the end of Sunday's 500. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Indianapolis – There is reason to believe that the wow-factor surrounding Dan Wheldon’s second Indianapolis 500 victory on Sunday will, unfortunately, have a shelf-life about as long as his first win in 2005.

Eclipsed by rookie Danica Patrick’s record-setting performance in ‘05, Wheldon’s improbable, last-lap victory on Sunday easily could be overshadowed by the emergence of star-crossed rookie JR Hildebrand.

That was the case after the 89th Indy 500, when Wheldon’s late-race pass of Patrick relegated her to a fourth-place finish while launching Danicamania. Recall that Danica led 19 laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to become the first woman to pace “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” She started and finished fourth, the first woman to do so and go the 200-lap race distance. She healed the sick, raised the dead and made the boys go out of their heads.

By time Patrick descended upon Fort Worth and Texas Motor Speedway for the annual June night race 10 days later, Danicamania was running WFO – wide, flat open – and the Rahal Letterman Racing PR folks were scrambling to keep up.

Wheldon, then driving for Andretti Green Racing, became a “side bar” story. It got to the point where

JR Hildebrand suits up at Indy.

he showed up at TMS sporting a T-shirt that declared: “I actually won the Indy 500.” Point taken.

Wheldon figures to be sporting another new pair of sponsor William Rast’s jeans when he visits Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth Tuesday afternoon for a promotional tour leading into the inaugural Firestone Twin 275s on Saturday night, June 11. The kicker here is that Wheldon is not scheduled to compete in the event, as his Indy 500 ride with fledgling Bryan Herta Autosport was a one-off deal.

Herta said after the race that he and co-owner Steve Newey, who quietly have been building their organization, had not budgeted for any event but the 100th anniversary Indy 500.

“Does this (win) change anything? I don’t know,” Herta said after the post-race press conference. “I think it’s going to create some opportunities for us for sure and I think we’re going to have to decide if we stay the course or if we take advantage of any of the opportunities that may come up. But for me, there’s nothing else we can do this year that’s going to be any better than this. All we can do is come down the mountain now.”

Eddie Gossage, TMS president and promoter extraordinaire, certainly is capable of enticing Herta with a dollar offer he might not want to refuse in a bid to ramp-up ticket sales. But even if Herta decides he’ll take the Indy 500 purse and bank it, Gossage still has something to sell in the persons of Hildebrand and Panther Racing.

Hildebrand, a 23-year-old native of Sausalito, Calif., was impressive beyond his years during his post-race news conference, clips of which aired on ESPN’s various platforms all night long. At a time when rumors continue to swirl around Danica’s likely fulltime move to NASCAR in 2012, Hildebrand is a guy the IZOD IndyCar Series can market, WFO.

Hildebrand is all-American clean-cut, athletic, articulate – the guy has a vocabulary that extends beyond racing. And JR likely realizes this will not be the last time he will be in position to win the

JR Hildebrand poses with young fan at indy.

Indy 500.

Moments removed from the last-lap crash into the Turn 4 Safer Barrier that opened the door for Wheldon, Hildebrand faced the media like a seasoned/reasoned professional.

“I mean, this is not really about me at this point,” said Hildebrand, who was signed by team-owner John Barnes in December as Wheldon’s replacement following a tumultuous two-year stint with the Brit. “You always show up to try to win. But for me, the disappointment is for the team and for National Guard as a sponsor. It’s one of those things, as a driver, you never really know what you’re going to expect. We knew we had a fast race car. We knew if the race came to us, we may be in position to sort of finish top-three, top-five, wherever that might be, depending on how it panned-out.

“But as a driver, I’m smart enough as a rookie to not expect – no matter what’s going to happen – I’m not going to come to the Indianapolis 500 my first year and be in a position to win the race. As it turned out, we most certainly were. We were in a position that we should have won the race. So for me, it’s not so much that I’m pissed off or disappointed that my face isn’t going to go on the Borg-Warner (Trophy). Just with this team. Panther Racing has finished second three years in a row with National Guard sponsorship (and four years overall). I felt like we had an incredible opportunity to get on a big stage for those guys.”

Barnes, a founding partner and CEO of Panther Racing, has dealt with all levels of talent and

Panther Racing founder and CEO John Barnes and his young driver.

personalities since the team’s inaugural Indy Racing League season in 1998.

Panther’s all-time driver list is topped by Sam Hornish Jr., who won the first two of his record-setting three IndyCar Series championships with the team in 2001-02. Tomas Scheckter, Tomas Enge, Vitor Meira, Scott Goodyear and Wheldon are among the drivers who have logged miles for the Indianapolis-based team that was a cornerstone of Tony George’s original IRL platform. Panther has logged 15 wins overall, but none at IMS.

“We came here with a rookie driver, and everybody says we’re going to have trouble and everything,” Barnes said post-race. “But I can tell you that he (JR) did a great job. He drove to a fuel number I didn’t think was going to be attainable. We’re so proud of him and the people at Panther and the crew.”

Hildebrand indicated he exited his brief post-race meeting with Barnes with a sense of relief. “John was great,” Hildebrand said. “That was certainly a welcomed face and emotion for me walking down the pit lane. Sometimes you never know what you’re going to get from a team when you’ve just lost the Indy 500 by a spot or whatever. But he’s a real driver’s owner from that perspective. He’s ultracompetitive, but at the same time he can understand, I think, the emotions of what the driver goes through, as well.”

Hildebrand said he also benefitted from the “low-anxiety” counsel of Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy 500 winner for Rahal Letterman Racing, as his one-off teammate this month.

“You know, like I said, it’s not really like a personal thing right now,” Hildebrand said. “Maybe down the road it will turn into a personal thing that I’ll just be pissed off at myself for not doing whatever. In the end, it’s really more about the people, for me at least. This team has worked so hard. It’s such an integral part of being here at Indianapolis and being successful at Indianapolis _ that’s really where the sort of heartbreak is for me right now.

“I certainly wasn’t planning my victory speech.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 30 2011
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