J.R. Hildebrand scrapes along the wall at Indy
towards the finish line,
as TV screens worldwide capture
the drama. (Jim Donnelly Photo)
HILDEBRAND – AND THAT LAST LAP
No question you will
recall that incredible finish at the Indy 500 this year. That moment
every racing head in the world uttered a communal, “Oh my God!”
After 500 miles, the unlikely leader, rookie J.R. Hildebrand,
greener than the grass in May, encountered a stalling lapped car
entering that very last, 2000th turn. His Panther Racing
Honda-powered Dallara caught a push, pounded the fourth-turn wall,
and sparked, twisted and broken, down to the checkered for a
second-place finish. The grandstand stood in shock as Englishman Dan
Wheldon scooted underneath for the win.
But what I remember
even more clearly are the words and aura of Hildebrand’s post-race
interview. You would expect a 23-year-old kid in that situation to
be over- whelmed by adrenalin and emotion, struggle to explain
himself, find something or someone to blame, trying to process that
he had been just feet – mere seconds –
from the Borg-Warner
Not J.R.Hildebrand. He seemed the embodiment of calm
graciousness, clarity, and racing zen. He relished his
accomplishment in finishing the race and Panther Racing Team’s
Olympian effort to position him for a possible win.
then I decided I would call J.R. in three months to find out who in
the world this kid is and whether his views on one of the most
spectacular finishes in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” had
He blew me away.
J.R. hangs out with fellow IndyCar drivers, Vitor Meira
and Takuma Sato. (Panther Racing Photo)
J.R., a word about where you’re from and how this racing thing got
I grew up in the Bay area, close to Infineon and
Laguna Seca. My Dad’s a CPA in San Francisco and he has a couple of
vintage race cars, so I have always been around racing. I got
started in Karts at 14, a little late by today’s standards. I guess
I made some quick jumps from there to Formula Ford, the Atlantic
Championship, and the Indy Lights.
They must have been
quick. How did you do that?
I think it came down to
making careful decisions about who to team up with. There are no
personal stats in racing. The team and the driver are inseparable. I
knew I had to hook up with high-profile people who had the winning
capability if there was any possibility that I was going to win.
I’ve always tried to be an achiever, in school and in other sports.
Well, what about school and racing? How could you achieve at
That came down to a big moment. I’d done well in
school and was a National Merit Scholar. I was applying to colleges
when in 2005 I was selected for the international racing TEAM USA
Scholarship Program, put together by Jeremy Shaw. He became a mentor
I was going to race in the UK in the fall of my
senior year at high school. I got accepted at places like UCLA and
Berkeley, but MIT in Boston was the school that had the least
problem with my leaving high school to go race. I decided to go with
Things went pretty well over in England, but it was
tough. I remember sitting in the pits over there working on
differential equations my advanced placement classmates had faxed
over. That’s when I realized I had a decision to make. I had to
either race or go to school.
When I got back, I requested a
deferral from MIT. They told me to come when I could.
Wow. And, how, after just a couple of seasons, did you get hired by
John Barnes’ Panther Racing?
After I won the Indy Lights
championship in 2009 – kind of convincingly – I purposefully set out
to meet all the Indy car owners. And, by the time Dan Wheldon left
Panther, I had been bugging John Barnes for a long time. I put
myself in a position where he couldn’t ignore me. And, you know –
I’m speculating here – it wouldn’t be so bad for the sponsor,
National Guard, to have a young American driver.
We went to
test at Phoenix last fall to see how I would do. I’d never seen the
track nor sat in an Indy car. The pavement wasn’t even cleaned off,
but I was somehow comfortable. By the end of the first day I was
flat-footing all the way around. I actually think I had earned the
spot by noon time.
And how about coming to Indy this
It’s so unique. The place lives and breathes. It
could be 1965, it could be 2005. Buddy Rice drove me around a few
times. The nostalgia is palpable. It’s different from anywhere else.
Everyone helped me enormously. Sure, I had some nervousness, and
my heart did some racing. Two hundred and thirty mph is fast with 33
cars. Would I be scared? I didn’t know how I would do, but I did
have some confidence and I knew it was one big opportunity. And no
doubt that Panther had the goods – the right people, the right
And that last lap?
Well, back with
two to go, I was aware I was leading, sure, but I was really tight
on fuel. My team had gotten me there with fuel-saving. My total
focus was hitting the fuel number every lap. I was determined to
make the end of the race.
I was also aware that guys were
coming up on me like a freight train. They had pitted and were on
fresh tires. I was a sitting duck, so I just focused.
the white flag, I thought maybe I was home free. Coming down that
front stretch there was nothing in sight.
As I went into turn
two, my spotter, Pancho Carter, told me Wheldon was coming up
behind. And, as I exited two, I could see down the backstretch that
a couple of cars were going into three.
I assumed they had
pitted and would be up to speed by turn four and I’d never catch
them. I accurately assessed one of them, but the other was out of
fuel, and I was catching him at one extreme rate of closure.
I was going 220 mph – everything is happening very quickly – but
it’s interesting to reflect on how much I was processing going into
turns three and four. I essentially had two choices. One, to brake
hard, down shift, follow that car through four and pass him on the
front stretch. Or two, try to get around him.
My attitude was
to go by or go home. My team had finished second for three years in
a row. I didn’t want to get beat by pussy-footing around. I knew it
was a low percentage move. My tires were used up and, after a lot of
green flag laps, there was a huge marble buildup in the high groove.
But I went for it.
I got as close to the #83 car as possible,
but my car washed up.
In that split second was an eternity.
You go from being in control to a helpless wall magnet. Nothing I
could do would change that trajectory.
When I finally hit, I
could no longer steer with the wheel. The right side was torn off. I
discovered the way to keep it straight was to stand on the gas. I
made a deliberate decision to keep it against the wall. I knew I
could not finish if I spun.
And how was it that you were
so unfazed after that finish?
You see, to me this was no
random crash. There was a conscious line of decisions I made to try
to finish the race. I was aware of everything that had happened. I
was saying just what I felt. There were two factors in it. I knew
full well that the only reason I had finished up front was the
Panther guys. They were so amazing to me all month. I was full of
And saying what I did was no stretch for me. I
suspect it is the way my parents brought me up. It wasn’t a time to
go pointing fingers. It was a time to be a man about it.
Will you be back in Indianapolis next May with Panther?
That’s the plan!
Do you think you will ever go to
That’s a harder question. Maybe not.
John R. Hildebrand
(Panther Racing Photo)
I guess I’m still blown away.
Quite possibly this kid from California, J.R.
Hildebrand, could have received more accolades from the racing world
if he had won this year’s Indy 500, but quite possibly he could not
have made a better impression.
were interested in this Tearoff, you might enjoy the books below:
© 2011 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181