His epiphany came early. When a boy whose most significant hobbies are racing and baseball discovers that he possesses 600 Hot Wheels and zero baseball cards, the revelation about his future isn't far away or quiet in its approach. Racing, not baseball, took control of J.R.Hildebrand, and a boy from California found his destiny on asphalt instead of astroturf.
Move ahead a few years. Hildebrand, now 22, finally had his golden opportunity, with two road course races for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. This was the Big Break, the time to “show us what you've got, kid,” along with all the other now-or-never clichés. And that's the way he's always wanted it.
“It's been a combination of enthusiasm and speed coupled with a desire to be the best I can be,” Hildebrand explains. “I grew up with that being my general mantra. I wasn't always a super competitive guy against individuals, but I was never satisfied if I wasn't doing the best job that I could do. I'm out there to beat everybody, but I put a high priority on doing the best job I can.”
The tale is reassuring yet fraught with pressure for both Hildebrand and a beleaguered form of motorsport. This is the way it's supposed to be – the promising American kid climbs the ladder, proves himself in the minors, then gets his chance. So Hildebrand, the latest champion of the Firestone Indy Lights series, had two races in August to show his dexterity to the rest of the IndyCar world. With that, and a modicum of funding, he should land a ride for 2011. Should. In a perfect world.
“I've been pursuing all kinds of things,” Hildebrand says, acknowledging that the two-race audition was the key to his future. “There are certain situations in which I could land a full-time ride where I wouldn't need to bring $3 or $4 million. Over the last couple of months I've thought, ‘I'm going to keep working on the sponsorship stuff and I'll land a ride,' but that didn't happen. I'm trying hard to put myself in the driver's seat, but I also think there will be opportunities. It's a matter of putting myself in position.”
That's something Hildebrand spent the last nine years doing. Always a fan of his father's involvement in vintage racing, J.R. didn't get into karts until he was 14 years old. Baseball was his other love – he had solid skills at Redwood High School in Corte Madera, Calif. – but the first kart race, a victory in Jim Russell's arrive-'n'-drive program, set Hildebrand on his way.
By 2007, he was in Atlantics, then Indy Lights the following year, culminating in the championship season with AFS/Andretti Green Racing. A year later, his quest for an IZOD IndyCar Series ride resulted in the temp job with Dreyer & Reinbold, as the No. 24 car's regular occupant Mike Conway continued to recover from his Indy 500 crash. At Mid-Ohio, Hildebrand qualified 18th and finished 16th. Beneath the numbers, it was promising. Still, he wasn't satisfied.
“My expectation going into the weekend was that I could transfer into the top 12 in qualifying,” he said. “I wasn't able to accomplish that, and I was a little disappointed, but it wasn't far off. I was being a little tough on myself. In terms of getting up to speed in my first IndyCar race, my relative pace was quite good.”
Even better for the résumé? Props from teammate, Justin Wilson. “I quickly came to trust his judgment,” Wilson wrote in his column for RACER.com. “We could divide the work load in testing and practice…because I could rely on his feedback. That's impressive for a rookie; it shows he isn't at all out of his depth in the big cars and can still think while driving at the limit.”
Impressed, too, was D&R general manager Larry Curry, who had a discussion with Hildebrand shortly after the ink dried on the two-race deal.
“He said, ‘Larry, this is the first time where I come into a team when I wasn't the best driver on the team,'” Curry recalls. “He was looking forward to having Justin as a teammate. He wasn't cocky, but he was extremely confident. He expected more of himself at Mid-Ohio. He apologized to the guys after the race. Had he not stalled during that one pit stop, he'd have come close to finishing in the top 10. Afterward, he told them all, ‘I promise you I'll do a better job when I get to Sonoma.'”
That's exactly what he did. The wrong direction with an engineering change left him unrepresentatively far down the grid. The switch to an alternate strategy put him in clean air – whereupon this rookie set the fastest lap of the race! Ultimately, he was the innocent victim of a badly executed pass by Marco Andretti and ended up with a DNF.
“These races were the last thing that teams had to judge my ability,” he says. “My attitude was to show that, whether or not I can do it right now, ultimately I'm capable of winning races.”
He is, too, given the chance.
An Indy Lights champ shouldn't have to wait to graduate…
…In fact, IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard says more needs to be done to advance not just the Lights champion but other top performers in the series.
“I think it's the league's responsibility to make sure there's always a chance, always an opportunity for the best drivers in Indy Lights to find a ride in the IndyCar Series,” Bernard says. “We need to be proactive to create a ladder system that offers that upward mobility.”
To its credit, the Indy Racing League this year created the Road to Indy, which structures USF2000, Star Mazda and Indy Lights into a defined ladder system to the IndyCar Series. And, while Lights champions like Raphael Matos (2008) and Alex Lloyd ('07) have advanced in recent years, the 2009 title-winner J.R. Hildebrand (RIGHT) had to wait to get lucky. Bernard acknowledges there's something wrong with this picture.
“My concern is how many kids haven't moved up,” he says. “When they advance, it's a huge confidence builder for our series. To know there's a ride waiting for them would be ideal.”
Bernard supports the concept of a guaranteed ride or financial incentives for Lights champions to advance, despite the difficulty in implementing that. He states: “It's important that there's an opportunity for people to move up to the next step in the ladder, and we're not providing that right now. We need to make that happen.”