He missed out on the Indianapolis 500 victory this year, but JR Hildebrand was rewarded with a special Thank You gift from Panther Racing team owner John Barnes. For both taking the team within a quarter-lap of winning the biggest race in the world and for his stoical and classy behavior in the aftermath, the National Guard driver received his dream car – a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle SS396. Once he had regained the power of speech, he spoke about the gift, as did Barnes.
How big a surprise was this?
I thought I was just coming in for a meeting about our race in Toronto and about how we still needed to get our act together a little bit, so I'm shocked. I mean this is far beyond anything. This is the car I've always dreamed of having and I don't have any idea how this all happened, or what is even going on. I feel like someone needs to pinch me and I need to wake up from a dream right now. This is incredible.
I've had a Trans Am for a long time, it was my dad's car and I sort of took it from him when I was in high school and I've had it ever since. I've blown up the motor, replaced it, all kinds of stuff. It's actually got a small block 396 in it right now, so I guess it's sort of fitting that the Chevelle has the same.
What did you say to John Barnes?
There was a lot of unusable words I guess, but mainly just “Thanks!” There's a lot of stuff that goes on in racing, you get put in tough situations a lot of the time, and stuff like this really shows you what kind of a guy John Barnes is. Not the fact that he went out and did this, but just the thoughtfulness to do something like this. That's really why I wanted to be here at Panther Racing in the first place. Not because I ever thought I'd be repaid for doing a good job with a '66 Chevelle, but obviously he's just an awesome guy and an awesome guy to work with.
What are your thoughts on the reaction you've received about how you handled the finish of the Indy 500?
I think in the end I feel like it's a little bit silly that that's gotten such a tremendous response. No matter where we finished in the race, what I said was what I was going to say. Being a part of this National Guard program, it really makes you realize deep down – because we see these people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq to their families – that there's a lot more going on out there that is bigger than what we're doing at the racetrack. I'm just glad that it ended up becoming such a positive thing for us, for me, for the team and for the National Guard because, in the end, that's what it's really all about.
What has been the reaction at different tracks after the Indy 500?
People are excited to try and see us get out there and avenge the battle scar. We haven't gotten a chance to really do that yet. We had a really good run at Iowa so that was certainly encouraging for us, but I can't wait to get back to Indy next year, because I think that's really where we're going to feel it and I think that's definitely high on our list of priorities to try and end up back in front.
Why is the Chevelle your dream car?
I think it's going to be a little more relaxing than being in the No. 4 car, but this is without a doubt my dream car right there. I don't need a new Benz, Bentley or Ferrari. I grew up around muscle cars, my dad had a '68 Camaro ex-Trans Am car that had been a racecar since it was new. He's always had American muscle cars. For me, the Chevelle, especially the '64-'67 models, they're not the big fastback cars. They fly a little bit under the radar, a good four-seat deal. That car, in particular, I guess is what stands out over the Challengers, Chargers and the later '70s Chevelle and stuff like that. Muscle cars have just always kind of been my thing, being loud and obnoxious and going fast in a straight line. Driving on the street, I'll take it.
John Barnes, Panther Racing Team Owner:
How did you keep it secret?
JR's been calling Gary Pedigo every two or three days about the Trans Am – where it's at, how it's coming along and he probably thought he was getting ripped off by Gary. In fact, he made a comment to his dad over the weekend: “I think Pedigo is trying to sell me a new car, that's why he hasn't got my Trans Am running.”
But I think he got the best out of it today. This car is the only one we found that didn't have body parts replaced. This is a totally matching-numbers car, and Gary did a great job finding it for us.
We've been trying to get him back here since Toronto when we found out the car was going to be here Monday or Tuesday. He had some personal things to take care of up there, and he kept texting Mike Kitchel and Dave Cripps saying, “What's this meeting about, what's the meeting about?” They kept stringing him along telling him, “It's controversial, and John's really been on edge, you need to get in here. He's not happy about this and that.”
So he came in this morning and came straight to my office and we talked for about 10min. I said “I know you've been pushing Pedigo about trying to get your car fixed, well we brought it in here and the body shop guys have been working on it a little bit. I don't know if you've ever seen Cars 2 or not but I think we really improved the aesthetics of your car: It looks a lot better. There are some guys back there, a couple media people back there also, who just wanted to show you what our body shop can do. So just come back, we'll pull the cover off and see what you think. Then I want you guys to get in there and start working on engines.”
JR is an incredible young man, and we're very blessed to have him here. He does a great job for us and for our sponsor. We've been blessed with a lot of great drivers, and JR definitely is one of the best.
Why did you buy it for him?
Good things happen to good people, and JR has shown an incredible amount of class in the way he's handled adversity. Tearing his ACL in Texas, dealing with that through these races because he can't get it fixed until the end of the season…He just epitomizes what we stand for. We thought this would be a good touch.
What was the process of locating this car?
It started really right after the Indy 500. Gary and I were talking, and Gary came and helped with (Buddy Rice's) 44 car in May and when the race was over he was pretty emotional about not winning, he's been here since day one at Panther. It was a long process; it took a lot of man hours on his side. I'm getting credit for this but it really was Gary Pedigo and his organization that did all the work, so it's good stuff.