Panther Racing will pay tribute to the San Francisco 49ers and its head coach, longtime Panther co-owner Jim Harbaugh, next weekend at the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, where the team's National Guard entry will sport a full 49ers livery. Panther driver JR Hildebrand, a native of nearby Sausalito and lifelong Niners fan, along with team owner John Barnes, the team's pit crew and select Soldiers from the National Guard, will take the IndyCar to the 49ers training facility in Santa Clara next Thursday for a meet and greet that will be open to the media.
Harbaugh was first exposed to the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 while playing for the Indianapolis Colts in the mid-1990s. Shortly thereafter, he became a founding partner in the team when it was formed in 1997 and remained a very active member in the team until beginning his coaching career with the Oakland Raiders in 2002. Panther's primary IndyCar entry has always been No. 4 because that was Harbaugh's jersey number for the majority of his college and NFL playing career.
“Jim likes to downplay his involvement, but he was an instrumental part of our team getting off the ground in 1997 and he helped lay the foundation that led Panther to two IndyCar championships,” Barnes said. “He brought the same heart, integrity and effort to IndyCar racing that he had on the football field, which are the same key values that has enabled him to be such a successful coach. We're so unbelievably proud of his success and it's an honor for us showcase the colors of such an iconic NFL franchise like the 49ers next weekend in Sonoma.”
For Hildebrand, the 2011 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, next weekend now gives the 24-year-old the opportunity to wear the colors of his hometown football team at a racetrack located just minutes from his childhood home. Hildebrand met Harbaugh briefly last year when he visited 49ers training camp for a day, and stood along the sidelines tossing a football while the team practiced.
“For me, this is just awesome,” Hildebrand said. “Having the opportunity to meet Jim last year, it was pretty cool to see how much he knows about IndyCar racing and that he was totally up to speed on what was going on at Panther. You don't have to be around him long to understand why these guys love playing for him and why they were able to have the success they did last year. So I'm pumped about wearing the Niners colors and certainly hope we do Jim and the boys proud up in Sonoma next weekend.”