The sense of determination and calm surrounding former Panther Racing driver JR Hildebrand is what stands out first. For most 25-year-olds, losing one's job would foster an emotional tailspin, and for the Californian, the loss of a lucrative, high-profile job as an IndyCar driver certainly wasn't a welcome experience, but Hildebrand isn't wired like most people his age.
Speaking to RACER from Milwaukee, Hildebrand's first visit to a race since being fired after Indy was also the perfect opportunity for the free agent to open up about where he's at mentally and where his future plans might lie.
“You know, I've really tried to take things slow and not rush this process,” he says. “I think it's only natural to want to climb right back into a car, but there's not a lot that's available right now in IndyCar, so I've been in more of a mindset of looking at the short-term and long-term options in front of me and putting all of my energy into returning with something that gives me the best chance to show what I'm capable of and to do that for as long as possible.
“All I want is to drive right now, but it's not going to happen overnight so I'm trying to remain as patient as possible. That doesn't change the fact that my motivation is greater than ever, so it's definitely a challenge to not be in a car.”
Barely two weeks have passed since Panther and Hildebrand parted ways, but he hasn't wasted any time in sorting out his next moves.
“There's a list of team owners I've been in contact with over the years and I've been reaching out to a lot of them,” Hildebrand explains. “After I won the Indy Lights championship (in 2009, BELOW), I was in the same position. Nothing happened for me right away, but I spent a lot of time talking to team owners to see what options might exist now or in the future. I've had a number of meetings; some of it has been to receive advice and others have been about potentially going racing with them in the future. The reception I've gotten so far has been really encouraging.”
Hildebrand's forward-looking approach has left him with one major conclusion: For a young driver to race in the IndyCar Series, becoming a driver/businessman who finds his or her own sponsors to then hire the team of their choice is almost mandatory.
After two and a half seasons of being the exception — earning a paycheck as a rookie — Hildebrand knows that a long career in IndyCar will likely involve following what Charlie Kimball, Graham Rahal and others have had to do to keep themselves in the cockpit.
“At this point, what it comes down to is that for me to ensure I have an opportunity with a solid ride is going to find some of my own money to help things move along,” he continues. “With the help from a few sponsors, I was able to do a couple of races in 2010, but if the Panther opportunity hadn't presented itself for 2011, I'm not sure I would have been in a car that year. And it's just because it's the nature of how things work today.
“I know how lucky I was to get the chance with Panther, and look at (2011 Indy Lights champion) Josef Newgarden with Sarah Fisher's team. He was in the right place at the right time and had the ride open up, but for most of the guys coming into the series today, if you aren't bringing money, you aren't racing. I foresee having a long career In IndyCar, but I need to come up with a plan and the funding to do that.”
As Hildebrand works to secure that funding, he's also widened his horizons on the types of cars and paddocks he'd like to visit on a regular basis.
“At this point, there's also another angle for me to explore. Because, up to this point, I've had to be so focused on open-wheel, I haven't been able to do like a lot of the other guys in IndyCar who also compete in sports cars or GT cars or whatever is available. I raced prototypes in the American Le Mans Series in 2010 when I didn't have a ride in IndyCar, and now, my focus is to get back into IndyCar, but I want to expand things a bit.
“I haven't raced a Daytona Prototype, for example, and would love to do that. Or tin-tops, or in the ALMS again. I'd love to help a manufacturer with development work. One thing about being part of an intensive program in IndyCar is how much you learn and how it elevates your game.”
Hildebrand's desire to diversify his racing activities fits his background; he's been racing everything from vintage Formula 1cars to preparing for his Formula Drift debut later in the year, but those extracurricular activities won't serve as a distraction to achieving his primary goal.
“I've always been the guy who wants to drive everything I can get my hands on, and I doubt that's going to change,” he admits. “But I'm fully committed to getting back into IndyCar. I don't want this to come off the wrong way, but when I arrived in IndyCar, I had no doubt that I could get the job done and hold my own against the best. And yeah, what happened recently wasn't what I'd hoped for, but I'm positive that if I'm in a competitive car, I can be right up there with the best in IndyCar.
“That fire I have is to get back and prove that I can be that guy. And I definitely feel I have something to prove. It sucks being here in Milwaukee without a drive and seeing someone else walking around in my National Guard suit. But now it's on me to make sure I control my own destiny.”
So when might we see Hildebrand in an IndyCar?
“It's tempting to try and put something together for later this year, and that still might happen, but there aren't a lot of good teams with empty seats waiting to be filled,” he says. “The most realistic scenario would be a full-time return next year, but I've also had some good talks about possibly starting things late in the season as kind of a build-up to 2014. There's a lot of discussions going on right now, and I'm pretty confident something good's going to come out of it.”