IndyCar standout JR Hildebrand got a look at high-speed racing of a different sort this weeky, joining America's Cup-winning skipper James Spithill on board Oracle Team USA's AC45 catamaran during practice races for this week's America's Cup World Series in San Francisco. With the IndyCars in action this weekend in nearby Sonoma, it was a rare chance for one of the top young race car drivers to see the America's Cup defender in action.
As Spithill noted at the end of the day, there really are no sports in which a spectator can be this close to the action during a race. The 24-year-old Hildebrand not only rode along with Oracle during the practice race with the entire 11-boat America's Cup field, but the Australian skipper handed the young American the tiller of the multi-million dollar racing catamaran for the ride back to the dock.
Hildebrand, a native of nearby Sausalito, toured Oracle Team USA's San Francisco base, then jumped on board an inflatable boat with Spithill to catch up to the racing yacht, already on its way to the race course. On the way, the two racing stars had the chance to swap stories and find out just how many similarities there are between boat racing and auto racing.
“Even a casual observer can recognize the amount of technology involved in these boats,” says Hildebrand, “but to actually be able to get inside and see the finer details, like how the fluid dynamics work – it's so similar from that perspective to what we do in the IndyCar series. It was neat to so easily be able to draw those comparisons. You begin to see very quickly that these boats are as fine-tuned machines as the ones we race, which is not something I realized until I saw it up close.
"Then you get out on the water, see the communication required to be on the ragged edge all the time, and the skill required for each guy to do his job and also pay attention to what everyone else is doing, accounting for the conditions – everything happens so quickly. Things can change a lot in a very short period of time, with just a little chop or a change in wind direction. It was cool to get a feel for that.”
Spithill, who won the last America's Cup with Oracle Team USA, also gave Hildebrand instructions on how to hang on to the back of an AC45 as it screams along the racetrack at more than 20 knots. First up: be careful where you put your hands. And second – yes, it's going to be wet.
“Yeah, Jimmy gave me a rundown of what to expect – like right away, you get wet," Hillenbrand continues. "But there's a rope on the back of the boat and I was sort of hanging off the edge. But you realize that in the circumstances of racing, you have to do what you're supposed to do. If everyone switches sides of the boat, you have to switch sides, because you're in the middle of the race. It was just really neat to see the speed at which things happen, and the ability of the boat was awfully impressive – how quickly it goes from cruising along to just accelerating like crazy through the start gates and how fast they move across the water up on one hull.”
It was an adventurous afternoon for Hildebrand, being part of the fleet racing action with 10 other America's Cup boats out on the racetrack, but the excitement wasn't over when the checkered flag fell. Spithill handed the tiller to Hildebrand for the drive in – a somewhat daunting proposition, since Hildebrand had seen two other AC45s capsize in the heavy bay area conditions.
“I was thinking, "There's a bunch of guys that are capsizing; are you really sure you should be doing this?' But obviously there are controls to keep it within reason. I got the boat up on one hull and really got a sense for how touchy the boat is, so you can really appreciate the skill required to keep these boats cruising along with the hull just a foot off the water. It was really cool to have that opportunity.”
Spithill also appreciated the chance to show off his sport to a fellow racer – especially if it means exchanging a ride on San Francisco Bay for a race weekend at Fontana in a few weeks time.
“A lot of us follow auto racing,” relates Spithill, “so it's great to have guys like JR out on the boat. We're trying to make boats go as fast as we can and he tries to drive the car as fast as he can. I think he really respected what it was like – and we let him drive at the end, so he could really feel what it was like. He did great – he saw how much you have to anticipate and be really smooth on the boat. He was really figuring it out. The America's Cup is really the only sport where someone like JR can actually be onboard during the race, so that was great. And he's a good guy – we had fun!”
Hildebrand will be back in action this weekend behind the wheel of the No. 4 Panther Racing IndyCar – which is sporting special colors honoring team co-owner and San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh – at the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.