About 13 months ago, I was working with Dan Wheldon on a story that formed part of a series of Indianapolis 500 retros here on RACER.com in the build up to the Centennial event. [CLICK HERE for the story]. Throughout the piece, it was clear how much he loved the event and regarded it as the apex of motorsports. What transpired on that last lap on May 29, 2011, could not have had a more suitable beneficiary.
One year on, the guy who Wheldon passed on that final run from Turn 4 to the line of bricks, inevitably, has a host of memories of that day, too. In preparation for a story in the latest issue of RACER magazine, I spoke to JR Hildebrand about his first 500, focusing on the start and the finish. Like Wheldon, Hildebrand is a compelling storyteller who can eloquently express his insights. Reading the interview in full below, you realize it's about much more than just a race; it's about a guy who woke up that Sunday morning as a rookie, but left the track that night as a veteran – and one who knows how to deal with crushing disappointment.
Until that race, if I thought, “Hildebrand at Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” I thought of his Indy Lights drive in the Freedom 100 in 2008 where he started near the back due to a fuel pressure problem in qualifying. On race day, JR charged forward and in style. Anyone who says it's hard to tell the difference in oval-racing technique from one driver to another needed to see that performance.
In order to make progress on race day, RLR-Andersen and Hildebrand had stripped their Lights car of drag-inducing downforce but JR counteracted this with a unique driving style, by making his apex right down at the transition between track and what little apron remains at IMS. This a) kept the nose-wings in clean air, even when following other cars closely; b) unsettled his car so that it pivoted around its left-front (the laws of physics can't explain that one to me) and c) allowed him to keep hard on the throttle. With his turn-exit revs being higher than anyone else's, he was taking yards off his rivals every time through and, maximizing the car's minimal wing setting, he was able to slingshot past them on the straights, one by one.
Eventually he was wrong-footed by an opponent (that's JR in No. 25, RIGHT) and sustained car damage but, while it lasted, this had been a massively impressive demonstration of the fact that you can wring a car's neck on an oval, even the most famous and daunting one of all. Sure, that technique wasn't going to work in an IndyCar, but that race taught Hildebrand some of the Speedway's intricacies, even if it couldn't prepare him for the magnitude of the Indianapolis 500 itself.
RACER: How much did you learn in those two Freedom 100 races?
JRH: Well, 2008 was good experience of driving up through the field. Then in '09, we finished second and had a real shot to win it, and together they gave me some general confidence going into the Indy 500 as an IndyCar rookie. But at the same time, I was well aware of the fact that everything would be totally different, so I didn't have any misconceptions going in.
I also knew that, in Panther, I was racing for a team that, aside from finishing second the three previous years, had been very competitive year in, year out on all the big ovals, not just Indianapolis. So even before we got on track, I think that gave me a sense of confidence that I'm not sure other Indy rookies generally have. I definitely knew it was going to be hard and challenging, but for whatever reason I felt good from the outset. And from the first day we hit the track in Rookie Orientation, every day we went out on track, it solidified our confidence because we were quick. Buddy Rice was my teammate and although he was a guy I hadn't previously had experience of working with or being around, we were immediately on the same page, on and off the track. It was great. The team spirit stretched from top to bottom at Panther Racing.
But didn't Panther's results at Indy in recent years also increase the pressure on you?
JRH: Well yeah, it's a double-edged sword, for sure. I figured, “I'm probably not going to be stressing on Bump Day, but at the same time, the expectation is that I'll perform well because the team's performed so well in the past; my rookie status isn't going to mean a lot to the majority of the team or the sponsors.” I can't tell you how many people came up to me basically saying, “Hey, all you've got to do is win the race!” It was meant half-jokingly, but the joke wasn't even half-funny… When a four-star general from the National Guard comes up and says he'll be watching for me in the top three, that's definitely a little bit of added pressure!
But at the same time, we kept going out and doing our thing and we were up near the top of the speed charts. I'd say that how well we worked together, how simple it was for us all to maintain a level-headed attitude and develop the car and how quickly we were able to go – all that definitely helped counteract the amount of pressure build-up.
Something you definitely won't have experienced at the Freedom 100… On race day, standing on the grid, before you put on your helmet and looking at a sea of people in the grandstands. Did you find that daunting? Was it starting to get to you?
JRH: My M.O. on any race grid is to be tuned out to everything going on. I'm putting my gear on, getting focused and, apart from paying respect to the national anthem, I'm very numb to my surroundings, negating any emotion so I can just get in the car and make the right, rational moves. The only instance in my whole racing career when that has been impossible was standing on the grid at the Indy 500 last year.
You cannot help but feel that something incredibly auspicious is about to go down, so you can't help but feel butterflies and a rush of adrenaline as the B-2 stealth bomber flies overhead and you see all the ceremony and hear the noise from the grandstands. It's crazy how much it affects you, and you have to let it sink in; you can't fight it. It's unique to that singular moment. I have never felt that way on a racing grid in my life. So as much as that was something I was hoping to avoid, I did let the emotion run for a second, I grasped the occasion, and thought, “Man, we are here.” But then I thought: “That's Dario Franchitti on the grid in front of me, and we're going to be racing in just a minute, so let's get this thing started.”