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.”
There's so much that's unique to the beginning of that race, even down to the fact that you grid up on the race track rather than pit lane so I couldn't run the procedures through my head in advance. There's an amount of preparation that you just can't do as a rookie at that event.
You were on the fourth row, but even from where you are, is it a head-rush going down into Turn 1 on lap 1 with a tunnel of people on either side of the track and with 32 other cars around you.
JRH: It was weird coming back to IMS for that test with the new car a few weeks ago because, yeah, I really noticed how empty the grandstands were compared to the race last year. But on race day last May, I only felt the energy from the crowd pre-race. Once we got the green, it was the increased number of cars on track that caught my attention, not the increased sense of occasion.
Funnily enough, I actually got caught out, because the rows of three are further apart than the rows of two at the start of our other races, and it took me – and I think the other fourth-row guys [Takuma Sato and Vitor Meira] – a while to realize the green flag had flown. The third row had gone: Suddenly it was like, “Oh s***, we better get going!”
And in an instant, I was ultra-zoned in. I was on the outside of the row, but I knew that before all the marbles are down, the car would stick there, so I just wanted to get through the first couple of corners. I certainly didn't have the mentality of, “I'm going to try and pull a Tony Kanaan here!” I wanted to make it to the end of the race, and I knew we had a good car and I could pick up a couple of places.
OK, so fast forward to the end of the race. As you were grinding along the wall, did you realize Dan Wheldon had passed you?
JRH: I was aware that cars were going by, but I couldn't see out of my mirror and, to be honest, I was just focused on damage control to ensure the best possible finish. I knew Dan's No. 98 car was the next car back, but I didn't know where anyone else was, so as soon as I hit the wall, I assumed I was going to be passed, but I didn't know by how many cars or if they were lapped cars. Like I say, at that point I was focused on at least reaching the finish line, however many wheels were attached.
I'd love to know what speed you were doing along the wall…
JRH: Yeah, it couldn't have been slow because I still had my foot in the gas pretty good!
So having been able to zone out the 300,000 people during the race, when you exited the wrecked car at Turn 1 at the end of the race, did it then hit you how many people you'd been performing in front of? I remember you gave a kind of wave of acknowledgment to them…
JRH: Hmmm… [pause] As I was careening toward the Turn 1 wall with hardly any steering, my mind was working so quick, and I remember there was a definite rush of emotion. Over the last 500 yards, thoughts were racing through my brain faster than I could comprehend, going through all the things that had just happened, all the things that went on earlier in the race and then all the people I've got to deal with meeting in the next few minutes. It's all just slamming through my head so fast. Then, as the car eventually stops and I'm getting out, I don't even know what to focus on next – from the Panther team, to the National Guard guys, to the last corner… And for sure, the fact that there are 300,000 people actually watching you go through this mental process is yet another thing that went through my mind! For a moment I couldn't focus on just one thing and get my head straight.
Then, as I calmed down, it became a priority to come to grips with what had just happened, and I knew I didn't have very long to get through the process of figuring it out for myself. Then it became very specific what was on my mind: to get back to the team a.s.a.p..
In the aftermath, did you feel that people were sympathetic?
JRH: Hmmm… Well, I didn't really ask for anyone's sympathy so I didn't expect that to happen. I know I was a rookie, but it was pretty clear to me right afterward what had happened: I decided to go for a lapping maneuver that didn't work and so I came home in second instead of first. You know, I've played competitive sports for a long time and I've always been a sports fan and, as an athlete, if I don't do something well, the perception will be that I screwed up and so I expect to get reprimanded. That's just how sports work: it's about winning. That's my view.
This was a more complicated issue than just failing to hit a ball that was thrown to you as it has been done in practice a million times before. This was a one-time circumstance that you can't possibly replicate in practice or in previous races. And whether it was because people understood that or they understood that things just don't go your way sometimes, or they respected how we dealt with the disappointment of it, or respected my description of it, it was really cool and quite refreshing that people did sympathize with me; it's something that doesn't happen often in sports.
I was prepared to deal with ridicule or accusations of having choked, but instead, I got the impression that people really understood everything. They got it – they got why I made the decisions I did and what I was feeling right now, and all of that certainly made the enormity of what had happened easier to handle.
At what point did you realize that, in the Centennial Indy 500, you'd contributed to one of the most exciting, crazy, amazing finishes in the race's 95-race history?
JRH: I think I realized quite soon. They always say, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” and I was prepared for a major situation. Even before the car had come to a stop, I knew I was going to have a bunch of microphones shoved in my face and I wouldn't be able to just bat them away. I thought, “I'm going to have to stand up and own up.” If you watch sports, you understand well enough how this deal works, and realize that it's going to have a fairly massive impact on what people think of you for the rest of your career. So yeah, I assumed it would be a big deal, and that helped me not to be caught off-guard.
So…do you go back to the Speedway with a sense of pride? The fact is, you're a rookie who finished second in his first-ever Indy 500, and there aren't too many of them. Or do you head back with a sense of – excuse the tired old phrase – unfinished business?
JRH: There are a lot of races that come down to your car being fast all day and making the right calls on strategy and whether you've got a good enough car that you can make things happen at the end of the race. And that is how I'd describe our situation last year; if we'd followed everyone else's strategy, we'd have gotten fifth or something like that, so although we weren't the very quickest, we were quick but we maximized that by playing it smart: the team's strategy put us in a position to win, sure, but it wasn't like we were only a 15th-place car that got a lucky break. We were in the mix. So, am I proud of how we performed as a team? Damn straight!
But I don't look at it as unfinished business, to be honest. Having an attitude like that just gets in the way of being smart and objective about what's happening in the here and now. If you sit there saying, “We're gonna win this thing!” that's just a stupid approach and doesn't work.
However, I think that we probably do return with more confidence. Last year in qualifying, the priority was to just get ourselves solidly in the field, and some of that approach was because we saw the big picture – the race is the important part of the month of May – but definitely another reason for that approach was because I was a rookie. The team thought there was no real need to risk the car in qualifying when we were confident we'd be in the top 15 anyway. So with hindsight, I'd say we could have been on the front row, had we put ourselves on the same downforce settings as Ganassi and Schmidt. No B.S., I think we had that speed.
So there are things like that which make we think that we are much more prepared for this year's race. There are a lot of things involved in being fast at Indianapolis, but I have to say, the guys at Panther have a lot of that figured out already, and I learned a lot from just driving their car last year. So how we ran last year gives us a lot of positive anticipation for this year's race. There are a lot of developments that went into having a quick racecar at the big ovals last year that can be used for this year's DW12. I'm confident of our chances, yeah.
David Malsher's interview with JR is taken from a feature article appearing in the current issue of RACER magazine about first-time experiences at the Indianapolis 500, which also includes the remembrances of A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Helio Castroneves. The June RACER explores the conception of heroism in motorsports in a series of recollections by racers of their heroes, as well as analysis of how and why our sport's icons have gained their unique places in history.
Those icons also include cars, of course, and what could be more of an all-American hero than the Corvette C6.R Le Mans racer, our In Focus photo subject this month? Don't miss it – CLICK HERE to subscribe today at a special 30% discount rate!