Panther Racing has confirmed that it has signed California native JR Hildebrand to a multi-year contract. The 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion will replace Dan Wheldon and take over the reins of the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing entry for the 2011 IndyCar Series season.
Hildebrand, a native of Sausalito, Calif., made his IZOD IndyCar Series debut with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing at Mid-Ohio and Infineon Raceway earlier this year, and at the latter he ran as high as fourth and posted the fastest lap of the race. The 22-year-old has tested an IndyCar Series machine at Kansas Speedway in 2009 with the team formerly known as Andretti Green Racing and also tested a Formula 1 car with Force India at Jerez in December of last year.
"I couldn't be more excited to be at Panther Racing and a part of the National Guard,” Hildebrand said. “This is my first full-time IndyCar ride and the Panther No. 4 car is one of the best seats in the IZOD IndyCar Series, so to be able to start my career with a team with this kind of pedigree is just huge.
"I already feel with the small amount of experiences I've had here, and just being around the shop, that it's going to be a great fit for all of us. I'm more than honored to be in a position to represent the National Guard, and I've already got a small taste of all the programs I'll be a part of through this sponsorship, and I just couldn't be more excited to get more involved in everything that goes along with this partnership. I'm certainly excited about this opportunity and I'm definitely looking forward to every piece of this program moving forward.”
Panther Racing CEO and managing partner John Barnes said he had Hildebrand on his short list of candidates throughout the off-season, but after a two-day test last week at Phoenix International Raceway, there was no doubt he had found his driver.
“JR is an extremely impressive young man, and he's going to be a great fit for the National Guard and Panther Racing,” Barnes said. “We took a very calculated and methodical approach to making this decision because anybody who represents the 350,000 soldiers in the National Guard has a tremendous responsibility both inside and outside the racecar.
"We feel like JR is going to be a tremendous asset to the IZOD IndyCar Series, and what really set him apart is his ambition and his intelligence – this is a kid who was a National Merit Scholar, and accepted to M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). We tested him at Phoenix last week and brought along my friend Al Unser Jr. to help us with the evaluation, and all of us knew by lunchtime of the first day that we'd found the next driver of the No. 4 car. We know we all have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but our expectations are very high for the 2011 season.”
Unser Jr., the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, said he was immediately impressed with Hildebrand during the team's two-day test at Phoenix.
“He's extremely talented,” Unser Jr. said. “He's got a great team at Panther Racing, and he's going to come across a lot of different challenges, and he's very calm, very collected and mature. What I like about him is that he's come out of Firestone Indy Lights, and he's shown that series has been very good for him and all of that is very positive as he moves into the next phase of his career.”
This season will mark the fourth year the National Guard has been primary sponsor of the No. 4 car, and Panther has finished runner-up in three consecutive Indianapolis 500s with its National Guard car – with Vitor Meira in 2008 and 2009-'10 with Wheldon. Last season the team finished ninth in the IZOD IndyCar Series point standings.
“The National Guard is very pleased to welcome JR Hildebrand to our team,” said LTC Bill Dones, chief of the National Guard advertising branch. “For such a young guy, he's had many impressive achievements during his career. That said, we think his best races are ahead of him. JR's youth, along with his accomplishments, make him a driver whom the men and women of the National Guard will be proud to have representing them in the National Guard No. 4 car. We look forward to our partnership and to joining him in Victory Lane in the 2011 season.”