First, he thought he was in trouble. Then he thought he was being scammed. But finally, after the prank had been pulled and the photos taken, JR Hildebrand learned what it was all about. He was being appreciated.
Summoned to a midweek meeting at Panther Racing's HQ in Indianapolis, Hildebrand thought the worst. But Panther CEO John Barnes had other ideas. A few days before, Hildebrand had asked Panther partner Gary Pedigo to restore his 1995 Trans-Am, so Barnes told Hildebrand the car was ready to be unveiled, thus explaining the reporters and photographers lurking at the shop.
Hildebrand knew something was amiss. “I could see under the cover they had on it that they hadn't even washed it, let alone restored it,” he said. As the cover was removed, he saw the same crusty Trans-Am he'd left with Pedigo. That's when the garage door opened and Pedigo rumbled through the door in a pristine '66 Chevrolet Chevelle SS. All yours, kid. Enjoy.
Hildebrand recalls, “It took me a while to register. I was like, ‘Oh my God, it's a '66 Chevelle!' Then I was like, ‘Oh my God, it's a totally-cherry-red-super-bitchin'-'66-Chevelle!' There were multiple levels of recognition!”
Multiple levels of recognition from his team, too. The car was a gift to Hildebrand from Barnes for the now-infamous runner-up finish at the Indianapolis 500 in May. Hildebrand reacted like a champion that day and, even through the disappointment, breathed life into a team that had slipped off course recently. The 23-year-old Hildebrand was a fresh face, a new life and supplied renewed vigor. This was a love affair between team and driver. One worth its weight in muscle car.
Says Barnes: “After the race I told him, ‘Hey, kid, don't feel bad about what happened. There are hundreds of drivers who race this race and never even finish second.' I'm proud of how he handled it. You can never control what happens to you, but you can control how you deal with it, and he dealt with it like a man. He's what we stand for here at this team, and the Chevelle was our way of saying thank you.”
Here's precisely why the team feels grateful: Hildebrand has driven the No. 4 National Guard Dallara-Honda to a fourth at Iowa, an eighth in Toronto, and a 10th in Brazil. And, oh yeah, a runner-up finish at Indianapolis.
“That Chevy was a token of our appreciation for Indy,” says Panther technical director David Cripps. “How could words reaffirm what he'd accomplished? It's not an easy thing to just pat him on the back and say, ‘Good job, kid. We'll get them next year.' It was a little more complicated than that.”
“It was a more than generous gesture on their part,” says Hildebrand, but it was a well-deserved one. Panther has never been known for its road- and street-course chops. As an original Indy Racing League entrant, the team mastered ovals with the likes of Scott Goodyear, Sam Hornish Jr., Vitor Meira and Dan Wheldon, but struggled when the series incorporated road courses. More important than his performance at Indy and his stand-up post-race maturity, Hildebrand has improved Panther's overall game.
“That shows how talented JR is,” Cripps explains. “Without question, he has all the skills necessary to be a complete driver. Some guys are one dimensional. JR has segregated his disciplines. He's adapting, which is evident in his performances at all types of tracks. One of the highlights for me was his performance in the wet at Brazil. He was genuinely one of the fastest cars on the track. For the stage he was at and the stage we were at, it was a remarkable performance. For me, that's when the lights went on. That's when I started to realize it was going to be a very good working relationship.”