All the more remarkable when two intangibles are considered. Hildebrand has gotten results in his rookie season without the benefit of a teammate, and he's accomplished much of it while injured. Surgery to repair a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee awaits at season's end, the result of an injury sustained before the June event at Texas Motor Speedway. Meanwhile, Panther still pursues funding to add an experienced teammate to the team's roster.
“It's definitely a double-edged sword,” Hildebrand says. “Where is the speed coming from? Is it me? The less information you have to point you in the right direction, the harder it is to figure that out. Especially when it comes to road courses, that's a tough thing to overcome. There's no doubt in my mind that I'd perform at a higher level if I had more data.
“But what's good about the situation is that it adds an accountability factor to everything that's going on. Everybody on the team is willing to take responsibility for what happens. Just because you don't have enough information doesn't mean you can point fingers. It's a subjective situation.
As for the injury, that's more severe than originally thought. Had the Motegi race in September been canceled because of the Japan earthquake, Hildebrand would have used that time for surgery. Instead, he'll tough it out.
“He would have done a lot better at Milwaukee and Texas if he hadn't had the leg issue,” Barnes says. “The brace he had to wear was obstructive. He literally had to wedge himself into the car. But once he got past that, he worked with trainers and got to where he could tape the leg and not use the brace. That shows something about him. He's smiling through pain at this point.”
After the 500, the concern about Hildebrand was that one race and one crash would define his career. While certainly memorable and inescapable, it's hardly a definition. That will come later, when he gets additional chances to win the race again. The definition of Hildebrand that emerges from Indy is the one his team recognized with a special gift. The kid is a pro.
“He's wise beyond his years,” Cripps states. “I've been going to Indy since 1990. and had all the highs and lows, but if you'd put a camera in front of me as quickly as they did with JR after that crash, I don't think I'd have been able to handle it. It was shocking for someone of JR's age to handle it. That was very impressive.”
Almost as impressive as what he's delivered since. Solid results, consistency, speed and real professionalism. It's what earned him a classic piece of chrome and steel – and a love affair with his team.
“We're over the moon about him,” Barnes says. “He's what we stand for.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the October 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.