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.”
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.