No. The “whole Indy 500 thing” doesn't come up in conversation anymore. It doesn't need to. Since May 29, 2011, I've asked JR Hildebrand for a few details from earlier in his race that day. But as far as emotions and his state of mind are concerned, he said it all in that 10-minute post-race press conference. He was open but not in a self-pitying way and explained the circumstances of his final-turn accident without sounding like he was making excuses. The National Guard, Panther Racing, himself and the sport – he did them all proud.
What's important now is that a single minuscule error with a huge consequence does not become the defining moment of his IndyCar career. And there's no reason it should; quite the opposite, in fact. The talented rookie is becoming the talented sophomore just as the IZOD IndyCar Series reboots with a new formula of car and there should only be upsides to this. For Hildebrand, it's not a case of starting over.
“The things I'd take away from last year are about driving in general,” he says, “and circumstantial stuff like the process of getting through practice and qualifying at different types of circuit. It's more about the approach taken for a given situation, race or track, than adapting a car to my driving style or adapting my driving style to a car.
“Having said that, I do think that in preseason testing, keeping an open mind is a help. Maybe having only one year under my belt makes it easier in that I have less to unlearn about driving the old car.”
The new Dallara DW12 has been criticized by many drivers for its behavior and, while most of that centers around its peculiar feel on ovals, its extremely rearward weight distribution has caused some unease in road course trim, too.Hildebrand, though, says he's not bothered by it.
“The old car had chronic understeer. The front end would simply give up at some point in a corner so you were always trying to figure out how to deal with that. With the new car, that issue doesn't really exist because the weight is so far to the rear. If you can keep it under control at corner entry, it gets through the corner better than the old car.
“The big difference is the carbon brakes. They took a long time to get used to – a full day's worth of running to figure out how to make them work. Do you run them hot? Run them cold? How do you get them consistent? But, ultimately, they'll give a solid improvement in performance, even if it takes a while to figure out how to make them work so we aren't locking brakes all over the place.
“If we had another 150hp, the new car would be a lot of fun to drive on a road course. It's got more downforce and the brakes work better, but the horsepower is missing. Is that the fault of the manufacturers? Not at all; that's just the way the rulebook is written right now.”
The DW12's handling on ovals is another matter. “The steering feels numb,” he says, echoing the verdict of all who'd tried it up to the end of January. “Once the car gets into the banking and you get some vertical load, you get a feel for what's going on, but the lack of feedback at entry and exit, and the fact that it doesn't seem able to take the same type of load [as the old car] through the turn, is disappointing.
“And it varies! One time you keep your foot in because you don't think it's going to be a big deal, and it washes all the way up the track, and another time you lift when maybe there wasn't anything wrong. It's hard to gauge what it's doing.
“Would I care about any of this if the car was going 10 or 15mph faster?” he continues. “No. If it's hard to drive but fast, that's fine. But the fact that it's slow is a point of contention for me. I didn't become an IndyCar driver so I could go 205mph at Homestead or wherever.”