CHRIS MOWER, team manager for Panther Racing, describes life with a talented IndyCar novice, the obstacles they're overcoming together, and why Hildebrand is an ideal fit for team and sponsor.
The word “rookie” is used mainly in North America: in Europe you would refer to a driver's “first year in the series” or that he or she was “new to this championship.” On one hand, that's better for the driver because it doesn't attach the same stigma as the word “rookie”. However, neither does it immediately focus our attention on what some drivers achieve during their first year at this level in the sport. In most cases, then, I think rookie is a good term because it implies a rawness – and so the inevitable mistakes are forgiven more readily. It also highlights accomplishments because people don't typically expect strong results from rookies. The one word takes a little pressure off drivers who are in fact under more pressure than ever.
When we signed JR Hildebrand during the off-season, we didn't know exactly what to expect. We knew it would be a good fit for our sponsor, the National Guard, to have a young American who no doubt is a good role model for all young Americans. Just being accepted to MIT shows this kid is smart and has a good feel for all things mechanical. Combine that with a talent that won him the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights championship and I don't know what could be a better combination for a young rookie in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
We considered there would be a strong possibility JR would be without a teammate and, no matter how much promise he showed on his résumé, that would be a big hill to climb for a rookie. We were talking to a few series veterans at the time as well, and we all agreed that, in a single car team, a vet would be the best way to go for instant results. However, we also knew if we took that direction, this diamond-in-the-rough would be gone – perhaps for good – to another team. That shows how much faith we had in JR even before we tested him. Going into the driver selection process, it was very important that we selected someone with whom we could win races and forge a relationship for many years to come. We wanted consistency and viewed it as an investment for us and our sponsors. Without a doubt, JR was the best fit for a seat in the National Guard Panther Racing seat – American, decades of racing mileage ahead of him, promotable and talented.
And certainly not timid. That was the first thing we noticed during our first test with JR at Phoenix International Raceway in November 2010. He was flat out on his second outing and we were really impressed with his attitude. He was looking forward to driving in the IZOD IndyCar Series but didn't take anything for granted. His desire to learn and, more importantly, work with the team to be as fast as possible lifted the morale of everyone at Panther Racing. In fact, I remember saying to some of the shop-based guys on our return, “If you didn't know better, you wouldn't even guess he was a rookie.” His feedback and car control, even on an oval, was great and his demeanor was just what we were looking for. It was JR's third or fourth outing when David Cripps (Panther's technical director) called him in as we were getting a bit nervous with the steering corrections he was making for oversteer. His response was, “Yeah, it's kinda neutral but it's not like I'm on the rack stops or anything.” This was a huge relief for us because during the previous two seasons, we seemed to struggle with a car that always migrated to understeer. JR's feedback meant we knew we'd be able to work on the opposite side of the spectrum. I guess the most positive thing was that we all felt we had someone willing to work with us as part of the team; it didn't feel like we were working for him. Suddenly racing became fun again and our top priority was to give this kid whatever he needed to succeed.
JR will be the first to tell you he doesn't get any do-overs or special treatment at Panther Racing just because he is a rookie. In fact, the crew at Panther is probably harder on him than he'd find at other teams. Our crew is old school and they don't tolerate mistakes as much as they would have when they were younger and less experienced. He gets more support than may be required for a veteran driver, he may receive more suggestions for things to look out for – in fact, sometimes it is probably too much – but we definitely don't expect any less of him just because this is his first year in IndyCar. Look at the IndyCar rookies who came in and kicked some veteran's ass. Nigel Mansell and Juan Pablo Montoya, both of whom won the CART/IndyCar title in their first year in the series, are the extreme examples. Those two drivers were from the stable of good hard racing and if you told either of them not to expect much in their debut season, Montoya would have probably laughed and walked away thinking you were a fool while Mansell would have socked you one in the chops. JR is the type of guy who would be disappointed in us if we didn't think the same was possible for him. He would feel like he was letting the team and the entire regiment of the National Guard down if he thought he was only here to learn. He may be quieter and less controversial than Montoya and Mansell but he has the determination to win and the self-belief that burns just as deep as in any other driver out there.