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.It is very difficult for a rookie to come into the IndyCar series and make an impression in his or her first year, especially this year. The series is so competitive right now that the margin for error is smaller than ever before. Just a slight lift on an oval or a bit too much curb on a road or street course can make the difference of 10 places on the grid.
One thing that has always amazed me in racing is the actual difference in lap times between the first 10 or so cars at most tracks. Take Iowa, for example, where the top 10 cars in qualifying were covered by less than 0.2sec. Heck, if you press a stop watch as fast as you can twice, that takes about 0.2sec, so how can you have 10 different drivers in 10 different cars with probably thousands of different variables on their setups producing lap times that are blink-of-an-eye close? What makes that more poignant is the guy at the top will feel like a hero (as Takuma Sato deservingly did at Iowa) while Ryan Briscoe (10th) probably felt like someone shot his dog…as a Penske driver that low down the grid deservingly should! It is hard to comprehend the range of emotions that is encompassed in those two tenths of a second.
This is what we expect from racing these days; it is the norm, especially in IndyCars, and this is also what makes being a successful rookie even more demanding and less likely than ever. Rookies are racing against veterans who have done thousands of laps around the tracks we race on where one crash can cost more than the average mortgage. But we, as race teams, crew members, fans and even other drivers tend to overlook the learning curve the novices are on – the testing restrictions, the unfamiliarity, the uncertainty of the new drivers you are racing against. This is the most competitive racing in the world at the moment and it all makes success even more difficult to comprehend. Six inches too high up the track between turns 1 and 2 and the bump will make you lift more than everyone else. If you have never driven an IndyCar around that track before, how are you supposed to know? Can a teammate (if you have one) really tell you where that sweet spot is and if he or she can, do you think they will? Would you?
So when these rookie drivers do run up front, it is probably because they have done everything right, as JR came so close to doing in this year's Indianapolis 500. One difference for him at Indy was at least he had a teammate he could run things by – a former 500 winner, no less! – and Buddy Rice had a genuine interest in making sure JR considered certain things he may not have thought of had Buddy not been there. The youngster could ask the vet about uncertainties and put his mind at rest if he had any doubts about the car – “If it feels like that, will it get worse?” – the type of things only a smart veteran driver would know about at a track like Indy. On race day, though, it is every man for himself, and I'm sure Buddy would have raced JR just as hard as the next guy had they been fighting for the win.
Anyone in the paddock knows Panther can deliver good cars for Indy but so can Penske and Ganassi. It doesn't really matter how good the car is if you can't rely on the driver. Fortunately for us, JR did everything we expected from him and even more for the entire month. Even the crash on lap 200 in Turn 4 can't be blamed entirely on him; could we have given him more information on Charlie Kimball ahead? Could we have given him the gap back to Dan Wheldon as he went into Turn 3? If we had, would it have made a difference? Who knows? But one thing for sure is that JR drove a perfect race up until that point, and I am sure no one can be harder on him than he's been on himself for not accomplishing what a driver only has one shot at, winning the Indianapolis 500 in his rookie year.
Even from the inside of a one-car team running a rookie, it is difficult to track progress, but I would say judging from results on both road courses and ovals, JR is coming along nicely. Look at Long Beach, a hard weekend for us, and compare it to Brazil. I'd have expected JR to struggle more in Brazil since it's a track he has not driven on before, but we were pleasantly surprised at our result there. I believe that shows our driver left Long Beach, thought about what was happening and changed things for Brazil. In Milwaukee we struggled a bit but I think JR was on a steep learning curve; then he took what he learned in Milwaukee to Iowa and did a great job qualifying and finishing fourth in one of the most exciting oval races IndyCar has had for a while. In Toronto, JR did an excellent job of staying out of trouble when it seemed even the veterans had difficulty in knowing how much room to give or how hard to push.
To us JR's progress and how quickly he is able to learn confirms he is gaining more confidence with each race. Without a doubt what we are missing the most compared to other teams is data. If we were running two cars and could compare both chassis and driver data, we would have a better indication of which direction to go with the set-up or be given clues to how JR can slightly change his route through a corner here or there to make things better. Running two cars literally doubles the amount of things you can try, your choices in which direction to go…and, of course, gives you twice the chance for a decent result. We do have Dan's data and notes from the last two years, and that's useful on the ovals. However, these days when we are talking about such a small margin that determines whether or not the weekend was a success, the slightest breeze or temperature difference can render the data incomparable.
I think if you look at the entire season thus far, you would have to say JR and Panther are progressing, but there won't be any rest until we celebrate our first win together. Who knows what will happen next but if we can continue in the direction we are going at the moment, 2011 will just be the beginning of something big.