Excited to join Ed Carpenter Racing, J.R. Hildebrand has unfinished business at Indy 500

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If he had his way, J.R. Hildebrand would run the Indianapolis 500 tomorrow.

The 2011 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year is looking forward to returning to the fabled Brickyard for this year’s edition of the 500 on May 25 for three primary reasons.

First, Hildebrand has unfinished business, having crashed out on just the third lap of last year’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing, finishing last in the 33-car field.

Second, Hildebrand wants to return to the success he had in his 500 debut, when he finished second to the late Dan Wheldon in 2011.

Third, and perhaps the glue that will tie the first two things together for Hildebrand is driving in this year’s race for Ed Carpenter Racing.

“I am so excited to be coming back to Indy with Ed and his team,” Hildebrand said in an ECR media release. “Ed showed last year that his operation can be extremely fast at Indy with the pole and leading the most laps. And that was a single-car effort. I think we feel very good coming back to Indy with a two-car team.”

Hildebrand will drive the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet as a teammate of owner/driver Carpenter, who earned the pole in last year’s race in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevy.

The groundwork to pair the two drivers together actually began after last year’s 500. While this year’s 500 will be their first race together, both men hope additional funding can be found to bring about additional races for Hildebrand after the 98th running of the 500 next month.

“I truly believe we have a combination to contend in this year’s Indy 500,” Carpenter said. “We are pumped up for May.”

Carpenter and Hildebrand are currently the only all-American team entered in this year’s 500.

It’s been a struggle for Hildebrand, a veteran of 41 IndyCar starts in his career, over the last year-plus. After competing in all IndyCar events in 2011 and 2012, he managed to find a ride and sponsorship for just seven of last season’s 19 races.

This year, Hildebrand has yet to take to the IndyCar circuit, meaning that the Indy 500 will be his first – but he hopes not last – race of the 2014 campaign.

Carpenter is still relishing last week’s win at Long Beach with Mike Conway behind the wheel, which has only heightened Hildebrand’s excitement to get going when practice for the 500 opens on May 11.

“Watching the ECR team in action the past two races (St. Petersburg and Long Beach) with Mike driving has been a good observation for me,” Hildebrand said. “Listening on the radio in the races as well as attending some of the engineering staff meetings has been very enlightening too. I think Ed and (general manager) Tim Broyles have put together a strong unit at ECR. I can’t wait to get started with them in a few weeks.”

Hildebrand will have veteran crew chief Dan Miller atop the pit box. Miller has one Indy 500 victory and four second-place finishes there in his career.

“This team might be small compared to the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti operations but you can see how well they compete,” Hildebrand said.

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Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato welcomes ‘Baby Borg’ to the family

Photos: Michael L. Leavitt
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Takuma Sato cast a big shadow on the world of IndyCar racing last May when he became the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500.

But there was another shadow of sorts cast along with Sato’s Indy 500 win: he and the prestigious Borg-Warner Trophy, given to each year’s winner of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, are virtually identical in size.

The Trophy is the same height as Sato, 5 feet, 5 ¾ inches tall. And the respective weight of both the Trophy and Sato are the same: approximately 113 pounds.

Try putting that on a mantle in your house.

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

That’s why Sato was so happy to receive the Baby Borg Trophy — a miniature version of the Borg-Warner Trophy — Wednesday night in Detroit. It’s much more manageable for the mantle in his house: 18 inches tall and five pounds.

“It’s such an honor to win the Baby Borg finally, eight months after the race, it’s been an unbelievable journey,” Sato told NBC Sports. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to win the 500 and it has just gone on and on. It’s just a significant moment in my life. It’s been fantastic.

“Right now, I haven’t really decided yet (where he’ll put the coveted Baby Borg). It’s going to my home in Indiana right now. But of course, everybody wants to see it. After that, I haven’t decided, but I’m sure it’ll get a special place.”

Even though the Baby Borg is a pint-sized version of the real trophy that was presented to Sato in victory lane in Indianapolis last May, it also has the same meaning as the big trophy and served to get Sato’s excitement pumping to where he’s already counting down the days to the 2018 Indy 500.

And even more important, it will be the first time he returns to Indianapolis as the defending champion.

“(Winning the 500) has changed my life,” Sato told NBC Sports. “But what I do is exactly the same, to try and be as fast as possible when racing.

“But all the environment, the people, all the cheering and being called an Indy 500 champion, I never imagined how deep and how far it goes, just the power and energy that the Indy 500 had.

“I just never realized how much the tradition and the prestigiousness of it. It’s been fantastic and I’m sure when I go back there to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in four months as the defending champion, it’ll be a whole other dimension. I’m sure it’s going to be a whole lot of pressure, but I’m sure to enjoy the moment.”

Sato, who turns 41 on January 28, will return to the 500 this year, but with a new team. He left Andretti Autosport after last season and returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, for whom he previously raced for in 2012.

Now that he’s won one Indy 500, Sato wants to make it two in a row.

“It’s a huge, another task and a new dream,” he said. “I’m excited for the new season and to go for another 500 (win), it’s another completely new dimension. Like Michael (Andretti, who he drove for last season) said, obviously, we’ll be competing against each other in the new season, but tonight we celebrated together. I think it’s going to be a real good season for me. I’d love to get another win there, of course.”

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
Michael Andretti celebrates his 5 Indy 500 wins as a team owner, and Takuma Sato celebrates his first Indy 500 win
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

But not if Andretti has anything to say about it.

“He’s not allowed to win again,” Andretti laughed while also speaking to NBC Sports.

Sato enjoyed a victory lap of another sort last month when he accompanied the Borg-Warner Trophy to his native Japan for a two-plus week tour of the nation.

It marked the first time in the Trophy’s 82-year existence that it has ever been outside the U.S.

Everywhere Sato and the Trophy went drew large crowds, from Honda Racing “Thanks Day” at the Twin Rings track at Motegi to a visit to Mount Fuji, a meeting with 850 members of Sato’s fan club, and also included a two-day run in the atrium of Honda’s World Headquarters in Tokyo that had fans lined up for hours to see the Trophy and take photos of it and Sato.

“The reaction was just massive,” Sato said. “For myself, it was a dream come true, but at the same time, for a country with that history, it was an unbelievable moment, particularly the first time when Hiro Matsushita did it (drove in the Indy 500 in the 1990s) so many years ago.

“So many Japanese drivers have tried to win such a historic race, I was just so proud to be part of it. The people were really excited. The passion, I’m really particularly happy to bring it to Japan.

“To go to Japan was a massive commitment by from Borg Warner and Honda. So many Japanese fans were able to see it physically and now they’re really looking forward to this year’s Indy 500 again. It was a great moment to us.”