One of the standout drivers of this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway was JR Hildebrand, driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing.
Last year’s midseason testing, where Hildebrand was called upon as an injury fill-in for Josef Newgarden at Road America, Iowa and Mid-Ohio, not only kept him race ready but gave him a good variety of circuits to know what to expect with this year’s aero kit. It also positioned him as a logical replacement if Newgarden left ECR, which he did.
“Yeah, it helped a lot for me, both the diversion at this of tracks and situations that were a part of that,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports.
“I’d been used to running at the (INDYCAR) GP and obviously on the Speedway, but running at Iowa, running at Road America and then again at Mid-Ohio, you definitely — those are all places where you’re doing something fairly different.
“So for me to have that added familiarity with the types of things, particularly, that Josef was looking for in the race car, somebody who clearly had been finding what he was looking for, knew what he was looking for and was making good on that on the track, you know, that was really valuable for me, actually, to be coming into this year and have a little bit more of a sense of what’s fast, what’s not, what do I need for the car to be able to do and have started that process ahead of time.
“Definitely one of the more significant differences between now and when I was racing full time last is just that we’re in the full aero kit program now. I think that that definitely helped me, and I think will continue to be something that helps going forward.”
Newgarden, now with Team Penske, thinks Hildebrand will be an intriguing driver to watch this season.
“I think JR is going to do a great job. I’m actually really interested to see how JR does,” Newgarden said. “I’m really happy for him that he’s back in the series. I think he worked really hard to get another shot with a great team like ECR, so you’re going to see much of the same from them. They’re going to be a very challenging opponent for us.”
The excitement for Hildebrand is coming with the fact he knows this test this week, as well as an upcoming test at his hometown track of Sonoma Raceway on Tuesday, is in full preparation for the rest of the season.
“It starts to hit you like this time of year that it’s like, oh, we’re going to St. Pete and I’m going to race! It’s like, we’re not just going to hang out,” he laughed.
Carpenter, himself, said Hildebrand’s stability in the past is what’s made the transition less difficult for 2017.
“In a lot of ways, I don’t really feel like it’s that much change, because JR has been a part of this team the past three years,” Carpenter said.
“Even though he hasn’t been in the car as much as we wanted, he was still kind of in tune with what we were doing all the time, communicating with myself, Josef, the engineers. So it’s not your typical like new driver coming into a team.
“He’s pretty familiar with how we operate, and with most of the key people. We’ve had couple changes in engineering, so that’s really where the biggest change is at is getting those relationships built and familiarity with the car and driver.”
The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.
Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.
Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.
Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.