JR Hildebrand

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Hildebrand reflects on difficult 2017 IndyCar season

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When Ed Carpenter Racing confirmed that Spencer Pigot would assume full-time driving duties in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, thoughts subsequently jumped to the future of that entry’s current driver, JR Hildebrand.

Hildebrand, who previously raced with ECR in part-time efforts for the IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500 from 2014 to 2016, signed with the team as a full-time driver of the No. 21 car last year, and expectations were high that they could achieve results similar to his predecessor, Josef Newgarden.

In looking at the results on paper, it’s clear that things did not materialize as they hoped. Though the team’s short oval program remained stout, with Hildebrand finishing third at Phoenix and second at Iowa, ECR’s lone podium finishes of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Hildebrand’s finishes on road and street circuits suffered. He never finished higher than 11th (Long Beach, where he coincidentally suffered a broken hand after last-lap contact with Mikhail Aleshin that forced him to rest the next race at Barber Motorsports Park), and was often outpaced by Pigot, especially on race days.

Results on road and street circuits were hard to come by for JR Hildebrand and Ed Carpenter Racing. Photo: IndyCar

In a blog entry posted earlier today, Hildebrand discussed what has been a troublesome season, and acknowledged the lofty expectations he and the team had when he signed.

“The chance to race in the Series full-time again was one that I was proud to earn and optimistic about taking advantage of,” Hildebrand wrote. “There were clear and reasonable expectations: we’d capitalize on our existing strengths at places like Indy and Iowa where we knew we could be highly competitive, while we’d work to develop and show progress elsewhere — we would need to learn and grow through the year.”

Still, with new personnel on board – lead engineer Justin Taylor, for example, came over from Audi Sport’s LMP1 program in the World Endurance Championship – Hildebrand acknowledged that there was always going to be a learning curve.

“As a team we entered the season with a bit of general uncertainty as the primary roles on the No. 21’s engineering staff were new faces and many of us would be working together in full-time capacity for the first time,” he continued. “Though I expected these differences to create for a revised learning curve, I looked at that less as a concern and more as a chance for us all to develop together — new perspectives and abilities are often behind movement forward, after all.”

The new personnel and the diversity of their backgrounds ultimately resulted in new experiments regarding car setups, an approach that ultimately one that proved problematic.

“While the No. 20 car often stayed close to the team’s traditional direction of setup, particularly on road and street circuits, we often diverged to seek new answers in the hopes of finding something that would give both of us a better chance to compete for 5th instead of 15th. Unfortunately neither approach was able to give us an entirely clear direction to build on as a group weekend to weekend,” he detailed.

Further, trying to do so with limited testing and practice time hampered their efforts.

“Learning quickly enough to translate those processes into high-level execution during race weekends, with few tests days or breaks to supplement our effort, proved to be a tall order that would simply require more time and specialized focus in my estimation,” Hildebrand asserted. “Getting the most out of a known setup with a known driving approach is a task that requires substantial effort; the necessary bandwidth to implement and break down new strategies in either driving or engineering on top of that became a difficult thing to find within the season’s compact schedule, despite the clear value doing so might have.”

Though frustrated that things did not go according to plan, Hildebrand is no less proud of the effort he and the No. 21 group put forward and believes there are plenty of positives to take away from the year, even if the results don’t show it.

“I’m not happy with the overall results we produced this season, but for my part, I do not regret approaching the year like I did,” he held. “While testing my own methods was trying, there are now things that I will forever do differently and better with greater awareness going forward for how to take those gains further. While we did not always arrive at critical insights quickly enough to turn our weekends around, I’m not disappointed that we experimented with new ideas as much as we did on the 21.”

A second-place at Iowa Speedway was Hildebrand’s best result of the year. Photo: IndyCar

The 29-year-old Hildebrand now enters the off-season without a contracted ride for 2018 and faces an uncertain racing future. But, for the time being, he isn’t concerned and is putting all his energy into ending the year on a high note.

“I’m ready to get on track this weekend and finish this thing strong, so how about this for now — if you don’t stress about it, I won’t either,” he finished.

Hildebrand enters Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) 15th in the championship standings.

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Hinchcliffe’s epic save goes for naught after crash with Hildebrand (VIDEO)

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James Hinchcliffe had hoped for Pocono Raceway to be a place to turn around sagging fortunes in his Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for most of the first half of the race it looked that way.

From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.

But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.

What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.

Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.

“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.

Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.

Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.

Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.

“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.

“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”

The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.

“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.

“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”

If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).

For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.

Hildebrand: Effective IndyCar safety tweaks need time, not knee-jerks

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JR Hildebrand is one of the smartest drivers, if not the smartest driver, in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock. He also, like Samson, may get his strength from his long, flowing hair.

Hildebrand deferred his acceptance to MIT owing to his burgeoning racing career as he came up through Indy Lights, but nonetheless, a conversation with the Sausalito, Calif. native always seems to lead to other topics far beyond just the year at-hand.

Getting that out of the way first, the 29-year-old Hildebrand is a free agent at year’s end and has four further races to impress as he completes his first full season back in the series in five years with Ed Carpenter Racing. He’s not worried about the silly season speculation at the moment.

He’s done excellent on short ovals but for whatever reason hasn’t had the luck, results or consistency in any road or street course races, and ranks 15th in points heading into next week’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway (Sunday, August 20, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

But considering his knowledge base, provided he does get to drive the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit on a full-time basis, it’s worth wondering his thoughts on how the car evolves from a safety standpoint.

Photo: IndyCar

Hildebrand was part of the 2018 elements’ initial testing base during summer 2016 runs at Mid-Ohio and believes the car will race better based on what’s been designed. Although given how close the competition is already, can it get much closer?

“I think if we’re just looking at it in terms of improving the show, that’s what it’ll do. Certainly getting more of the downforce from the underside of the car makes it easier to drive closer to other guys, at short ovals and road courses,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports.

“I’m not sure it’ll fundamentally change races like Phoenix; but it might make more opportunities for when guys go off. Same thing for road courses. You should see more passes from running behind. And it also creates more stability for the manufacturers to not have to worry about the aero kits. In terms of competition; it’s a good thing. But our series can’t get a lot closer than it already is.”

Juan Pablo Montoya in the new 2018 IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar

Enhanced frontal cockpit protection, in the form of an windshield or similar type device, is anticipated to get tested later this year. Formula 1’s addition of the “Halo” device for 2018 has drawn some interesting, perhaps mixed, reactions.

Hildebrand cautioned against INDYCAR (sanctioning body) rushing into implementing such a device without doing proper research and analysis, and also guarded about the laws of unintended consequences. But he did say the technology should be explored.

“There’s a part of it where I understand we don’t want to make knee-jerk reactions to stuff like that,” Hildebrand explained. “In any sort of the examples of additional cockpit protection devices; there’s downsides to all of them. Situations could exist; there’s all kinds of issues, whether it’s ingress, egress, fire, weird accidents, or that kind of stuff.

“For me at the end of the day, the fact that we’re all so sensitive about how the cars look and having to arrive at an incredible solution on the first version – that’s not really how effective change actually happens. Effective change happens from a constantly iterative process in place with the intention of arriving at the best possible solution through a lot of ideas, trying, and dialogue; not necessarily implementing.”

Hildebrand looks at the evolution in sports car prototype racing as a perfect example. LMP1 chassis gradually have moved away from open-cockpit cars to coupes over the course of the last decade; the last open-top LMP2 cars raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year and the LMPC cars, which Hildebrand ran occasionally in 2010 with Genoa Racing, will be phased out of active competition at year’s end. With the high-end LMP1 and LMP2 models, perfecting a screen was not done instantaneously.

“If you look at the arc of development of fully closed roofs, cockpits, in an LMP1 car or similar – and I’m not advocating for a roof here – but look at all the issues that existed, and those are essentially the same types for us,” he said. “There’s the getting out of car, visibility, the car catches on fire, a driver’s unconscious or whatever.

“The fact there was that each individual team came up with their own solutions, made it to those problems getting solved quickly. We’ve seen with the curved screens on those cars, like windshields, I’m sure they probably weren’t great when they started. But their engineers worked on the curvature and density, to get good visibility, and solved for problems that exist.

“I think in F1 and IndyCar, and a lot of racing series, the regulatory sets are so restricted. We get ourselves in a position where we’re searching for one answer. That makes it a highly insulated R&D project. I think there’s a lot of ways to open these things up.

“There’s a lot of great technology for accumulating ideas from people and arriving at potential solutions. Just at the end of the day, the input and ideas from a lot of people will move the needle quicker more than substantially than a select few. Safety stuff or otherwise, we’ve got to start thinking about all of it a bit more.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: JR Hildebrand, driver of the #21 Preferred Freezer Service Chevrolet, leads a group of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

While INDYCAR has dodged a couple bullets this year alone with Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon surviving some savage looking accidents at the month of May at Indianapolis, Hildebrand did note INDYCAR’s gradual but consistent safety improvements have done their job. The side intrusion protection coming for 2018, designed to reduce pelvic injuries, is another big step in that development process.

Hildebrand said looks aren’t as important as developing the right type of technology for additional protection, as ensuring there’s consensus from the key stakeholders before implementation.

“At the moment, we don’t really have a mechanism in place to figure this all out. That to me is more of what I look at when we look at this,” he said.

“Yeah we have to arrive at a good, safe conclusion. But we have to know what we’re doing if we’re doing it.

“We shouldn’t be fearful on the front end of the process by the immediate reaction of what it looks like. From everything we’ve seen, the series continues to push forward. There’s a lot of elements of how quickly it can happen.

“Regardless of the outcomes, what ends up being viable, we should be pushing along with it, if for no other reason than a continuous research project.”

Hildebrand settles for second at Iowa (VIDEO)

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JR Hildebrand very nearly secured his debut win in the Verizon IndyCar Series at the Iowa Corn Indy 300.

The Ed Carpenter Racing driver ran in the top five all race long, and clever pit strategy saw him emerge from the final pit stops with a chance at victory. His No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet team pitted him a little early, allowing him a chance to run for several laps on fresh tires. That move saw him jump ahead of the other leaders after they pitted.

Although he technically wasn’t the leader at that point, with Marco Andretti running long in hopes of catching a caution, Hildebrand was the de facto leader ahead of Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves. However, Hildebrand got balked behind Andretti when he made a move for the lead, which allowed Castroneves to get a run and move passed in the final laps.

Although Hildebrand tried to close back in, he couldn’t quite move through traffic as well as Castroneves and had to settle for second, just under four seconds behind at the checkered flag.

However, despite missing out on victory, Hildebrand felt very positive about his run.

“It feels good. Under slightly different circumstances we could have won,” the 29-year-old told NBCSN’s Anders Krohn afterward. “Great call to pit early and try to hustle back to the lead. If we’d been on equal tires I think we could have been there. I’m so excited to be back on the podium and (the team) deserved it after the weekend we had. Hopefully this sets up for the stretch run.”

The second-place finish is Hildebrand’s second podium of the year (he finished third at the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix) and ties his career-best finish (second place, 2011 Indianapolis 500).

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Power supplants Hildebrand to score Iowa pole

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The pendulum swung back from Helio Castroneves to Will Power winning poles in the Verizon IndyCar Series 2017 season in qualifying for Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300 (5 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Power took this pole though not from Castroneves, but JR Hildebrand, ruining a potential fairytale story where Hildebrand could have secured his first career pole on the same day he had an accident earlier in the day in practice.

Hildebrand had the top spot with a two-lap average speed of 183.811 mph, which held up for nine further cars after going out 11th, in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

But Power not only beat that speed, but obliterated it, with his two-lap average of 185.210 – a full 1.3 mph quicker than Hildebrand – as the last driver out in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

The pole is Power’s fourth of the year and 48th of his career. Although considering neither a polesitter nor Team Penske has won in the 10 previous races at Iowa Speedway, perhaps it’s not the best place to be starting.

“It was actually a good day to be the last one out,” Power said. “The track was very slippery early. I got good feedback from my teammates.  We made a few changes to the car. Our Verizon Chevy was solid. Looking forward to the race tomorrow. Should be hectic because you are always in traffic. Should be a lot of fun.”

Hildebrand was pleased to be back out in his repaired car, which only needed a rear wing change after crashing in Turn 2 in practice. It’s a career-best start for him; his best had been third on the last short oval of the year in Phoenix, where he finished third.

“I’m not sure it was fun. It was exciting!” Hildebrand told NBCSN’s Robin Miller. “For us, it’s a lot of credit to the team. It was nice to be back out there and push pretty hard. We were close to the limit.”

Their respective teammates qualified third and fourth, with Castroneves in third and Ed Carpenter in fourth.

Indianapolis 500 champion Takuma Sato leapt from 20th in practice to be best Honda on the grid, fifth in the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda.

Mikhail Aleshin and Tony Kanaan, old sparring partners earlier this year, line up sixth and seventh with Ed Jones a career-best eighth for Dale Coyne Racing, James Hinchcliffe and Graham Rahal completing the top 10 on the grid.

Early draws of the first three positions hurt several of the top-five drivers in points. Points leader Scott Dixon went out second and will start 17th; second-placed Simon Pagenaud was first out and will start 11th; fifth-placed Josef Newgarden went out third and will start 16th.

Elsewhere Marco Andretti reported something broke on his No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda and was lucky not to crash, only posting a two-lap average of 171.710. Meanwhile Carlos Munoz, in his No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet, had a near identical incident to Hildebrand’s in qualifying and lost it exiting Turn 2. He didn’t post a speed and will start last in the 21-car field.

Second practice runs tonight from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m. CT and local time.

Speeds are below.