Indy 500: J.R. Hildebrand working in harmony with pole sitter Ed Carpenter’s team

1 Comment

J.R. Hildebrand would be excused if he looked upon racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a sense of dread.

In 2011, Hildebrand was on the verge of winning the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie when he crashed in Turn 4 of the final lap, giving the win to the late Dan Wheldon. And last year, the former Indy Lights champion was the first out of the race when he crashed on Lap 3. A few days later, he was out of a ride at Panther Racing.

But Hildebrand, who starts ninth in Sunday’s ‘500,’ looked every bit at ease yesterday when he spoke about working with polesitter Ed Carpenter this month.

“Right from the outset, we had similar styles and similar wants from the car, and very similar feedback about what was happening and maybe some different ways to go about attacking that,” Hildebrand said.

“…It really has been a team effort and I think qualifying was a good example of that – you wouldn’t be able to make a radio call up to your guy that’s gonna go out in ten minutes and have them make a change to the car based on something that we did unless the cars were that close together, and for us, fortunately, it happened.

“It’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed working with the team and I think Ed would probably tell you the same thing. Working together I think has put us in a situation where the cars are as good as they are, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

Considering Carpenter’s prowess on the ovals, you had to figure Hildebrand would stand a puncher’s chance for Indy when he signed on with ECR for the ‘500.’

But the California native brings lots of talent himself, and it bears noting that he was threatening to pull the upset for Bryan Herta Autosport at last year’s season finale on the two-mile Fontana oval until a late engine failure knocked him out.

Going into Sunday’s race, Hildebrand believes he is much more prepared for the race that he has been in previous years.

“It’s a long race, obviously,” he said. “You’ve got to stick it out and have a shot at it at the end but I feel like this team and the environment that we’ve sort of created has been a really good one for being in a position to do that.”

And should Hildebrand be able to capitalize, he’ll be able to completely put his heartbreaking finish in 2011 to rest. He touched on the incident yesterday, noting that while he quickly came to terms with it, his own confidence needed a little more time to recover.

“In terms of understanding what went on and being at peace with it, that happened quickly,” he said. “To get to the point where I am now, where I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, I want to get back in the car and show these guys what’s up.’  That definitely took a little longer to come around.”

But it has come around. And it’s looking more and more like he’ll be a dark horse on Sunday in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

Follow@KyleMLavigne