Reserve drivers aren’t really a “thing” in the Verizon IndyCar Series like they are in Formula 1, but Ed Carpenter Racing has used one to its advantage throughout 2016.
While it’s perhaps a shame that JR Hildebrand isn’t in a full-time seat – people probably forget how good the 28-year-old Californian who now lives in Denver still is – Hildebrand’s work with Carpenter this year has easily been the most important of his three years with the team.
Hildebrand has raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an extra Carpenter car each of the last three years but this year has seen him take on a much greater role, if by unfortunate circumstances.
Josef Newgarden’s crash at the now-postponed Texas Motor Speedway race on June 12 forced Hildebrand into action with INDYCAR adding more in-season test days this year. Newgarden was, only temporarily, sidelined with a broken right clavicle and right hand injury.
With Newgarden sidelined for pre-race tests at Road America and Iowa Speedway, Hildebrand has stepped into the No. 21 Direct Supply or Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet admirably to work on setup and develop a baseline for both events.
It’s worth noting that Newgarden’s car might not have been as locked in as it was for Road America – when he pressed through to drive from 20th on the grid up to eighth – without Hildebrand’s feedback and setup.
To hear Hildebrand tell it though, he knew he was really only going to be on standby figuring Newgarden would do everything in his power to make the race. That selflessness is what has made him a huge asset this year.
“I’ve showed up here knowing it was likely that he was going to be able to drive,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports after Road America.
“I mean, I figured from early in the week that if he gets to the point that he can try it, that he’s probably going to be good enough to go for the rest of the weekend. So that was sort of honestly my expectation and showed he was able to do a good job.
“I’m here in a reserve role, that’s kind of my gig with these guys. Certainly if anything happened, I’d have been ready to go. I’ll test for them at Iowa this week, just to give him a bit of a break so it’s all good.”
Newgarden has hailed Hildebrand’s work throughout this year and particularly over the last month.
“JR has been a huge asset to us. He’s like a driver to us full-time anyway,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.
“He’s been huge for me, a lot of advice, coaching, so it’s been nice having him around. He got us squared away for race weekend.”
Hildebrand, without being in the cockpit, wound up in a driver analyst role for IndyCar Radio on the IMS Radio Network during the Road America race.
That provided him a lot of extra insight into how a race evolves from a strategy standpoint that he can use to what he’s already learned and developed over his driving career.
“They have a lot of information to work with there but I think the things that are interesting for us is really understanding what the pit windows are and what the segment times are as you go through the lap,” Hildebrand explained.
“You have so much information on the timing stands. You feel like you’re flying blind a little bit up in the broadcast booth, you don’t know exactly what’s going on with anybody. It’s still cool to see and obviously I sort of know enough about what the look for, what the pit windows should be and where guys have been at to pick up on some of that stuff.
“It’s so interesting to watch and obviously there at the end with that late race caution, all kinds of stuff going on on track. You can hardly keep up with it.”
As noted, Hildebrand tested last week at Iowa to dial in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for this weekend’s race. Newgarden, who’s noted Iowa will be a tougher test for him, thanked Hildebrand for his efforts.
“We had a great test and I am super thankful to JR Hildebrand for getting us in a great spot going into the weekend,” Newgarden said in the team’s pre-race advance.
“We just need to show up and execute well. If we do, I think we have all the ingredients necessary to have a strong weekend.”