JR Hildebrand is not the first, nor will he be the last, talented driver sidelined from a full-time seat in the Verizon IndyCar Series. But he is in rarified air among those coming back to a full-time ride after an extended hiatus.
Simon Pagenaud stands out as the most recent and obvious example, coming back after a long layoff from open-wheel to eventually rise to capture this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series title. Oriol Servia and Graham Rahal each spent the 2010 seasons out of the cockpit before coming back full-time in 2011. The late Englishmen Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson were both destined for full-time returns in their next years without a full-time seat, before tragedy intervened.
Point being though that the opportunities are rare and when second chances do come around, it comes as a result often of pluck, determination, faith and most importantly, presence.
Hildebrand’s been out of a full-time seat since getting sacked by Panther Racing midway through 2013 but he hasn’t disappeared from the scene, and that’s important to note.
He and Ed Carpenter first had a beer not long after John Barnes – who’d hailed Hildebrand’s demeanor and class in 2011 after that loss at Indianapolis – to determine a possible course of action to get “Captain America” back in a car full-time.
And the groundwork laid from the last three years, admittedly in only five race starts but also a number of tests, should make it easier for Hildebrand to be a natural replacement for Josef Newgarden in Carpenter’s No. 21 Chevrolet going into 2017. His work outside the cockpit with Stanford as an adjunct lecturer and with his STEM knowledge has kept his name in the picture off race weekends as well.
“I think the chemistry of the team, the cohesion that we already have I think is going to accelerate this and make it less of a rebuild, but more of a continuation of what we had been than if we had gone a different direction,” Carpenter explained during a conference call today with reporters.
“There were a lot of conversations that were had. We talked to quite a few people. But JR was always at the top of the list of someone we wanted to work with. JR and I have been talking about this before he ever ran a car for us at Indy for the first time.
“It took us a little longer than I think any of us initially thought it would to get to this point. But JR has done a good job for us, has been patient with me as an owner and us as a team getting here.”
Said Hildebrand: “Being able to get a little bit more seat time this year during the season in that role, you know, filling in for Josef, knowing that mattered for him, mattered for the team, that it wasn’t just some sort of off-season program, it was very specific around goals they were trying to achieve in the middle of the year, our ability to work together, the ease of being able to kind of jump into that and play that role, be around during the race weekends, being a little bit more involved throughout that process I think just fired me up about the opportunity to be doing that myself on a more full-time basis.
“I think that really gave me a lot of energy to sort of sit there and go, Yes, I want to be back here doing this, not just because I feel like I’ve got unfinished business, but because I really want to be here. I really enjoy it. I sort of am ready to take advantage of that type of opportunity.”
Hildebrand said – not to “blow smoke” at Carpenter – but he felt his best three IndyCar races were his three Indianapolis 500s he’s spent with Carpenter, of which he finished in the top-10 in each.
Hildebrand said it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison in terms of his return to a full-time seat versus others who’d been sidelined, then have returned.
“I think in the end, every situation like this is sort of different in terms of what the requirements are for, A, just getting back in a position to be full-time, and B, what you maybe need to bring to the table in that situation,” he explained.
“That makes it a little bit difficult to compare and contrast against other drivers in similar situations just because I think every individual situation is fairly different. You definitely appreciate sort of the words of encouragement from different guys. Obviously nothing really replaces being around and being present, hunting for those opportunities along the way to continue to show that not only do you still have it, but you care enough to pursue the opportunities that are there.
“I think in some ways that’s kind of all you can do. I mean, you can stress out a lot about whether or not it’s going to end up working out. In the end, you know, you got to kind of just have faith that you’re pursuing something that you really have a lot of drive to do, and rely on that to hopefully mean something.
“I tried to remain sort of objective about what the likely opportunities were, how probable they might be to actually pan out. Now that I’ve sort of gotten this opportunity, there were definitely be some time spent trying to make sure that I sort of maximize the chance.”
Carpenter said the likely first test for Hildebrand should be early December – without saying it, Sebring is a likely destination. Commercial considerations are still being worked on but the likelihood is Hildebrand will mirror Newgarden in having multiple liveries from the same partners. And the engineer on the car will need to get sorted with Jeremy Milless having departed for Andretti Autosport.
But with the natural evolution for Hildebrand of part-time but present to full-time, Carpenter said things should go smoothly in the transition process.
“I think one of the luxuries that we have, kind of going along with your last question to JR, I think even though he’s just run the races in May with us the past two years, in our mind he’s been a part of the team beyond that,” Carpenter said.
“Especially with the added testing last year at Road America and Iowa, he’s somewhat been dialed in with what we’ve been working on, at least what it was in ’16.
“That will make it a lot easier to get fully up to speed and integrated into what we’re focusing on getting ready for 2017, whether it’s continuing to find a way to win the Indy 500, and along the same lines improving in other areas where we need to improve to better ourselves to win more races and to be in a better position to compete for the championship at the end of the year.”