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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.”

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500