Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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.”

Adam Enticknap paves the way for the ‘Other 19’

Feld Entertainment Inc
Leave a comment

Once the 2020 Monster Energy AMA Supercross season kicks off in Anaheim, Calif. on January 4, eyes inevitably will begin to focus on the front of the field.

One rider will win that race. Two will stand on either side of him on the podium. Nineteen others will ride quietly back to the garage and if they’re lucky, get a few minutes to tell the tale of their race to a few members of the media. On their way off the track, the other 19 will take a minute to wave to the fans in the stands.

Adam Enticknap will motion for them to follow him.

One of the most engaging riders in the sport, Enticknap not only recognizes his role as a dark horse on Supercross grid, he revels in it.

“Not everyone is going to win,” Enticknap said last week at the Supercross media sessions. “There’s only one winner on a weekend; that’s it. There can’t be more than one winner. And everyone else has got to go home and eat too.”

A recognized Hip Hop artist known for his video ‘My Bikes Too Lit’, Enticknap is bringing new fans to the track – and as a result, he is putting a spotlight on riders deeper in the field.

Last year Enticknap was coming off a broken femur that marred his SX season. He made only three Mains with a 20th in Indianapolis, 15th at Houston, and an 18th at Las Vegas. In October, he earned a career-best 14th in the Monster Energy Cup at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. He got there by being consistent in the three heats, finishing 16-15-15.

But that’s not the point for Enticknap. Yes, he wants to win but it is just as important to be the ambassador for those riders who are known only to their fans.

“I’ve made a path for riders that are not going to win,” Enticknap said. “And that’s not saying that I don’t want to win, or that I’m not going to win, but I’ve made it so that the guy who’s finishing 20th and barely making the Mains can make a full career out of it. I’m probably the most famous, slowest guy on the track. It’s come from the way I’ve marketed myself and the way I’ve been with my fans and I’ve appreciated every second that I’ve been here.”

On a good weekend, Enticknap is one of the “other 19” in the Main Event.

“Without all of us, there really is no winner. Everybody’s got to show up and everybody’s got to compete during the weekend. In our sport, everyone is so hyper-focused on the guy who is winning all the time, but I hope that I’ve opened people’s eyes that sometimes it’s not just about the guy who wins the race as much as it is about the guy who is succeeding during the weekend.”

For Enticknap, success looks different than for last year’s champion Cooper Webb or Eli Tomac who won six of the 17 races in 2019. It’s about knowing that when it’s time to ride back to the hauler – whether that is at the end of the Main or after a Last Chance Qualifier – that nothing was left on the track.

“My best finish was a 14th at the Monster Energy Cup – ever in my career,” Enticknap emphasized. “Making my way from the bottom is huge. I made my way from not even making the top 40 to finishing 14th in A-Main Event. That’s huge.”

And that’s progress.

In his second season with H.E.P. Motorsports, Enticknap predicts he will make 10 Mains this year.

Even if he advances to only half of the Features, it will be his best season in eight years at this level. Enticknap qualified for seven Mains in 2017 with a best of 18th at Vegas. He was in five Mains in 2018 with a best of 16th at San Diego before signing with his current team – and getting injured without rightly being able to show what he could do with them.

“I want to break into the top 10 – that’s my goal for the year – but as of right now I’m succeeding in all the little goals that I’ve set and I want to keep succeeding,” Enticknap said.

It’s not enough to want to finish well, however; riders have to visualize a path to success. For Enticknap, that will come with because of how he approaches stadium races. Towering over the field, Enticknap is not a small man by anyone’s measure so it’s ironic that he makes a comparison between Supercross and ballet. The indoor season is about precision, technical mastery, and finesse. And that is where Enticknap believes he shines.

“Supercross is more of a ballet. It’s more perfection. It’s something that takes so much talent – and you can see it in real life. When you watch an outdoor race, you’re like ‘that guy’s a beast’; he’s manhandling it; he’s hammering the throttle. And when you see a Supercross race it’s just so rhythmic and flowing and light. So much finesse on everything. Just such a fluent, technical race.”

Enticknap credits his background in BMX racing as one of the reasons why he is so fluid on a tight track.

“Supercross fits my riding style a lot,” Enticknap said. “I don’t like to just hang it out and get all sideways and just swap, swap, swap. I like to be very precise in all my movement. I’m a perfectionist. It helps in Supercross because everything is just timed by the millisecond.”

More: Michael Mosiman expects magic in this third year

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter