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Turning the Corner: JR Hildebrand

When the rookie lost last May's 500 to Dan Wheldon in a crash on the final turn, it was just the beginning of a historically bad year. But the hot young hope of IndyCar has no intention of easing off the gas pedal.

JR Hildebrand spotted the starter’s white flag. “Bring it home, baby, bring it home,” chirped the rookie’s support staff over the radio from their perch in the pits. Four left turns away from winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500, Hildebrand buried the rush of excitement. No one, he told himself, cares who leads lap No. 199 at Indy. In the ether, though, the announcer’s voice on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network was already rising. Here he goes, the final lap! Across the line, JR Hildebrand will see the white flag.

On cue, the crowd of 250,000 spectators stirred and leaped to its feet as Hildebrand buzzed past the tower.

Final lap. Can a rookie win it?

The 23-year-old from Sausalito, California, headed into Turn 1 on fumes.

Inside Panther Racing’s National Guard car, a dashboard alert flashed red, feeding Hildebrand a fuel mileage number he had to hit in order to roar, not sputter, across the finish line. The team’s strategy had been a gamble: Pit with 37 laps to go, then conserve fuel through the end while one leader after another dropped off, tanks empty in the waning miles. Now, Hildebrand was no longer racing against the remaining field of drivers. He was dueling his own dwindling fuel tank.

Hildebrand entered the back straightaway as his closest competitor, former Indy 500 champ Dan Wheldon, exited the first turn. Finally, zooming down the backstretch, Hildebrand flirted with the idea of victory.

He’s hoping that wind can push him through. JR Hildebrand is now trying to conserve fuel, trying to do the unthinkable—win his first Indianapolis 500.

As Hildebrand bulleted toward Turn 3, he saw nothing in front of him besides two slow-moving lapped cars. The grandstand erupted, dizzy with the notion that a first-year driver—an American driving for a team that had finished a painful second three years in a row—was about to win the 100th anniversary running of the race.

The driver’s dashboard light throbbed red. But over the airwaves, the excitement continued to build.

JR Hildebrand with a huge throng of fans on their feet, fists pumping, caps waving. He comes out of Turn 3!

He leaned into Turn 4 at 208 miles per hour. Then, trouble ahead: One of those two slow movers was still inching out of the fourth corner, limping along at 90 miles per hour. He hurled toward it.

Here he comes, the National Guard machine with JR Hildebrand down along the white line.

Hildebrand went hard, high, and to the right, looking to zip past by braving the danger zone of the track—the far corner where the day’s dirt and remnant rubber had collected. He could see the tower and the starter’s checkered flag and ...

And he hits the wall! He hits the wall coming out of 4!

With only two wheels spinning, the racecar caromed along the retaining wall, momentum carrying it desperately toward the finish.

Will he have enough to cross the yard of bricks?

Wheldon closed in as Hildebrand careened helplessly.

Who will win? Who is the winner? Wheldon? Dan Wheldon!

Hildebrand finished second. He pulled into the infield and emerged from his crippled car to cheers for another driver.

Wheldon took his gulp of milk. He hugged his wife. He kissed the bricks.

Hildebrand paced. He threw his arms skyward. And then, finally, he knelt in the grass, his head low.

 

In the century-long history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the track had never seen an ending like this one. JR Hildebrand, in his rookie year at Indy, had become the first race leader to crash on the final turn. Sports Illustrated would call it the “Most Painful Sports Moment of 2011.” Jalopnik.com, a car culture website, would add Hildebrand’s failure to its list of Ten Dumbest Last Laps in Racing History. Even Wheldon, the victor, would have to shoulder Hildebrand’s split-second decision for what remained of his short life, with sports reports calling him “the beneficiary of a rookie mistake.” Five months after the 500, when the two-time Indy champ was killed in a dramatic crash during the final race of the season, Hildebrand garnered repeated mentions in the obituaries, credited with handing Wheldon a final win at Indy.

But Turn 4 at Indianapolis was only the beginning of Hildebrand’s troubles last season. Less than two weeks later, during a fitness promotion before a race at Texas Motor Speedway, he tore the ACL in his left knee while trying to clear a hurdle in a foot race against another driver; without a break in the IndyCar Series schedule, he drove the rest of the season with the injury. In September, he broke a bone in his hand. And in the 15-car pileup that killed Wheldon, Hildebrand sustained a concussion and bruised sternum.

JR Hildebrand skids to the finish line in a badly damaged car at the end of last year’s 500.Through it all, he still pulled off an impressive season. With five top-ten finishes, Hildebrand ended up in 14th place in the 2011 IndyCar standings and was Sunoco Rookie of the Year runner-up behind Canadian James Hinchcliffe. When at last the season was over, Hildebrand’s real prize was an opportunity to have the knee surgery he had been putting off for months. “JR definitely got baptized by fire in every aspect,” says Panther technical director David Cripps. “These things happen in auto racing; it’s not a matter of if they’ll happen, it’s when. But everything happened to JR, and I mean everything, in one year.”

In many ways, Hildebrand is the driver the struggling IndyCar Series has been waiting for. A young, handsome California boy who came up through the IndyCar ranks and managed to pick up a nickname along the way—Captain America—that highlights what a rarity he is: an American-born driver competing in IndyCar. Today, he even lives in Indianapolis, making him that much more appealing to the local crowd. But how does a racecar driver—even a charismatic one who has already become a track favorite—overcome a year like the one Hildebrand had and redeem a historic rookie mistake? The answer is simple, but harsh: Hildebrand needs to win the 500. Anything less and his crash in Turn 4 will forever define him.

“Indy is about winning the race,” Hildebrand says. “People don’t usually care who finishes anywhere else.”

Then he pauses and grins, reconsidering his words. “I guess I am the one exception to that rule.”

 

Even now, at 24, Hildebrand has a boyish sensibility. His wiry six-foot frame slips easily into the National Guard car, yet when he takes off the helmet and fire-retardant hood, his mop of dark brown hair falls into its disheveled place, making him look like a grown-up Justin Bieber. Sometimes, as he talks, he twirls a strand around his finger, like a high school senior hunched over a calculus test. And while his Panther Racing predecessor, Dan Wheldon, was known for his persnickety clean-freak streak, colleagues say Hildebrand is more likely to leave a half-eaten sandwich and empty soda can around the garage. “JR is a very mature 24-year-old, and he puts up a very good front,” says his mother, Maria Hildebrand. “But really, he’s still just a 24-year-old guy, and with that comes a sense of invincibility, and a lot of growing up that you still have to do.”

John Randal Hildebrand Jr. took a circuitous route to Indianapolis. He grew up in Marin County, California, the only child of an accountant and an elementary school teacher. From the age of 5, his sport was baseball. But his love was cars.

His dad and uncle raced a 1968 Camaro/Trans Am a half-dozen or so times a year at tracks up and down the West Coast. The family lived in the shadow of two world-class road courses—now known as Infineon in Sonoma and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas—and had annual passes to both. He spent childhood weekends at the racetrack.

“If you had walked into my room when I was 10 years old, you would have found 500 hobbyist cars and no baseball cards,” Hildebrand says. “Racing and cars were always my thing.” His parents bought him a go-kart series registration as an eighth-grade graduation present. Still, in an era when many modern racers first take the driver’s seat once they’re old enough to tell the right foot from the left, Hildebrand wouldn’t drive a real racecar until he was just a couple of years removed from his driver’s license.

Hildebrand and 14 other cars collide in the tragic Las Vegas Motor Speedway wreck that killed Dan Wheldon last year. The American driver feels lucky to have walked away with a concussion and a bruised sternum.  By age 14, Hildebrand was firmly entrenched in baseball. As a freshman at Redwood High School, he and his team won the league championship; when he was a sophomore, the team went undefeated. He played for Coach Gino Pomilia, who speaks wistfully about the center fielder who arrived for workouts 30 minutes before anyone else. Hildebrand was smart enough to tutor his classmates, Pomilia recalls, and speedy enough to steal home plate. “I formed my team around that young man,” Pomilia says. “His work ethic is phenomenal.”

In California baseball circles, Pomilia is known as a beloved coach who often brings a quote-of-the-day to the dugout. He remembers when Hildebrand, then a high school junior, came to the coach to discuss his future in baseball—and in racing. “Coach,” Hildebrand said, “we need to talk.”

That eighth-grade graduation present had paid off. Hildebrand won the go-kart series, even though he was racing against adults. The success propelled him up the karting ladder: champion in the 2004 SCCA Formula Russell Championship Series, Rookie of the Year in the Pacific F2000 Series in 2005. On the day that Hildebrand dropped in on his coach, he was being courted by Paul Newman’s racing team and considering an opportunity that would take him to the U.K. It was time for a tough choice.

“I don’t want to let you down,” the 16-year-old Hildebrand told Pomilia. “What do you think I should do?”

“You can go places in baseball, but it’s a tough road,” Pomilia recalls saying. “You’ll get a Division I scholarship. Then you’ll have three years in the minors, 13-hour bus trips.

“You’ve got to search your heart,” the coach continued, “and find your passion.”

“What if I have two passions?” Hildebrand asked him.

Pomilia turned to one of his aphorisms. “This is the quote I can give you, and I want you to think about it,” he said. “If you chase two rabbits, they both get away.”

Pomilia wasn’t the only one heartbroken by Hildebrand’s decision to pursue racing. The young driver’s parents, John and Maria, struggled with the idea that their bright son—a National Merit Scholar with a 4.12 grade-point average—might ultimately choose racing over college. “I remember talking with John, and he said, ‘You know, Maria, most likely he’s not going to college,’” she remembers. “And I got my feathers in an uproar and said, ‘What do you mean he will not be going to college?’ And then, that whole next year, seeing him race and watching him succeed, I had to tentatively take backward steps in my head and say, ‘OK, I don’t think he’ll be going to college.’”

Hildebrand applied anyway. He was accepted to UCLA, UC-Berkeley, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. M.I.T. gave him a two-year deferral so he could see where racing would take him. The school even extended it a year, then another.

Hildebrand grows uneasy when conversation lingers on his successes off the racetrack. On M.I.T.: “People say I had a full academic scholarship; there was no scholarship.” On baseball: “It’s not true that I was going to become a professional baseball player. I was just good at it in high school.” On his college admissions: “I lucked into doing well on the PSAT. I was not one of the top 10 smartest guys in my class.” Yet he can’t escape the fact that, for a guy who goes fast for a living, he’s pretty bright. On his 4.12 high school GPA: “OK, yeah, that’s true.”

"THESE THINGS HAPPEN IN AUTO RACING,” SAYS A MEMBER OF HILDEBRAND’S TEAM. “BUT EVERYTHING HAPPENED TO JR, AND I MEAN EVERYTHING, IN ONE YEAR."

By the time his third M.I.T. deferral expired, Hildebrand’s future in racing was cemented. The summer after quitting baseball, he raced in the U.K. and finished third in the Formula Palmer Audi Autumn Cup. The next season, in another Formula series, he won a record 12 of 14 races and the championship. In 2007, racing for Paul Newman’s team, he was the top-placed American rookie in the Atlantic Championship. Then he jumped to the Indy Lights series—IndyCar’s minor league—and won the championship in 2009.

That year wasn’t just his most successful in racing; it was also the year he picked up the identity that would follow him to IndyCar. In the A1GP World Cup of Motorsports, Hildebrand was the No. 2 driver for Team USA, behind Marco Andretti. But when scheduling conflicts forced Andretti to meet other commitments, Hildebrand drove the final round of the championship. He performed well, finishing fourth and leading several laps of the race. And he did it all while wearing the Team USA uniform—which was, in Hildebrand’s words, “basically just an American flag made into a firesuit.”

Soon, the team was calling him “Captain America.” Then some reporters heard the name. He has carried it ever since. “I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way, that I’m trying to claim Americanism or something all for myself,” Hildebrand says. “There are a lot of other American boys racing cars, and there was a point when this ‘Captain America’ thing started to sound like a WWF name. I liked it at first because it was fun for our team, but once it started to spread out, I was like, ‘Can I make it clear to everybody that I didn’t give myself this nickname?’”

The nickname didn’t just allude to some kind of superhero star quality. It recognized that, in IndyCar, Hildebrand stands out because he is homegrown, unlike the current generation of champions—Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon, Helio Castroneves. In the first 80 years of the 500, foreign-born drivers won nine races; in the last 20, they have won all but six.

“An American who gets hired to drive an IndyCar is a very rare breed in this day and age,” says Robin Miller, the former Indianapolis Star motorsports writer who is now an IndyCar commentator for Speed TV. “JR represents that American guy who came up the ladder system, and somebody finally gave him a chance. I think he understands that he has a really rare opportunity.”

That “somebody” was John Barnes, owner of Panther Racing. But Hildebrand’s audition for the team didn’t come easy.

Six months before last year’s Indianapolis 500, Hildebrand was driving slow loops at a dry, dirty track in Phoenix, with former Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. in the passenger seat. Around them, workers shoveled gravel and rubber marbles off the oval. Even Unser was disturbed by the conditions. “Man, this is pretty rough,” he told Hildebrand. And Unser wasn’t the one who had to prove himself on that surface the next day.

Panther Racing needed a new driver. Its contract with Wheldon, who had finished second for the team at Indianapolis in 2009 and 2010, had expired a month earlier. Barnes had invited Hildebrand—at the time, one year removed from his definitive championship in the Indy Lights Series—to try out for the Panther seat, and Unser was along to coordinate the test.

The presence of the gunk-scraping shovels was the first bad omen. And Hildebrand’s worries didn’t ease on his first lap; the car was pulling so violently to the left that he was steering right even through the left turns. The young upstart—who had never driven an IndyCar on an oval and hadn’t driven anything on an oval in more than a year—knew he would have to speak up. “It was really hard to come in and start complaining when they know I don’t have any experience on an oval like this,” he says. “The last thing I wanted to do after the first run is come in and say, ‘I can’t drive this car.’”

The car, as it turned out, had the wrong tires and some inaccurate settings. Forty-five minutes later, Hildebrand was given a replacement. The team had been working with him for only one lap, and they had already surmounted obstacles together.

Soon, he began to really impress his prospective employers. He drove flat-out through turns 3 and 4—not easing up at all in the corners—on his third lap, and hit the day’s speed target before lunchtime. By day’s end, he was flat-out through all corners, a tall order at the tight track. “JR’s ability to understand the physics of the car was evident,” says technical director Cripps, himself a mechanical engineer. “He understood the mass that we’re trying to control and where that mass is going, which is really what a racecar is all about. How do you get this lump of mass to travel at excess speeds and be able to stay on the track? JR already had a good understanding of the aerodynamics, whereas a lot of people think it’s all about the engine.”

Panther Racing had found its driver.

Coach Pomilia has a philosophy about close calls. Say you’re in the ninth inning, and the game is close. You want to deliver a big hit, so you pass up the first pitch because it misses your sweet spot. Strike one. The second pitch arrives, straight over the plate but too fast for you to put any power behind it. Strike two. Then, suddenly, you’re at the pitcher’s mercy. You’re going to have to swing at whatever comes your way.

“I’d rather see you make a mistake going after something than to sit back and be a victim of someone else’s game plan,” Pomilia says. “In a close game, when you’re not sure what to do, give it gas.”

That’s one of the coach’s favorite quotes, actually. He pulls it out regularly.

“When in doubt,” he repeats, “give it gas.”

Then he erupts in laughter, as if he finally understands the punch line of a joke he heard many months ago. “Oh, no!” he says. “I made JR lose the Indy 500.”

Whether he remembered Pomilia’s words or not, Hildebrand gave it gas, and in doing so added to Panther’s list of second-place finishes: Vitor Meira in 2008; Dan Wheldon in 2009 and 2010. And Hildebrand in 2011.

But Pomilia, so proud of the young man, couldn’t have been surprised by what happened next. After the crash, the spotlight followed Hildebrand to the post-race press conference. Instead of blaming spotters or the slow driver in front of him, as others had already started to do, he took responsibility for his decision to accelerate in the final turn.

“You can only imagine what Danica Patrick would have done,” says John Oreovicz, a motorsports writer for ESPN.com. “She would have stomped off and thrown a fit and stonewalled the media. You could tell this kid had shed a few tears and was completely crushed. But he came in there and said, ‘Look, I made a mistake.’”

Even John Barnes, the Panther co-owner known for his occasionally gruff approach, was impressed. He decided the day after the 500 that his driver’s race performance merited a consolation prize. Last summer, he gave Hildebrand his dream car—a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle Supersport. And at the end of Hildebrand’s troubled but promising season, Panther Racing signed him to two more years. “He now has the experience,” says Barnes. “I guarantee he won’t do what he did in that last turn at Indy again.”

As Hildebrand and perennial second-place finisher Panther Racing enter their second year together, they share something more than a car. Both have become sympathetic characters in IndyCar—ones you can’t help but root for.

“We try not to talk about last year too much, but it’s hard not to look up to the heavens and go, ‘OK, this is really starting to get weird,’” says Cripps, the Panther technical director. “It’s a unique situation to be in. On one hand, it’s quite an accomplishment to be able to finish second four years in a row. But it almost seems bizarre that we have done so many different things—three drivers, four setups on the car—and yet ended up in the same place for four years. It’s bigger than a monkey on our backs. When people talk about the 800-pound gorilla in the room, that’s what’s hanging off of our backs here.”

Hildebrand has lived in South Broad Ripple for a couple of years now, sharing a rental home with his girlfriend, Kristen Paine, who works as a nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Around town, he is unassuming, shuttling between Broad Ripple and Panther’s westside garage in a Chevy Tahoe, and running the Monon now that his ACL is on the mend. And for a California guy, he has a polite sensibility Midwesterners like to claim as their own: When he wanted to bring a reporter to one of his favorite restaurants, Goose the Market, for an interview, he first asked the Goose employees if that would be OK.

Over lunch, he reflects on slamming into that wall in the fourth turn at Indy, and insists that the knee injury still haunts him more. When he considers the 500 moment the world won’t let him forget, he sees something else: a sound decision worth defending because of its virtue, if not for its outcome.

“Looking back on it, I think there are some little things I could have done differently if I had more information about how slow that car was going,” Hildebrand says. “But in a sense, I’m sort of reassured that in the moment, when I had to make a decision, and my options were to go for the pass and try to win or jam on the brakes and slow down, I’m glad I went with what I’m here to do.

“I went fast.”

 

Photo of JR Hildebrand by Dale Bernstein; photo of 2011 Indy 500 by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images; and photo of Las Vegas crash by Robert Laberge/Getty Images.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.