IndyCar Drivers To Know: J.R. Hildebrand
Getting a full-ride scholarship to a prestigious school like MIT is the dream of many high school students. If they somehow found themselves in that position, 99 percent of those students would jump at the opportunity.
J.R. Hildebrand was the other 1 percent. Since he was a kid, all Hildebrand wanted to do was race.
In 2006, Hildebrand graduated high school with a 4.1 GPA and was named a National Merit Scholar. With his successful high school career, he was accepted into many of the top colleges in the country, including MIT’s engineering program. Despite the accolades, Hildebrand traded his high marks for high speeds in pursuit of a racing career.
“It wasn’t so much that I view it as a this-or-that kind of thing,” Hildebrand says. “I viewed it as a timeline, as I really had one shot to maintain the momentum of the racing train. I knew that I had to commit wholeheartedly to doing that if I was going to make a career of racing.”
Hildebrand’s decision paid off quickly, as he became a well-known name on the open-wheel scene. He dominated the USF2000 racing series in 2006, winning 12 of the 14 races. Three years later, he captured the championship during the 2009 Indy Lights season.
Hildebrand would get his first big shot in IndyCar by signing a multi-year deal with Panther Racing. During his rookie season in 2011, Hildebrand had the lead in the latter stages of the Indianapolis 500 in what looked like a sure win—before a crash on the final turn of the last lap ended the dream. He finished second that day, and continued racing for Panther Racing for another two years.
Since his release from Panther Racing in 2013, Hildebrand’s career has found resurgence with Ed Carpenter Racing. For the past three seasons, Hildebrand has raced with ECR in the Indianapolis 500, with top-ten finishes in each race. As a reward for his success, ECR signed him to a full-time ride for the 2017 season.
“It felt like this is where things were goin,g but you never know with all the balls in the air during the off season,” Hildebrand says. “I’m just really appreciative. You grow to recognize that there are a lot of variables that are at play. I felt like I had done everything I could do given the opportunities that I had to be here and get this ride. It feels great to have it all pay off.”
Hildebrand’s first full season with ECR started out on a rough note. On the final lap of the second race of the season, Hildebrand was involved in a wreck that broke his hand. He missed the next race at Alabama due to the injury before coming back strong with a third-place finish on the oval at Phoenix.
“I think the race at Phoenix helped everyone take a deep breath,” Hildebrand says. “It was important that we collected a result and that we had a car that, if circumstances had been a bit different, we were capable of winning the race. It felt good for all of us to be able to execute at a high level. It’s good momentum coming into May, and Phoenix used to always be a place that had a pretty strong correlation between being good there and being good here [Indianapolis].”
Off the track, Hildebrand still has strong ties to the academic community. He is an adjunct lecturer at Stanford University and is a consultant for the school’s autonomous-vehicle program. He is used as an example of what to compare drivers to in the growing self-driving vehicle industry.
Having always been a stellar student, Hildebrand has worked that into his career as a driver. He loves the history of the sport, and likes to do small research projects on certain aspects of racing whenever he gets the chance.
“We’re in the middle of one right now that we’re calling ‘Primal Numbers,’” Hildebrand says. “It’s about great racing-number designs over the years. I really enjoy the diversity of design from both an engineering perspective and artistic perspective that’s gone in our sport. I wish there was a little more of that today.”
One day, Hildebrand may look back on a project involving his name as a future Indianapolis 500 champion. In four of his six attempts in the 500, he has finished in the top ten. With a full-time partnership with Ed Carpenter Racing, this may be his best attempt yet at the Borg-Warner Trophy.
“This is a special place to come back to, and this is our Super Bowl,” Hildebrand says. “You really feel that being here. You can definitely feel the energy in a place like this when the grandstands are packed. It’s just cool to come back here year after year.”