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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Hildebrand is ready for the big-time

by Gordon Kirby
J.R. Hildebrand has been on many of our radar screens in recent years as he climbed the ladder from Formula Russell through FF2000 and Atlantic to Indy Lights. This is Hildebrand's second year in Lights cars, starting with RLR/Andersen Racing and moving on this year to Andretti-Green. Teamed this season with talented Colombian Sebastien Saavedra, the 21-year old Hildebrand has been the man to beat.

Hildebrand took the championship lead with a dominant win from the pole at Long Beach in April and never looked back. J.R. won again at Watkins Glen and Edmonton in July and again at Infineon Raceway this past month. He wrapped-up the championship at Chicago on Saturday evening by coming through from the back of the field to finish fifth. Will Hildebrand be rewarded with the opportunity he deserves in Indy cars?

"As everyone knows, that last rung on the ladder is the toughest one to climb onto," Hildebrand remarks. "I know that if we can be successful at this level and close-out our season the way that I think we can there will be some opportunities out there. I'm doing a lot to make sure I'm prepared in case some good opportunities do arise and the planets align and everything works out. It's a tough business, but I'm cautiously optimistic about where things are going.

"I'm really proud of the fact that we have pretty much made the most of what we have," J.R. adds. "Last season definitely gave me the experience I needed to be competitive right away. There were a couple of races where maybe we finished second that we could have won, or finished sixth instead of fifth, but the team has done an awesome job and I've really felt like part of the family. Having Michael Andretti as a driver coach is just great and if we can keep doing what we're doing I think it will come together and I'll get a shot."

In 2003 when he was fifteen Hildebrand won the Jim Russell graduates run-off at Infineon Raceway, then won the SCCA's Formula Russell championship the following year. He started racing FF2000 cars in '05 and competed in the Formula Palmer Audi Autumn Cup in the UK that year as one of Jeremy Shaw's Team USA scholarship winners. Hildebrand won the Cooper Tires FF2000 championship in '06 in style, winning twelve of fourteen races. He next raced Atlantic cars with Newman/Wachs in '07 before moving to Indy Lights with RLR/Andersen Racing in '08 and then Andretti-Green this year.

"I learned a lot last year in the Lights series and was able to take that to Andretti-Green," Hildebrand remarked. "They were the championship-winning team last year and I guess stepping into that seat put a little bit on my shoulders. But we've been able to put it all together and capitalize on the situation. I'm really excited with the way things are going and looking forward to trying to make the move to Indy cars."

Hildebrand grew up in Sausalito and was a National Merit Scholar at Redwood High School in Corte Madera, graduating with a 4.12 grade average. He was accepted at MIT but has deferred his education the past three years to go racing.

"I think my educational background has helped me with learning about and analyzing the race car," he observes. "I think that's one of my strong points. I have always had a math and science outlook on things and I think that's helped me along the way with a general understanding for how things work and the problem-solving aspect of racing.

"My family's been ultra-supportive the whole time. They've put in the time and effort to allow me to be successful. But rather than being the little league dad kind of parents they were more on the skeptical side. From the beginning, they weren't really sure that this was a good idea, which I think has made me a stronger individual within the sport because it was what I really wanted to do it. But my parents have been behind me every step of the way.

"My dad raced vintage race cars as a hobby. We lived very close to what was then called Sears Point and Laguna Seca, too. We always went to the races and my dad raced seven or eight times a year. I played a lot of baseball when I was a little kid so I didn't race a go-kart in any kind of serious way until I was fourteen. They opened a go-kart school at Infineon Raceway and I went up and took a class and one of the instructors told me and my dad I had the ability to do it."

Like most kids today J.R. grew up playing computer games.

"But I had always loved racing. I had, and still have, a big collection of Hot Wheels cars and we would sit there at home and watch NASCAR and Indy car races. It's always been my passion. So we started racing go-karts at Infineon and went through the whole Jim Russell drivers school system."

Hildebrand has been successful and lucky enough to race without charge for three seasons, two in the Russell system and one in Atlantic.

"It's no secret that you have to fund it yourself to begin with but I was able to basically race for free for a couple of years in the Russell system because I won their run-offs. Then I raced Formula 2000 because it was less expensive than Formula BMW, for example. I think that was a good move because FF2000 was very competitive and I learned a lot about the cars.

"I think in hindsight that ended up being a better choice than we had even thought because I was able to learn a lot over those two years rather than being in a formula where there's not much to change on the cars and you miss out on the driver development side. Running F2000 those two years went a long way for me to establish the feel of a race car and the changes that are made and need to be made."

Hildebrand also reflected on a frustrating hired gun season with Newman/Wachs in Atlantic in 2007.

"I got a great opportunity to run for Newman/Wachs Racing which was a funded ride. It was a huge learning experience for me being at that level and I think it allowed me to move to Indy Lights with a little bit of a different perspective. I think that was a big turning point for me leading into this season.

"There were quite a few changes in the engineering and crew on the team from the previous year so they had to learn to work together. But I think maybe I went into it with too high expectations of what I was going to be getting out of it right away. Don Halliday was my engineer and he's a really good engineer, but I'd gotten used to being in F2000 where I was almost engineering the car. I had a really good relationship with the engineers I had in F2000 and we had been very successful, and I think maybe I tried a little bit too much to engineer the car during my year in Atlantic.

"We had a lot of good runs that year that didn't produce the result they deserved. It wasn't like it was all bad, but we weren't as consistently competitive as you need to be. It was also my first year in the 'big-time' and it was an ultra-competitive year in Atlantic from both a team and driver perspective. A lot of people had a tough time being consistently competitive that year. But I think I've been able to look back and learn a lot from the experience I had that year."

Hildebrand says his best races this year were at Watkins Glen and Edmonton.

"At Edmonton we qualified on pole by half a second and were unbeatable in the race," J.R. remarked. "That was one of the races I look back and say that was really due to the fact that our race pace was totally consistent. My fastest lap during that race was not that much faster than a lot of the other guys but I ran thirty-five of fifty laps within a couple of tenths of my fastest lap.

"But certainly my favorite victory was at Watkins Glen because we totally rolled the dice and made some changes before the race. The car was either going to be really quick or it was going to be terrible! But we made the right calls and we were able to pass some guys in the race which is almost unheard of in this series. It's tough to do. But we passed from fourth up to the lead and won on the fourth of July. Looking back on the season, that was pretty cool.

"Last year I crashed in the first race at the Glen and it was a mad thrash to put the car back together because both races were on the same day within a couple of hours of each other. And in the second race I was just hanging on for dear life because the guys just didn't have the time to get everything back together. It took all they had just to get me out there. So to have a car that was so good at Watkins Glen this year was pretty incredible."

Hildebrand believes consistency is his strongest suit.

"I think a big strength in general that I've been able to really make good on is to consistently make the most of each situation," he says. "I can proudly look back on what we've done this year and say that I really don't think we've made that many mistakes. We certainly haven't made any big ones that cost us a lot of points or time. I've certainly bent my fair share of tie-rod ends and toe links, but whenever something's gone wrong we've been able to make the best of it and still score a lot of points. And when things are right we take as much advantage as we can take.

"I've been really happy about that from a personal standpoint. I feel like a lot of it is due to the fact that the cars are really good and the team has done a great job, but I feel like I've been able to really put it all together this year. Our race pace more often than not is second to none and I think that's been a large part of our strength this year."

First rate fitness also is essential of course.

"We all do a lot of training but for sure part of that is being in good shape. I think that's always been one of my strengths. I feel comfortable driving the car and I feel like I'm mentally pretty strong so I can give the feedback required without losing any focus on going fast."

Hildebrand has had no problems coming to grips with oval tracks.

"Last year was my first experience on an oval and there are certainly some nuances of oval racing that take a little while to learn. But we won in Kansas which was my second oval race although I've had some good runs that didn't end up so good."

He was able to test an Indy car for AGR on the Kansas oval this year and that day gave him a boost of confidence.

"I tested an Indy car at Kansas earlier this year and was able to run flat around there pretty quickly. Danica, Briscoe, Wheldon and a few others were there and by the end of the day I was pretty comfortable and we were quite quick. I was flat and we were doing qualifying stuff to the car. It was windy and they had to come back on some of the stuff but by the end of the day I was really comfortable driving the car. But the first fifteen laps felt like warp speed compared to an Indy Lights car!

"So I feel like in terms of driving the car I'm quite comfortable with it. But I also understand that there are a lot of things about the nature of racing at that level that will probably take a little bit of getting used to. But at the same time I think that's something that over the years I've been able to pick up on pretty quickly. I feel like adapting to a new environment, whether it's engineering the car or figuring out the right perspective to the racing, my analytical background has served me well."

Hildebrand has enjoyed his few races in Europe and would love to take a crack at racing overseas. But he emphasizes that his goal right now is to make a successful move into Indy cars.

"I had a great experience doing the A1GP thing last year and doing the race at Brands Hatch at the beginning of this year," he says. "I'm still pissed-off that we didn't get on the pole for the first sprint race at Brands Hatch. But we had good runs there and I enjoyed driving the car.

"I just think that for any American to go over there he needs the right opportunity because the racing is so strong over there. But it's definitely something that's in the back of my mind. What I've done over here doesn't mean a hell of a lot over there but as of right now I'm focused on trying to make the move to Indy cars."

Veteran race engineer Stuart Kenworthy runs AGR's Lights team. Kenworthy has worked with many top drivers including Dario Franchitti, Paul Tracy, Michael Andretti and Tony Kanaan and he's very impressed with Hildebrand.

"J.R. is very passionate about his racing," Kenworthy says. "He wants to be the quickest every time he hits the track. He's also had to handle plenty of pressure from his teammate this year and he's done it well. They both realize that they're each others' biggest competition but they still realize it's better to work together as teammates."

Saavedra is just 19 and started racing karts when he was ten years old and raced Formula BMW in the USA in 2006 and in Europe and Asia in '07. Last year Saavedra raced in the German F3 series, winning three races and finishing an impressive second in the championship. Kenworthy says Saavedra showed plenty of speed the first time he sat in an Indy Lights car.

"Saavedra was very quick from day one," Kenworthy observed. "The first test he had with us at Sebring he was faster than Raffa Matos had been there, and he took to the ovals better than Raffa did. He's got a very good feel for a race car. I think he needs one more year in the Lights series and then he'll be fully-prepared to step up to an Indy car."

Meanwhile Hildebrand hopes to make the move to the big cars this winter.

"My focus is on winning this championship," J.R. says. "If that doesn't happen I'm going to have a rough time making it. At the same time I think that this year there's potential for a pretty wide number of changes in IndyCar because a lot of contracts are up this year. I'm doing a lot right now to prepare for the opportunity if some spots open-up. Hopefully, the planets will align and I'll be able to take advantage of that.

"Racing is a tough gig, but I feel like we've got a lot of momentum," Hildebrand adds. "I hope somebody else out there sees that too. The money has to come from somewhere. It's not like Michael Andretti can just say he thinks this guy really deserves a ride. If he doesn't have sponsorship there's no way that's going to happen.

"So we're doing a lot of things right now to find sponsors and try to figure that out. If we can find sponsorship it's only going to help our situation. This year we had a lot of support from local friends, most of them vintage racers and people who race in the Historic F1 series. I've got to know some of those guys and they've been a big help. I've been lucky to have those guys behind me.

"I've been able to pull together some reasonable sponsorship for Indy Lights, mostly because of the success I've had. My parents have chipped in every step along the way and I've been fortunate that they've supported me. Otherwise, it would have been tough."

J.R. Hildebrand is an intelligent young man and an excellent race driver. He's also home-brewed in America. Here's hoping J.R. gets his proper opportunity in Indy cars. I have no doubt he'll be a star.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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