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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/ JR Hildebrand mulls IndyCar's future

by Gordon Kirby
JR Hildebrand has been through a few tough years recently but Ed Carpenter has given the likable 28 year old Californian a serious second chance by hiring JR to replace the departed Josef Newgarden as Carpenter's lead driver in 2017.

Hildebrand spent the last three years driving on a part-time basis for Carpenter's team, hoping to turn the job into a full-time seat. JR finished a solid sixth at Indianapolis this year and stepped in to help the team with some mid-season testing when Newgarden was injured in June. Such was the quality of Hildebrand's work that Carpenter decided to sign a full season contract with JR to lead the team in 2017.

"There was no particular template to get back on the horse, so to speak," Hildebrand remarked. "I chose not to play the field. I thought if I stayed with Ed and worked with him and his team it would turn into a good situation. With a good, cohesive group like Ed's had the past couple of years, it gave me the confidence that when I got back in one of their cars, particularly at the Speedway, we would be able to give ourselves the chance to be competitive.

"I've been able to do a handful of road course test days with ECR over the last couple of years and I think that helped me to understand what working in different IndyCar team environments was like which was definitely worthwhile and valuable on my side. To be able to extend that when Josef got hurt and get back in the car a little more was definitely valuable for me, but also for the team.

"From the team's perspective it gave them a level of comfort with my ability behind the wheel. I think being able to jump in with no warning at Road America and to test for Josef there and then again at Iowa and Mid-Ohio I think that helped them think I was ready to do this.

© Ed Carpenter Racing
"The number of details you need to pay attention to in order to be competitive in this series these days are vast and very specific. Because of my recent experience we were able to start working through those things right away. I feel being in their cars and working with Ed's team played a significant role in them deciding to hire me full-time."

Hildebrand expects ECR will focus its off-season test program in the early months of the new year.

"There are some opportunities to test before the holidays," he said. "But it depends on how far along the team gets in rounding up engineering staff and whether or not Ed's complimentary road course driver is decided on. In the end, we've only got three or four days that the team can use. We want to plan properly and try to do the most efficient testing we can so I think most of our testing will be done in the new year."

When Hildebrand tested for Newgarden at Mid-Ohio, he got some useful experience with IndyCar's new aero package for 2018. JR is enthusiastic about the direction IndyCar is taking for 2018 and beyond.

"One of the tests I filled in for Josef was at Mid-Ohio where they were testing some stuff for the new package," he remarked. "So I got a little experience with bouncing between the different aero specs. I don't expect the 2018 aero kit to be significantly different in performance than the current kit. I think in a lot of ways it's being designed to model the performance of the current aero kit.

"I think IndyCar feels they're in a pretty good place with the adjustability of the cars from race to race between the speedway package and the road and street course package. I think they feel like the racing itself from the entertainment perspective is quite good.

"I think with all those things in mind I don't anticipate a significant transition. There will certainly be a learning curve for everybody. But in terms of what you see in the on-track product, I don't think it will be much different."

Hildebrand hopes IndyCar's plans for 2018 also will produce a more attractive car.

"It may aesthetically be noticeably different," he commented. "We're all keen to see what it looks like and most of us agree it would be great to improve the car's looks and aesthetics."

JR is impressed with the work put in by IndyCar's vp of competition and race engineering Bill Pappas and aerodynamic development director Tino Bellli both of whom have extensive resumes in the sport.

© Ed Carpenter Racing
"I think they're focusing on the right areas," Hildebrand said. "I've spent a lot of time with Bill and Tino and I feel confident that they've got the right outlook on things in terms of how it will be executed. I think we'll get what we're expecting to get. I think it will be a good interim step for the series as it works to define what the next generation of Indy car racing is going to be all about."

Over the past couple of years Hildebrand has expanded his horizons by doing some test and development work with self-driving cars for the Revs Institute at Stanford University in California. I wrote a blog with JR last week at discussing his views on autonomous vehicles. It's worth a read.

Hildebrand's immersion in the world of technology development has provided him with a broader view of motor racing and its role in modern culture.

"I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about and talking to people about what the future of racing should be," he commented. "I may have a unique perspective on all that because I'm sort of one step in and one step out. I'm at the track working as a temporary driver but I've also been working at Stanford on autonomous vehicles and the emerging technology area. So I've been operating in some circles of people that aren't closely tied to IndyCar or motorsports as a whole.

"That being said, I think it's really important for IndyCar to define what Indy car racing is all about. What are we doing in IndyCar that's different and unique from what other forms of racing are doing? Is what IndyCar is doing today different in the right way? Could it be more different? Those are some of the important questions that I think should be answered as we look forward.

"Industries that are closely tied to motorsports like the automotive industry and media and entertainment industries are experiencing major paradigm changes right now. While I think motorsports doesn't necessarily need to adapt entirely into those trends in order to be sustainable, I also think we need to take a considerably deep look at it.

"I think motorsports across the board, not just IndyCar, is struggling with these things. Formula 1 is very technically advanced right now, but to what end? They may be technically advanced, but they're not that interesting to watch.

"From my own perspective you could probably say about any top tier of motorsports that the cars could certainly be much more spectacular to drive. I think those are the types of things that should be considered.

"I think there's an opportunity here for IndyCar to put a stake in the ground and say, 'This is what we're doing. This is what IndyCar means and stands for and this is where we're going.'

"I think there's a part of that which is understanding the raw, human emotions that draw people and have always drawn people to motorsports through history. My gut instinct on that is that we're not focusing on those things enough.

© Ed Carpenter Racing
"Having as many conversations as I've had with so many people it seems to me that many of them think that the cars being beasts is somehow mutually exclusive from a technology perspective. They think technology will make them less beasts, but I don't think that's true.

"If you look at the really extreme examples of a car that's capable of making a thousand horsepower and ripping off 230 mph laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is probably pretty awesome and I think we need to reinforce those factors.

"So I think this is an opportunity to create a road map for some of those elements whether they're things that are specifically integrated into the next car or it's more of a longterm thing. But I certainly think that the next car and the whole content platform and narrative of IndyCar should be designed around making that stake in the ground of 'This is who we are.'."

Hildebrand also believes that it's essential to take some key cues from what made Indy car racing successful historically over many decades.

"When you step back from it you ask, is the current version of IndyCar more or less in line with the core values of what Indy car racing always was?" he reflected. "It seems to me that it could end up turning out that the things that could really provide growth and move the needle in the future may be more like the things that were originally tied to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's reason for being in the first place than what we're doing now.

"I feel like as motorsports enthusiasts we're all looking for that truly awesome form of motorsports to really latch onto and stick our teeth into. I feel like it's a convoluted landscape right now and I think IndyCar should design for that. I think that would be really cool."

As we all know, Indy car racing;s key historical elements were speed, spectacle and innovation. For almost one hundred years Indy cars were defined as F1 cars on steroids with more power than their chassis or aerodynamics could handle. Indy car racing wasn't about close, competitive racing. It was about spectacular cars, amazing speeds and a spectacle that couldn't be seen elsewhere.

I believe JR Hildebrand is on the right track. I hope IndyCar listens closely to his words of wisdom and takes advantage of his wide, intelligent view of the world. In company with his first-rate skills as a race car driver Hildebrand is a tremendous asset to IndyCar.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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