INDIANAPOLIS — Team. It’s a word that JR Hildebrand doesn’t take lightly. He knows that in order to be great in the sporting world in general, you need to have a great team around you. That’s what makes him excited about the upcoming opportunity he has with AJ Foyt Racing for the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season.
Hildebrand, 34, will race in five of the events this season including the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) this coming May.
But, for a driver that’s been around the sport for 12 years with the last four being Indy only entrants, being able to attract the right people year in and year out has been a blessing. It shows that while he’s only been full-time just once in the last nine seasons, he must have showed something right to be able to get the good people each year.
The Colorado resident will pilot the No. 11 Chevrolet for Foyt in all oval races during the 2022 campaign. Being able to have Texas under his belt as well as an open test heading into the Month of May will make this year’s ‘500 a lot more opportune than last.
“For me that’s exciting to be doing more of the races on the schedule,” he said. “I really like the oval schedule that the series has right now. It’s such a mixed bag of different even like oval racing disciplines. Texas is totally different, we don’t go to any other mile-and-a-halfs now. It’s a hard place. Iowa, a place that I’ve had a lot of success at in the past and always enjoyed, like that’s been a track that for me I’ve just known what I needed there from the race car from the first time I rolled up, and more often than not have been able to find it with the teams.
“Gateway, too, I think the awesome thing about INDYCAR racing generally right now, but particularly the oval racing, is that there’s nowhere that’s easy anymore. There’s no flat-out, you’re pinned for the entire race kind of places. You’ve really got to drive, you’ve got to work with the team to get the cars hooked up, and I’m looking forward to that challenge.”
While he says that you can’t really take much from Texas over to Indy, just having the seat time is invaluable.
See, the 2021 race saw him take a chassis that wasn’t even found until April, with new people around him and a team that was by all accounts playing it safe after an expensive Texas weekend in early May, was still solid for him. He finished 15th.
Now, he’s back with a full time car (Tatiana Calderon races it on all road/street courses) with the same people in a car that isn’t new to him anymore. This car isn’t a fourth chassis. It’s going to have run all the races including one with Hildebrand in it. Imagine the possibilities this time around.
“I’m excited to be back with this group,” Hildebrand said on a unseasonably cold March morning. “I think on paper maybe our May last year didn’t look super special, but I just really enjoyed it. It was a great — sometimes you’re getting thrown into a new team and you don’t really know how things are going to go, and as an extra car last year it felt sort of last minute. But really clicked with the guys and appreciated the work and kind of just the process of working through things. I felt like we as a group didn’t feel like we rolled off the truck great necessarily, and within a couple of days it worked into the window, and I had the best race car, best feeling car I’ve had at the speedway in a long time last year, just within a couple of days.
“I think that particularly like at this point in my career, that really — that matters a lot. Like that registers to you when you can make that type of progress really quickly, and so I’m excited to be back with them and doing more racing.”
Hildebrand scored his career best finish of second as a rookie in 2011, the Centennial Running of the Indianapolis 500. It was a bittersweet finish for the then 23-year-old who had taken the lead with two laps to go. Passing a lapped car, his car pushed high and tapped the outside wall which slowed him enough to allow Dan Wheldon to win the historic event. In 11 Indy 500 starts, Hildebrand has qualified in the top-10 four times and posted four top-10 finishes.
That 2011 race could have altered his trajectory of his racing career. Instead of being an oval specialist now, maybe he’d still be full-time somewhere. Still, he doesn’t look back and regret that race still though.
“No, not at all,” Hildebrand said to me on if that moment still haunts him two years ago. “It’s kind of like it’s a thing that happened. There were definitely some learnings and insights of all kind of aspects of what went down in terms of in the car and out of the car, working with the team, to all kinds of things that I kind of like draw on still from what went on there.”
Hildebrand notes, it was the 2013 race that actually haunts him the most still. He went from nearly winning as a rookie in 2011, to crashing out on Lap 3 of the 2013 race and ending his full time career for a while after until being picked up by Ed Carpenter Racing in 2017 on a full time basis.
“To me, it’s kind of like, two years after that, I was the first car out of the race,” Hildebrand continued. “That to me stung 10 times as much as even though from the outside, that everyone kind of forgets about the first car out of the race, over the crazy stuff that happens at the end of the race where you’re leading and come in second and that seems like this whole thing.
“In the big scheme of things that was a super weird situation where I can kind of forgive myself for not doing anything different where as there has definitely been times since then that I should have known better to do some things that kind of caught me out or put me in a bad spot.
“At this point I feel fortunate that it was the last lap and not the lap before that and that we were running where we were and the car still had two wheels on it so I can get it to the finish line and that I wasn’t a total basket base when I got out. I’m still here doing this 10 years later.”
The 2009 Indy Lights champion has started in 66 INDYCAR races and claimed 17 top-10s including seven top-5s, three of which were on the podium. As you can see, the opportunities over 12 years have waned. Basically just Indy only. He says though it’s not like he hasn’t been preparing physically and mentally for another opportunity to scale his racing up a bit.
“One for sure is that I’ve been preparing alongside, or remotely, I guess, alongside all the full-time guys, same workout program and trainer as Josef Newgarden and a handful of the other, Jack Harvey and a bunch of those guys,” he said. “With this potentially being what I was going to be doing this year for a few months now, I definitely kind of turned the wick up in the off-season and made sure just physically and mentally I’m going to be ready to go whenever it happens. Whether it happens, whenever it happens, being totally prepared for it from that perspective, which has been a nice kind of shift in the off-season.
“Last few off-seasons I’ve kind of known that it’s just going to be the 500, so you can — not that I wouldn’t be any less prepared for showing up at Indy, but you just kind of — your timetable is different. The kind of amount of commitment from a scheduling perspective is totally different.
“I’ve had my head in the game a little bit more, I feel like, over this off-season just on the training side, and in terms of working with the team even, it’s just — when you’re going to do all the ovals or you’re going to do multiple races, there’s a lot of differences in terms of how you show up to run at Texas than you do on basically a two-day weekend, than you do to run at the Speedway.
“The things that matter are much more kind of specific. You don’t have time to run through a bunch of stuff. You’re not developing a multi-day-long program to figure out how to get the car sorted, to get comfortable, all that kind of stuff. Even just pushing to get in the car to help shakedown Kyle Kirkwood’s car last week was part of that. If I can get like five laps and do one in-and-out lap, that’s really helpful showing up at Texas because I’m not going to get 50 reps over the course of practice like you do at Indy.
“Just being a little bit more assertive, I think, in some of those situations, knowing that there’s a chance to be doing more racing, and I’m feeling ready to rock and roll.”
Now, he’s got a shot on all ovals in a series that see veterans rise to the top on ovals.
5 of the 9 drivers in the Fast Nine Shootout last year were in their 40’s. A 46 year old won the Indy 500. Does this play into Hildebrand’s hand by doing just the ovals this year?
“You know, I think it’s just for the oval racing, there’s definitely a degree of just understanding the patience required, and there are a lot of little things that you manage to do over time that in my opinion just having a lot of reps in a lot of different — slightly different situations, you do kind of build up just that bank of knowledge that matters a lot,” he told me. “It’s why you see guys like Helio and Scott and Tony. They’re always kind of there.
“Even if they’re not there on race day, they’re contributing a lot to their team and their programs to make sure that they’re kind of heading the right direction.
“I think that there’s no question that experience matters, I guess, and so from that perspective, just the more you’ve clicked off — I’ve been fortunate, there’s only been — I think I’ve only been in one 500 that I didn’t complete all the laps, so that’s a lot of miles that are all — there’s a little learning experience in every one of them.”
That experience he hopes pays off in big way for the 2022 season including another solid Indy outing.