INDIANAPOLIS – J.R. Hildebrand has literally come “full circle” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the driver can’t help but smile when he considers the irony of his return to the Indianapolis 500.
The day after last year’s Indy 500, Hildebrand was fired by Panther Racing team owner John Barnes after crashing on the third lap of the race in Turn 2.
Panther Racing believed Hildebrand had a car that could win the race. The driver was just two years removed from his “Bill Buckner Moment,” where he’d been just one turn away from winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500 but crashed into the Turn 4 wall with the checkered flag in sight.
The late Dan Wheldon would race past Hildebrand’s mangled heap of a race car and win the 2011 Indianapolis 500 in stunning fashion.
After that incident, Barnes stood by his then-rookie driver and rewarded his effort by buying Hildebrand his dream car – a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle.
That support and harmony would eventually deteriorate.
Hildebrand never won a race with Panther Racing and, entering the 2013 season, the driver was in the final year of a three-year contract. Barnes was already skeptical of his driver after he led 56 laps in the 2012 season-finale at Fontana, California but crashed by himself. In the season-opening race on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., Hildebrand ran into the back of Will Power during a caution period destroying both cars in a senseless crash.
Hildebrand admitted he was “messing with some knobs” in his car and that was enough to distract him from avoiding Power, who was warming up his tires.
So Panther already had Hildebrand on notice when the team set up shop in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 97th Indianapolis 500.
For most of the month, Hildebrand looked pretty competitive. He qualified 10th in the 33-car starting lineup and just missed the “Fast Nine” drivers that would battle it out for the pole position.
When he drilled the Panther Racing Dallara/Chevrolet into the Turn 2 wall on Lap 3 of the Indianapolis 500, however, his doom was sealed.
The day after the race, Barnes fired Hildebrand.
“I think in hindsight we were all overly aggressive going into Race Day at Indy last year,” Hildebrand recalled. “The setup we had going into the race we felt like we had the car to beat. Even talking to Ed Carpenter they thought we were the car to beat, too. We got caught out by not giving myself enough time at the start of the race to dial the car in. I didn’t chase after it too quickly with the in-car adjustments. I tried to make too quick of a pass on James Hinchcliffe.”
Fast-forward to 2014 and “Oh, the Irony” – Hildebrand has a ride in the Indy 500 and Barnes does not.
The Panther Racing team owner is involved in a lawsuit involving Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and IndyCar, among others, after the lucrative National Guard sponsorship left Panther for Rahal Letterman Lanigan at the end of last season. While that litigation continues, Panther Racing has closed its doors and is not involved with this year’s Indianapolis 500.
Hildebrand is driving a second entry for Ed Carpenter Racing – the No. 21 Dallara/Chevrolet – and was the fourth fastest in Sunday’s Opening Day of practice for the 98th Indianapolis 500. He drove 24 laps with a fast lap at 222.200 miles per hour.
And the final bit of irony that has brought Hildebrand full-circle from one year ago:
Ed Carpenter Racing’s garage in Gasoline Alley is the same one that was assigned to Panther Racing during its time in the IndyCar Series.
“I’m sort of digging that we are in the old No. 4 car digs over here and we have some really good guys that I worked with at Panther on this program,” Hildebrand said. “I’m revitalized being over here and this is going to be fun.”
Hildebrand has endured the days since his firing and believes he is better prepared than ever.
“This team is very level-headed about decisions they make,” Carpenter said. “I’m anticipating we’ll go into Race Day this year with a very clear outlook on what we think we can do and how we will get there.”
Hildebrand hit the track for Opening Day like a true racer. And he didn’t show any signs that the long layoff has affected him.
“I was debating whether I should ease into it or go for it and I decides, screw it – I’m going for it,” Hildebrand said. “I was flat on my second lap and decided to get with the program. The plan for us today was Ed and I driving the same car and seeing how our feedback compares with the same thing so as we go through the month when we compare the car we’ll be talking the same language.
“At a glance I would say we are both on the same page.
“I was shaking the cobwebs off but it’s good to see that I can still do it. I just have to keep plugging away at it.”
If a driver were to pick teams that are extremely competitive at the Indianapolis 500, the top three would obviously be Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport. But the first team behind that trio could be Ed Carpenter Racing. As the only owner/driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Carpenter won the pole for last year’s race and has led plenty of laps in the Indianapolis 500, coming close to contending for the race victory in his own cars.
“Since June of last year I was talking to Ed about putting something together but I felt this would be a good place to be,” Hildebrand said. “It was great to see that come to fruition. I expect both cars to become competitive in the week going into qualifying and the week going into the race. So far, we are on the right track.
“It’s a great place to be. Working for Ed is really fantastic. He sees things from the driver’s perspective and understands what needs to be done and how attitude plays a role. First on my list when everything went down last year was to be on this team. I’m thrilled that it all worked out.”
Carpenter is one of the last of the true, homegrown racers that was developed in the old Indy Racing League before unification with Champ Car in 2008. Since that time, the major teams in the sport had deep roots in either CART or Champ Car, but Carpenter remains an American driver with an American operation in the Indianapolis 500.
Although Mike Conway from England drives Carpenter’s car on the street and road courses on the 2014 schedule, Carpenter is behind the wheel of the No. 20 Dallara/Chevrolet on the ovals.
Adding Hildebrand to a second Indy 500 team made sense for Carpenter’s team and so far it looks like a great decision.
“I had a good feeling about J.R. joining our team, even last year,” Carpenter said. “He is a talented racer. He has fit in well so far and we seem to like similar setups, too, with the race car. He is a sharp guy who can communicate with the team well. It’s still early but I think we can do some good things at Indy this month with our two-car effort and J.R. is important to that success.
“We’ll continue to work hard to find the best race cars that we can. J.R. has been very easy to work with and I think our engineering staff like his input too.”
Hildebrand has found a team owner that believes in him at the Indianapolis 500 although there are many surreal signs that remind him of the team owner that fired him less than one year ago.
“Stuff like that doesn’t just happen over night,” Hildebrand admitted. “It wasn’t a total shock. There had been some rough spots through the year but for me it’s about coming back here and running with Ed’s guys.
“I kind of like it,” Hildebrand said of the “Ghosts of Panther Racing” that are felt in the Ed Carpenter Racing garage. “It’s actually cool we are in the old Panther garage. Hopefully, we have a big month.
“The ’66 Chevelle is great but I want that Z28 Camaro Pace Car that goes to the winner of the Indianapolis 500.”