Junior Open Wheel Talent

News and Views on Drivers Chasing Open-Wheel Stardom

Driver Profile: J.R. Hildebrand

by Ryan Stringfield
Posted September 29, 2009 at 1:47 pm Driver Profile, Interview

J.R. Hildebrand

(photo: IndyCar.com)

In 2002, when a 14-year-old J.R. Hildebrand sat in a go-kart for his first racing experience he had no idea that he would be on the verge of an Indy Car ride just eight years later.

Hildebrand had a relatively late start in karting and motorsports, but he managed to impress those around him during his journey to the upper echelons of the sport and took advantage of the opportunities given to him.

Since that early morning in 2002, when he entered his first race, he has gone on to win 3 junior formula championships (Formula Russell, F2000, and Indy Lights).

The now 21-year-old J.R. Hildebrand is your 2009 Indy Lights champion and appears poised to make the jump to the prestigious Indy Car series in 2010.

This season alone, with the season finale yet to come, Hildebrand has won 4 races, earned 5 pole positions, and stood on the podium 9 times.  He has finished inside the top-ten in 78.6% of his 2009 Indy Lights starts.

He recently sat down to do an interview with Junior Open Wheel Talent.  Make the jump to read the entire interview….

J.R. Hildebrand

(photo: Junior Open Wheel Talent)

J.R. Hildebrand Q & A

Junior Open Wheel Talent

JOWT: First of all, congratulations on winning the 2009 Indy Lights Championship.

JRH: Thank you very much.

JOWT:  The bio on your website dates back to 2002.  Is that the year you first started racing or did you have previous experience heading into the 2002 Jim Russell Arrive and Drive Sprint Championship?

JRH: I had a lot of simulator time!  I had never raced anything prior to the Arrive and Drive in 2002.  I had done one, maybe two, single-day karting schools and spent a lot of time playing computer games and hanging out with my dad at the racetrack, but no real driving experience.

JOWT:  You won the 2003 Jim Russell Graduate Run-Offs. How did that change your life?

JRH: Winning the Graduate Run-Offs really kicked things off for my career.  Racing and cars had always been my passion; I still have probably 500 Hot Wheels cars from when I was a little kid and pictures at racetracks from throughout my childhood.  At that time, however, I was heavily involved in my academics at school and was competitively playing baseball as well, so in a sense, I think my parents and I both needed that boost to see that it might actually end up being worth all the effort that we were starting to put in!  It was also an opportunity to learn and grow as a driver in a series that had a reputation for helping drivers make the switch from karts to cars and continue up the ladder.

JOWT:  After winning the Formula Russell Championship in 2004, how did you decide on a F2000 ride for the 2005-2006 seasons?

JRH: For both 2005 and 2006, Formula Ford 2000 just made the most sense for a variety of reasons.  It was inexpensive in relation to FBMW and Star Mazda, but also had good exposure and a great schedule.  The cars were quick and capable, but also required that the driver work to get the laptime.  Maybe more than anything, racing F2000 allowed me to learn a lot about setting up a racecar, as everything was changeable within some boundary.  It was real racing without anything fancy at a great price.  I drove for great teams both years, and really put everything together with the Cape brothers in 2006 to win the Cooper Series Championship.

JOWT:  Let’s not forget to mention the Team USA Scholarship.  How did winning the scholarship change your life?  What advice do you have for this year’s recipients?

JRHThe Team USA Scholarship was a multi-dimensional addition to my resume.  Not only did I get the opportunity to race a different car on different tracks in a different country and gain the experience of fighting it out overseas, but I think it also made my name a bit more recognizable to the wider motorsports community.  It’s a prestigious award that has a long list of successful drivers, and I’m very thankful to have been a part of it.  I actually had the chance to meet both Brett and Connor a few weeks ago, both really good guys.  I think the best advice is actually the same advice that I got from Paul Edwards before I went.  He told me to go over and expect to be fast.  I think it’s easy to get nervous and think that you’re at a disadvantage or feel like it’s going to be impossible to beat all these guys that you don’t know in an unfamiliar environment.  But really it’s just a new racetrack and a new race, and both of the guys going this year have plenty of talent to put to good use.

JOWT:  How was the transition from a F2000 car to an Atlantic Championship car?  And similarly, how was the transition from the high downforce Atlantic car to the Indy Lights car?

JRHLooking back, I don’t think that the transition from the F2000 car to the Atlantic car was particularly difficult – they were quite similar in a lot of ways and we were right on pace in the first test I ever did.  We had a tougher year than I thought we would in Atlantics, but we were a one-car team at the peak of the series’ competitiveness, and sometimes I think I probably had the wrong outlook on things so it was a good learning experience for me.  The Lights and Atlantics cars are quite a bit different, but as a driver, adapting to something new is part of the job!  To be fast in the Atlantic car, you had to be able to really optimize the braking zones and cornering speeds, whereas in the Lights car, you have to really think about the power application without giving too much up everywhere else.  I think it’s a little bit more of a compromise, but they can both be difficult in their own ways, and to really be fast in either car the setup still plays a very important role.

JOWT:  What were your goals heading into this season? Other than the obvious, of course.

JRH: Well, really, my goal this season was to fulfill the potential for success that I knew I would be presented with.  I wanted to win on road courses again.  I wanted to really put it all together because I knew I would have the opportunity to do that.  I knew that in signing with AFS/AGR, the cars would be fast on both ovals and road courses, and that I would have a great group of people around me.  I also knew I would be well prepared, knowing the tracks and working hard to be ready for them.  I felt that I SHOULD win the championship, that defeat was not really an option.  So I tried to just focus on what I was doing and make the most out of every situation, I knew that if I did that, I would have a pretty good shot at it.

JOWT:  You won in only your second career oval start (last season), but your oval success in 2009 has seemingly been jinxed by bad luck.  How has your oval prowess and feedback increased over the last two seasons?

JRH: I think that I adapted well to ovals because there’s a lot of thought and strategy involved.  After I got a feel for it, I felt like I had a good perspective on what I needed to do, and what I needed the car to do, though I certainly don’t have it perfected.  There have certainly been some times where I’ve gotten it wrong, but I’ve been able to take some of those experiences and turn them around later on.  I can definitely think of a few times last year where I was unsure of the direction that I really wanted to go with things, but it’s been much clearer this time around.  The luck on big ovals that we’ve had this year has been disappointing and frustrating, but there’s really not much anyone can do about it.  Hopefully things will turn around in Homestead!

JOWT:  You had the opportunity to test the AGR Indy Car, can you tell us a little about that experience?

JRH: I was able to test the AGR Indy Car twice, once at Sebring and once at Kansas, both of which were pretty exciting for different reasons.  The biggest thing that stood out at Sebring in comparison to anything else that I’ve driven was the traction and acceleration putting the power down.  For the exit of the hairpin, I think I would have been better off with a button on the dash for “full throttle” because there were times that the signal from my brain to my foot just didn’t seem fast enough!  At Kansas, I would have to say that it felt like warp speed for the first couple of runs, but I was able to be flat pretty quickly and get on with an extensive testing program.  I was glad that I was given the chance to do both tests because I was able to get a feel for what I might be working with moving forward, and was able to be both fast and useful to the engineers in both situations.

JOWT:  What are your future goals for racing?

JRH: I would have to say that testing the Indy Car definitely wet my tastebuds for doing that full time.  My goal for next year is certainly to be in the Indy Car Series and hopefully in a seat where I can be competitive from the first race on, but I usually just try to take one step at a time, and really don’t look too far down the road in terms of setting benchmarks for myself.  I’ve learned a lot over the last few years, and I’m working to translate that into a successful situation in the big cars for 2010.

JOWT:  Congratulations, once again, on an outstanding season.  You have done a tremendous job and are certainly deserving of a ride at the next level.   I wish you the best.
_____________

(Thanks to Indy Lights PR Coordinator Arni Sribhen for his help in setting up this interview)

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