Friday Night Lights: J.R. Hildebrand

Posted by Iannucci | 6/26/2009 | 3 comments »
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Our next featured driver this week is the guy at the top of the points standings, J.R Hildebrand. J.R. finished fifth in the championship last year, garnering his first Indy Lights win in Kansas in 2008 - his first ever race on an oval.

Compared to his peers J.R. got a relatively late start in racing, starting with go karts seven years ago. He seemed to do pretty well, even winning championships in Formula Russell and Formula Ford 2000 along the way. And no, I have no idea what "Formula Russell" is, but he won it and you didn't.)

Off the track J.R. has the distinction of having a deferred acceptance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a.k.a. "M.I.T.", or as it is less formally know, "one of the few institutions of higher learning that doesn't deal in stoopid people". Keep this in mind in case J.R. happens to offer to play you at poker or chess some day.

So please sit down and have a glass of unknown wine with NoCal's own J.R. Hildebrand, or as stock cars fans would call him, J.R. Jr.

MNII: First question that race fans want to know: What are the names behind the initials "J.R."?

JRH: I’m actually a J.R. Junior because those are dad’s initials. My given name is John Randal Hildebrand Jr., so it’s J.R. for short. We really did it to help my mom so she could avoid the confusion of which John she was calling for.

MNII: Three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford also goes by "J.R.". Have you spoken to him, and has he given you approval to use the moniker?

JRH: Johnny Rutherford along with Rick Mears are guys that are always around for us to talk to. Johnny drives the pace car for our races, so I’ve had a chance to talk to him briefly and ask him about starts and restarts. I haven’t got as much time to talk to him as I like, but for a guy like me to get a chance to talk with those guys is invaluable. They are so full of experience and knowledge and they can tell you about doing the right thing or being fast on certain tracks. As for his permission, I don’t have any other name to revert back too, so I hope it’s OK with him. He’s a great guy, so I think it would be OK as long as I don’t use “Lone Star,” as well. I’d probably use something else being that I’m a California kid.

MNII: I see that you played varsity baseball in High School. What position did you play, and were you as good at baseball as you are at racing?

JRH: I’m a southpaw, so I was limited at the positions I could play. I played a little first base and played mostly left and center field. I was a pretty good player I was moved up to varsity as a sophomore for the playoffs, and I would have started the next year. I think everyone when they get out of high school says they were an incredible high school athlete, but my racing career has gone above and beyond what I did in baseball. My passion has always been cars, but I didn’t start racing until 14. For most of my childhood, baseball was my passion. I still enjoy playing and going to games and enjoying it as much as I can.

MNII: Since have a deferred acceptance to M.I.T., have you noticed if your aptitude with Math and History contributed in any way to your success as a driver??

JRH: I think it’s an intangible thing. It doesn’t relate to how fast you go or your skill as a driver, but it allows me to have a greater understanding of what’s happening as I’m driving the car and the relationship between the car, track and the changes you make.

The more I get involved with the car and what’s happening to it, the faster I’m able to go because you can work with how the car is going to function. It’s a good tool to have. I’m able to talk to the engineers in their own language and that plays a role in how good the car can be at times.”

MNII: You've only won once this year but you're leading in the FIL championship points. Do you think it's more important at this level to win a bunch of races or to be the series champ?

JRH: We certainly haven’t only won one race for a lack of trying. We’ve been really close a couple of times. If the weekend at St. Pete had gone better and we didn’t have the electrical problem we’d been in the top three for sure. To answer the question, both are important. The championship is quite strong and in the grand scheme of things that’s what were shooting to do. Winning races isn’t as easy as it’s been in the past. On the ovals there are almost 10 guys who can win the race or finish on the podium.

Right now as a driver, I’d like to be racing as if it’s “checkers or wreckers” every race. But the right now, the team has taken lower-risk options because the championship is what we’re looking for. An IndyCar Series team may be looking for guys with outright ability and the speed to win IndyCar (Series) race, but they may be also looking for guys who can make the most of a bad situation, as well.

MNII: You and Jonathan Summerton are both 21, and have both raced Atlantics, Indy Lights and represented America in A1GP. Are we seeing a budding rivalry of young American drivers?

JRH: That’s a tough question. This is the first year that we’ve actually competed against each other. We started at a similar time and been competitive in similar series, but he was in Europe while I was here in the States. That played a big role in us never really racing against each other. It’s tough to say these days. We both have the opportunity to go far in racing and to be successful. We’ll have to see how they play out in the next couple of years.

MNII: You're from Marin County, which is pretty darn close to Sonoma and Napa counties. Do you have a favorite winery?

JRH: I just turned 21 this year. You’re getting ahead of me on that one. If you talk to me in a couple of years, I’ll have a better answer for you.

(Ed. note: Groove the guy a fastball and he just lets it pass. I can't believe J.R. didn't drop an "Andretti Winery" selection since he drives for AFS/AGR, or even the award-winning IMS "Brickyard Red". These kids today.)

MNII: Presumably you've driven more than a few races times at Infineon Raceway. Would it mean more to win an event so close to home or is it just another race?

JRH: It would be big if we could get the win at Sonoma. I do have a lot of experience there and it’s my hometown crowd. There will be a lot of family and friends and sponsors there. I will definitely looking to capitalize the experience there. Rafa (Matos) was fast there last year and so was I. In many ways, it’s a kin to winning at Long Beach. The two west coast races are really important in my mind and my team’s mind because our owner Gary Petersen is from Southern California. It would be nice to say I won both of those races. Also from a championship standpoint, it’s the last road course of the year. If the championship is close and with last two races being Chicago and Homestead -- where it’s more like musical chairs due their nature – a good run at Infineon would be crucial for the championship battle.

MNII: I've seen your name mentioned in random speculation about the new USF1 team. Is that something you feel ready to undertake now?

JRH: As a racing driver, particularly at this stage of a career, you have to be ready and available to do anything. F1 is an option for all open wheel drivers, but my focus now is to get to the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500. The last couple years in Indy Lights have been a huge eye opener for me. I’ve always been an Indy Car and Champ Car fan before I raced in Indy Lights, but racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Freedom 100 has shown me how important (racing at Indy) is. If other opportunities present themselves, we’ll see if we can go do them, but my focus is on the Firestone Indy Lights championship and trying to covert that in to an IndyCar Series ride.

MNII: Other than being drivers, do you have anything at all in common with Sebastian Saavedra, your teenage Columbian teammate at AFS/AGR?

JRH: Certainly not our hair or our fashion choice for that matter. Sebastian is a really good guy and a great teammate. We’re really competitive as you can see by our speed on the track, so that sets a few boundaries. We’ve got along since the beginning and I’m sure we’ll continue to do so. When it comes down to it we’re both trying to win races and doing everything we can to accomplish that goal. There’s a little common ground between all committed drivers in that respects.

MNII: Last question about Andretti Green Racing team that needs to be asked: do they let the Indy Lights team members to the parties with the girls in cages?

JRH: I’ve seemed to miss out on them somehow. I’m sure Marco has a few lined up down the road. I would expect there to be invitation offered later in the year. That sounds like something they’d do at Homestead. I’ll keep you posted.

MNII: Please do!

(Thanks to Indy Lights PR megastar Arni "The Indy Insider" for his assistance and to for all photos used.)


  1. Amy // June 26, 2009 5:10 PM  

    That video was hilarious!

  2. Mike R // June 26, 2009 8:43 PM  

    Formula Russell is a school series at Sears, 'scuse me... Infineon. Jim Russell School. Same school I went to. Lots of guys came through there that you've heard of.

  3. Anonymous // June 26, 2009 8:44 PM  

    Formula Russel...

    J.R. is from NorCal, and the Jim Russel racing school is up there---at Sonoma, I think. Formula Russel is a series put on by the school. It used to be Star Mazda cars, but now they have bought a bunch of brand new Lola F3 chassis.