/IZOD INDYCAR SERIES / JR HILDEBRAND
Words Jeff Olson Main Image Michael Levitt/LAT
GOT THE GIFT
Panther Racing has seen something more than just talent in its rookie, JR Hildebrand.
His reward for the shining example he sets was a shining example of his dream car.
First, he thought he was in trouble. Then he thought he was being scammed. But finally, after the
prank had been pulled and the photos
taken, JR Hildebrand learned what it
was all about. He was being appreciated.
Summoned to a midweek meeting at
Panther Racing’s HQ in Indianapolis,
Hildebrand thought the worst. But
Panther CEO John Barnes had other
ideas. A few days before, Hildebrand had
asked Panther partner Gary Pedigo to
restore his 1995 Trans-Am, so Barnes
told Hildebrand the car was ready to be
unveiled, thus explaining the reporters
and photographers lurking at the shop.
Hildebrand knew something was
amiss. “I could see under the cover they
had on it that they hadn’t even washed
it, let alone restored it,” he said. As the
cover was removed, he saw the same
crusty Trans-Am he’d left with Pedigo.
That’s when the garage door opened and
Pedigo rumbled through the door in a
pristine ’ 66 Chevrolet Chevelle SS. All
yours, kid. Enjoy.
Hildebrand recalls, “It took me a
while to register. I was like, ‘Oh my God,
it’s a ’ 66 Chevelle!’ Then I was like, ‘Oh
my God, it’s a totally-cherry-red-super-
bitchin’-’66-Chevelle!’ There were
multiple levels of recognition!”
Multiple levels of recognition from
his team, too. The car was a gift to
Hildebrand from Barnes for the
now-infamous runner-up finish at the
Indianapolis 500 in May. Hildebrand
reacted like a champion that day and,
even through the disappointment,
breathed life into a team that had slipped
off course recently. The 23-year-old
Hildebrand was a fresh face, a new life
and supplied renewed vigor. This was a
love affair between team and driver. One
worth its weight in muscle car.
Says Barnes: “After the race I told
“I’m proud of how he handled [the
him, ‘Hey, kid, don’t feel bad about
what happened. There are hundreds of
drivers who race this race and never even finish second.’ I’m
proud of how he handled it. You can never control what
happens to you, but you can control how you deal with it, and
he dealt with it like a man. He’s what we stand for here at this
team, and the Chevelle was our way of saying thank you.”
Here’s precisely why the team feels grateful: Hildebrand
has driven the No. 4 National Guard Dallara-Honda to a fourth
at Iowa, an eighth in Toronto, and a 10th in Brazil. And, oh
yeah, a runner-up finish at Indianapolis.
“That Chevy was a token of our appreciation for Indy,” says
Panther technical director David Cripps. “How could words
reaffirm what he’d accomplished? It’s not an easy thing to
just pat him on the back and say, ‘Good job, kid. We’ll get
them next year.’ It was a little more complicated than that.”
“It was a more than generous gesture on their part,” says
Hildebrand, but it was a well-deserved one. Panther has never
Indy crash]. He dealt with it like a
man. He’s what we stand for here”
JOHN BARNES, PANTHER C.E.O.
been known for its road- and street-course chops. As an
original Indy Racing League entrant, the team mastered ovals
with the likes of Scott Goodyear, Sam Hornish Jr., Vitor Meira
and Dan Wheldon, but struggled when the series incorporated
road courses. More important than his performance at Indy
and his stand-up post-race maturity, Hildebrand has
improved Panther’s overall game.
“That shows how talented JR is,” Cripps explains. “Without
question, he has all the skills necessary to be a complete driver.
Some guys are one dimensional. JR has segregated his disciplines.
He’s adapting, which is evident in his performances at all
types of tracks. One of the highlights for me was his
performance in the wet at Brazil. He was genuinely one of the
fastest cars on the track. For the stage he was at and the stage
we were at, it was a remarkable performance. For me, that’s
when the lights went on. That’s when I started to realize it
was going to be a very good working relationship.”
All the more remarkable when two intangibles are