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Interview: JR Hildebrand (2009 Indy Lights Champion)

December 11, 2009

I often find interviews (and the organising thereof) to be rather frustrating at times. Some potential interviewees don’t have the time; some have PA’s that restrict a line of questions so severely that render interviews dull and irrelevant; a majority just don’t even respond. And then there are those that are happy to give you a little of their time to answer some questions – thankfully 2009 Indy Lights Champion, JR Hildebrand falls into the latter category.

At the age of 21 California native, Hildebrand, has secured titles in the SCCA Formula Russell Championship and the US Formula Ford 2000 Championship as well as the aforementioned Indy Lights tournament. In 2005, Hildebrand was awarded a Team USA Racing Scholarship followed by a drive at Brands Hatch for the now sadly (temporarily?) defunct A1GP Series with the Team USA squad. More recently he tested for Force India at Jerez during the Formula 1 rookie week.
However, rather than just throw myself in at the deep end with what JR is doing right now, I figured that I might as well start at the beginning and discover how he got to where he is now…

 

You started racing karts at the age of 14 at the Jim Russell Arrive and Drive Championship – tell me about your journey into motor racing from that point on. Having started karting somewhat later than most, did you find yourself having to play catch-up with more experienced competitors or was racing something that came very naturally to you?

I was definitely up against more experienced guys for the first few years that I was racing, but never really looked at it like that I don’t think. Especially when you get into a racecar, it’s such a mixed bag of experience and talent to start with that I just focused on trying to be competitive no matter who I was racing against. I had always played competitive sports and had an acute desire to do things that involved going fast, so in a basic sense, there was nothing about combining the two of those things that seemed unnatural when I first got going.

While you were on the karting circuit, you also scored some impressive results when at school – how did you balance your eduction with a fledgling racing career?

I was actually well into my racing career when I finally finished high school, so that was a serious challenge. Being that I didn’t start racing karts until I was already in high school, by the time things really got going I was right in the thick of the toughest part of my education and was heavily committed to it. I remember when I was a senior I decided that I would graduate a semester early so that I would be done with school by the Spring of that year so that I could move if I needed to for racing.
That Fall, however, I ended up heading off to Europe for the Team USA Racing Scholarship Program and missed the last three weeks of school before finals. I think I can definitively say that I’m the only guy whose had to sit in a pitlane doing differential equations to keep up with their Calc class! That was tough, and I made the decision after that semester that I needed some time away from school to really pursue my career.

I’m also led to believe that when you were younger, you were a very impressive baseball player too – was a choice between the race track and batting fields a tough decision or was breaking into cars always a priority?

In terms of playing baseball, I guess I never considered that to be a career path for myself, but it was also something that I had been doing and had been good at since I was five years old. I always loved playing ball, and enjoyed all the guys that I was playing with in high school. Racing was my priority, so that made it an easy decision in the sense that I knew I had to make it and never had a problem with the fact that I had to choose between the two, but it was not an easy decision for me to deal with right away. Even now I take my glove with me a lot of the time just in case I have a few minutes to throw the ball around.

Although the Indy Car Series has a relatively small (but hardcore) following here in Europe, the Indy Lights Series has completely flown under the radar. Could you tell us about the series, what the competition is like and what its links to the Indy Car series are?

Indy Lights really is exactly that. The Lights cars a very similar in their general characteristics to the Indy Car, run on similar tires, and run at all the same circuits. Much like the IndyCar Series car, the Lights car has to be capable of running on both road courses and ovals so it’s not specifically designed for maximum performance on either one, but is a quite capable package – the main chassis is the same as the WSR (World Series by Renault) car, and it utilizes a de-tuned version of a previous IndyCar engine.
The competition on road courses is quite good as it’s now the premiere feeder series to IndyCar in the states and over the last few years has attracted strong challengers from both North and South America, and the competition on ovals is usually even more intense than it is for the IndyCar guys because everything is so evenly matched. Because it has such a mixture of circuits and disciplines, it’s actually quite a good series because drivers and teams alike have to adapt to a variety of different situations. Some of the IndyCar teams have Indy Lights teams that they either run or are affiliated with, and the two series are run very closely together.

One of the more quirky features of the recent years was the emergence of the “Captain America” nickname – how did it come about? I even hear there was a Captain America doll present at a few of events this season…

Yeah, that all got started when I did the Brands Hatch A1GP race for Team USA. All of the crew for the A1 team were Andretti Green guys that I worked with during the season either in Lights or when I did my IndyCar tests, so when I emerged in my American flag suit for the race I became an easy target for a goofy nickname! I wouldn’t consider myself to be the flag-waving patriot type, but I was certainly proud to be a homegrown American guy that have a real shot at the Lights championship so it stuck.

In the current economic climate, a common complaint from many experienced Indy Car drivers is that funding and sponsorship is proving very difficult to secure – from your perspective as a driver on the cusp of the Indy Car series, how hard is it to secure a good budget right now to go racing?

I think it’s tough to secure sponsorship in general in all fairness, only because there’s no strategy that’s guaranteed to work. A lot of things have changed in the states over the last few years and as you said, the current economic climate isn’t doing anybody any favors. I’ve found it difficult, but have also gotten some traction in recent months, so I’m optimistic about my chances of making it work.

Last week, you completed a three day test with the Force India Formula 1 squad at the Jerez circuit in Spain – how did the test come about and how do you feel you performed?

The test came about through a sort of shootout on the team’s simulator in the UK a couple of months back. Paul di Resta and I apparently had the best performances and so we were selected for the test. I had a great time driving the car and working with the team, and while it wasn’t easy to adapt to such a different environment in so many different areas, I was extremely happy with how the test went. On both the second and third days my best runs were hampered by some accidental engine settings and then a red flag, so although the sheets didn’t say it, we were actually quite fast, and particularly fast in the high speed sections of the track. At the end of the day I was very comfortable driving the car and felt like I was able to push it’s limits while also giving useful feedback to the engineers, so I was very satisfied.

 

Naturally there must be massive differences between an Indy Lights machine and a Formula 1 car – what was your preparation for the test and did you ready yourself for the potential performance gap between the two types of machinery?

The Lights car and the Formula 1 car are different in more areas than just outright performance. In the states, most of the formulas run on lower profile and stiffer sidewall tires, whereas in Europe, the tires have large, softer sidewalls. That just by itself changes the entire behavior of the car and the way it’s set up. Knowing that it was going to be a lot different, I tried to not have too many preconceived ideas about what to expect. I changed my physical training to cater more towards my neck and shoulders while studying the track and cars as much as I could, but other than that I figured a lot of it was going to be down to how well I could adapt on the fly.

There were a number of other rookies at the Jerez test that have been in the European fold for a number of years – did this increase the pressure on you to register a good laptime or was the test purely about gaining information and experience? How did you find the conditions at the circuit?

I didn’t feel like there was a lot of pressure on me, and when it came down to it, I didn’t really care because I was going to do the best job I could do either way. I went in with the goal of getting comfortable with how fast the car was capable of going, especially in high speed cornering as I figured that would be a pretty limiting factor if I couldn’t sort it out, and of learning as much as I could as quickly as possible.
The laptime wasn’t really there in the end, but the fact that it was because of some unfortunate circumstances rather than because I was just off the pace makes that an easy pill to swallow for me personally. I found the conditions at the circuit to be more or less what I would expect, so I just tried to focus on what I was doing, focus on what the team was doing, and put it all together as best as I could.

How important was the Jerez test with regards to being seen by certain members of the Formula 1 paddock as well as all of the connected formulae? Is F1 something that you would like to try to attempt at some stage in the future?

I think anyone in open-wheel racing aspires to be in Formula One, I felt very lucky to have the chance to do the test and get involved. It gave me a great appreciation for what the series is like, and also gave me the chance to get introduced to a different crowd, as you said. I’ll definitely be looking into how I can stay connected and what opportunities I might have down the road. As you know, I’ve also been preparing myself for racing in the IndyCar Series for the last bunch of years and have a special appreciation for the racing on this side of the Atlantic as well. I plan to look at everything.

Now that we are in the off-season, what are your plans?

My plans for right now are to get a firmer grasp on where things stand stateside and go from there. I was working on sponsorship before getting involved in the F1 test and that sponsorship could be key regardless of what I’m doing, so I intend on focusing heavily on that in the short term and hopefully having the chance to make something of it soon.

Having just won the 2009 Indy Lights title, what can we expect to see from JR Hildebrand in 2010?

Well I can’t say for sure, but regardless of the car or series you can be certain that you’ll see him trying like hell to make the absolute most of it!

Thanks to JR Hildebrand and all the best for the next season.
JR Hildebrand Racing

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