Can Hildebrand Salvage His Career at Foyt?

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On Friday, we got confirmation on what has been rumored for a couple of weeks – JR Hildebrand will pilot the No. 11 Chevrolet-powered Dallara for AJ Foyt Enterprises on all of the ovals this season, beginning with this weekend’s Xpel 375 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Longtime readers of this site for know that Hildebrand was not always a favorite of mine. I was at first. Although I was ecstatic when Dan Wheldon won his second Indianapolis 500 in 2011, I always felt bad for Hildebrand and the way it came about. Before the rookie’s car came to a stop there were already comparisons being made to the late Bill Buckner’s gaffe in the 1986 World Series. Others labeled it as The Biggest Choke in Sports.

There was one big difference – Buckner was in his fifteenth year as a major leaguer, when he booted the ball on a routine ground ball. Hildebrand was in his rookie year in IndyCar, as well as the Indianapolis 500 when his career-defining moment came. I often wonder what his career would have been like had he finished a solid third as a rookie.

Some will be upset with me that I call his crashing into the Turn Four wall a career-defining moment, but it has been eleven years since that happened and it still follows him. That’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it goes in all sports. If you screw something up early in your career, then never do much to erase that from people’s minds – it’s the way most people remember your career.

What I also remember about Hildebrand’s early career, was the way He was kicked to the curb two years later by John Barnes at Panther Racing. Hildebrand started tenth, but crashed on Lap Three and finished last. Two days later, Barnes fired him. Hildebrand had some good finishes with Panther, including eleven Top-Ten finishes. But Barnes made an emotional and irrational decision and paid the price. He ended up putting four other drivers in the car – each very underwhelming. In the offseason, Panther’s National Guard sponsorship went to Rahal Letterman Lanigan and Panther and John Barnes were never heard from again.

In my eyes, Hildebrand was the ultimate scapegoat after Indianapolis in 2013. I’m not sure Barnes ever forgave him for his mistake in 2011. When Hildebrand crashed out early in then 2013 500, that was all Barnes needed.

At this point, I felt sorry for Hildebrand. He seemed like a good kid that had handled himself with class in a tough situation. Then when he got fired by Barnes, it was easy to sympathize with Hildebrand and make Barnes the bad guy.

Hildebrand resurfaced with Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) in a third car for the 2014 Indianapolis 500. He acquitted himself with a solid tenth-place finish in his first race with a new team in a one-off situation. The next two seasons saw Hildebrand return to the team to run the Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. While his road course results were forgettable, he finished eighth and sixth respectively, in the 2015 and 2016 Indianapolis 500s.

When Hildebrand was named for the fulltime ride in 2017, to replace Josef Newgarden in the No. 21 at ECR – that’s sort of when I soured on Hildebrand. Keep in mind that I am a very judgmental, shallow and superficial person and I judge people by appearances. I kid, of course (sort of), but Hildebrand morphed from a clean-cut well-spoken kid – to someone resembling the 1969 version of John Lennon. It sounded like Hildebrand, but it sure didn’t look like him.

Like the team, Hildebrand results were either strong or abysmal. He finished third at Phoenix and second at Iowa, but had no other Top-Ten finishes. He had ten finishes of fourteenth or worse. He was not invited back for 2018.

From 2018 through 2020, Hildebrand settled to drive an IndyCar once a year for Dreyer & Reinbold, who only runs the Indianapolis 500. His efforts were only good for an eleventh, a twentieth and a sixteenth over the next three years. In 2021, he drove a one-off for AJ Foyt in a livery commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Foyt’s first win in 1961, finishing fifteenth.

It’s hard teaching an old dog new tricks, but I can feel myself coming around again on JR Hildebrand. His appearance hasn’t changed. He still needs a trip to an old-style barber shop, where they shave you in the chair during your haircut. But I’ve grown to appreciate how he has handled a career that has taken a lot of unexpected turns. He doesn’t make excuses, nor does he blame anyone for his misfortune. In fact, he doesn’t even focus on the past. He is genuinely excited about being in the third car at Foyt, something most drivers would run away from.

He and AJ seem like an odd pair, but Foyt has made a lot of odd pairings come off better than expected. Did anyone really think AJ and Takuma Sato would be a good fit, yet Sato gave Foyt his last win (Long Beach, 2013) and he was leading the points entering the Month of May.

JR Hildebrand is extremely intelligent, and that becomes apparent in his interviews. Some in his position might enter this race weekend at Texas thinking of all the reasons that they probably won’t fare too well – given the fact it is the third team in the pecking order at Foyt. But JR Hildebrand doesn’t sound like a driver thinking that way. He sounds more like a driver who thinks he can do very well for the team.

He also sounds like he is relishing the role of driver coach to his new teammate – rookie Kyle Kirkwood. He seems to be enjoying his newfound role of elder statesman, if you can apply that tag to a thirty-four year-old.

Although they didn’t have the final results at St. Petersburg that they were hoping for, this team may finally deliver on the offseason promise we’ve been hearing from them for years. I’m going to be watching all three Foyt cars at Texas this weekend, but I am going to be particularly close attention to JR Hildebrand. He has paid his dues, and fate owes him something.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Can Hildebrand Salvage His Career at Foyt?”

  1. Felt bad for him when he hit the wall out of turn four but Weldon’s win was pleasing. Barne’s, less said the better. I will be watching JR closely and I hope he has a good oval season. I listen to him on the Race and his podcast with Jack Benyon is excellent. Wish him well

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Hildebrand has done well in genuinely bottom rung equipment at Indy the past several years. I think he’s a great fit for Foyt in that he is both patient and good at providing set up feedback… you need to be both to drive for Foyt without tearing your hair out. The ship seems to have sailed on him landing in a decent full time ride, unfortunately, and perhaps he never quite had that extra gear that regular race winners need at the Indycar level, but I’m glad to see him sticking around.

    I think he could play the Jan Beekhuis role on TV broadcasts too, if he or NBC are ever interested in that.

  3. My expectations are low, but it’s good to see JR still around and getting an opportunity. He seems like a real nice guy.

  4. Mark Wick Says:

    I am still impressed by what Hildebrand did after hitting the wall on that last turn. Normally when a car hits there like his did, it turns left and spins back to the inside of the track, but he kept his foot firmly on the throttle and turned to the right using the drive from only the left rear wheel and the wall to the right, to keep the car moving toward the finish line, and kept the throttle wide open as he steered half a race car straight toward the finish line. Had the yellow light come on as quickly is it usually does, he would still have won the race because he kept his composure and did the best he could to recover from his mistake. He didn’t give up.

  5. I’m glad to see him in a slightly increased capacity this year. It’s true that he did not set the world on fire in his last full time year at ECR, but his two podiums at Phoenix and Iowa in 2017 account for fully 25% of the podium finishes that ECR has registered in the post-Josef Newgarden era. Of the eight podiums from 2017-2022, five have come on ovals, two more have come on the IMS road course, and the only other one was Rinus Veekay’s 2nd at Detroit last year….I’d say that it’s fair to say that their success coming almost exclusively on ovals and billiard table smooth road courses indicates that ECR’s damper program has not historically been up to par, although maybe they’re getting better. To boot, JR’s 15th place in points in 2017 (which likely would have been 14th, had he not broken his wrist in a clash with Mikhail Aleshin on the last lap at Long Beach and simply been able to start the next race at Barber) is essentially right in line with where ECR’s full time drivers have finished in the championship in that same 2017-2022 era: Spencer Pigot’s 14ths in points in 2018 and 2019 were matched by Rinus Veekay’s 14th in 2020, and Veekay’s 12th in 2021 also indicates a slight improvement in their overall program last year.

    In summary, while I don’t think JR is the championship contender I’d always hoped he was, he’s more than a capable set of hands, and more often than not can essentially bring the car home in exactly the position it should. I’ll be curious as to what his increased technical feedback along with his partnership with Kyle Kirkwood can bring to the Foyt program this year.

  6. “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be…” ― John Lennon

  7. Paul Nelson Wheeler Says:

    For Barnes to see Wheldon win had to have hurt. Too bad.

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