Hildebrand shocked by dream car gift
JR Hildebrand thought he was being called to the Panther Racing headquarters for a meeting.
He ended up leaving with the car of his dreams.
Team principal John Barnes surprised the IZOD IndyCar Series rookie with the keys to a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle SS as a thank you gift for his performance in the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 and how he handled himself in the days following his heartbreaking crash while leading on the final lap.
"Good things happen to good people," said Barnes, who along with his friend and former team co-owner Gary Pedigo launched the search for the perfect car shortly after the 500. "He showed so much character after the Indy 500. I was interviewed down in Dallas about JR and I said he has so much to learn as driver, but as far as being an adult we have a lot to learn from him in handling adversity and controversy.
"He asked Gary Pedigo if he could help him get the (1995 Pontiac Trans Am) back up and running and he's been calling Pedigo every two or three days about the Trans Am. I think we got the best of him today."
Hildebrand, who leads the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings after posting back-to-back top-10 finishes at Iowa and Toronto, was called to the Panther Racing shop to meet with Barnes. Instead Hildebrand was led to the shop floor, where he thought his Trans Am had finally been restored.
"I've had this Trans Am for a long time," Hildebrand said. "It was my dad's car and took it from him when I was in high school. I've blown up the motor, replaced it. It actually has a small-block 296 in it right now."
As Barnes uncovered the car, Hildebrand found the car had been covered with decals to make it look like Hildebrand's No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing. That's when Pedigo drove the numbers-matching red muscle-car into the shop.
Hildebrand, a fan of cars from an era that ended long before he was born, was in shock as Barnes gave him the keys and told him to get behind the wheel.
"This is the car I've always dreamed of having," said Hildebrand, who pictured buying a Chevelle and restoring it on his own. "I don't have any idea how this all happened, or what is going on. I feel like someone needs to pinch me and I need to wake up from a dream right now. This is incredible. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be coming here for this flip flop."
And it showed the young Californian why he wants to be at Panther Racing for a very long time.
"There were a lot of unusable words, but I told just told him, 'thanks," Hildebrand said. "There's a lot of stuff that really goes on in racing and you get put in tough situations some times, and this really shows me what kind of guy John Barnes is. Not only for the fact that he went out and did this, but the thoughtfulness he showed in doing this. That's why I really wanted to be here at Panther Racing."