Sebring - What motivates a kid who graduated early from High
School, where he played varsity baseball and
maintained over a 4.0 GPA, including honors and AP classes, to
take up a career in racing, a sport full of danger, uncertainty,
and a lot of broken wallets? That's exactly what JR
Hildebrand from Corte Madera, California has chosen for himself.
Well spoken, very polished and years beyond his
age, 2006 saw 19-year old J.R. Hildebrand
win the Cooper Tires Formula Ford 2000 Championship in dominating style. Winning a record setting 12 of 14
races, he also set records for most consecutive victories in a
season at seven, most laps lead in a season and most poles in a
season on his way to the championship.
This year he moves up to the Champ Car Atlantic
Series and in pre-season testing he has shown early form that
would indicate he will be a serious contender for that crown and
the $2M that goes along with it.
On Saturday in Sebring the young rookie was
third fastest overall and on Sunday he moved to the top of the
timesheets. Pretty impressive stuff against some pretty
Transitioning over to the bigger Atlantic car
proved to be no problem for JR.
"It's been pretty easy," Hildebrand told
autoracing1.com. "A number of drivers have come out of the
Cooper Formula Ford 2000 series and done well in Atlantics, like
Jonathan Bomarito for example. The cars drive somewhat the same with lots of
downforce and grip, a torquey motor instead of high HP, radial
tires and a similar balance. Obviously the Cooper FF car
have the big underbody tunnels, however, it's sort of similar
how we drive it," said Hildebrand.
Renowned engineer Don Halliday has signed on to
become the lead engineer for Newman Wachs Racing's (NWR) 2007
Champ Car Atlantic season. Halliday's hiring has been one of many restructuring decisions
NWR team principals Eddie Wachs and Ove Olsson have made in
preparation for 2007.
Despite the help of Halliday, JR admits he still
has a lot to learn and cautions against setting his and the
team's expectations too high too early.
"2007 will be a real learning process for me,
especially the street circuits which most of the junior formula
don't race on.
"In terms of the competition level there is
nothing that beats the Atlantic Series. Yesterday, the
first day of testing, we had 21 drivers within one second of
each other and I ended up 3rd quick but was only 3/100ths slower
than Matos who was fastest. It just goes to show you how many good drivers
we have. I was happy to be the top rookie driver both
"If you look at last year the guys who were
quick right away last year were quick all year so we're hopeful
our early form carries through as well, but with so many good
drivers in the series we cannot lose our focus.
Like all the drivers in the Atlantic Series, the
$2M that goes with winning the Atlantic title is a real carrot
at the end of the stick. Having $2M in his back pocket has
propelled last year's Atlantic champion Simon Pagenaud into the
2007 Champ Car series and that fact isn't lost on Hildebrand who
has his eyes on moving up to Champ Car within two years.
"The $2M is a huge incentive," said Hildebrand.
"But even without the $2M you would see this series be popular
because the competition is so good and it's not too expensive.
The $2M is
especially big for drivers who do not have a lot of money and
it's a way to make it to Champ Car, which is where I plan to be within
years. We try not to think about the money and focus on our
performance, and if we do that the results will be there."
Hildebrand already has future goals he has set
for himself, and to diversify is one goal the Californian has
set for himself.
"Dad raced vintage Trans-Am cars and the vintage cars have a special place in my
heart because drivers from that era would drive all kinds of cars.
Unfortunately today with contracts that is hard to do. My
goal is to prove my worth in all forms of racing, but my
short-term goal is to excel in open wheel, and like Graham Rahal and
Simon Pagenaud, use success in the Atlantic series as a stepping
stone up to Champ
Car. I can't count out going overseas and trying F1
but as Champ Car continues to improve that is the championship I want to
win within the next 5 years."
And if he does win the $2M Atlantic championship
the fact isn't lost on JR that his Atlantic co-owner, Paul
Newman, also owns 1/2 of Newman/Haas racing's Champ Car team.
I kidded with JR that I would love to overhear that conversation
in the off-season as to which team would get the $2M that goes
along with JR. Wouldn't a seat at Newman/Haas be fantastic
"When we get to that point in the
season we'll see," said Hildebrand. "Right now it is one
step at a time and maybe if Bourdais heads off to F1 and a spot opens up,
who knows, but I
can't focus on that yet. Newman Wachs has given me all the
tools to succeed so now we need to come through."
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