Editorial

J.R. Hildebrand is one American going places in a hurry
 
by Mark Cipolloni

 January 29, 2007

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JR Hildebrand

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 immediately third fastest overall and on Sunday he moved to the top of the timesheets.  Pretty impressive stuff against some pretty heady company.

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 does not 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 days.


JR Hildebrand
Champ Car

"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 two 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.


JR Hildebrand
Champ Car

"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 someday, 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 I asked?

"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."

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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