Hildebrand aiming for Indy

UPDATE CORRECTION: The Independent Journal got the Atlantic rookie of the year wording wrong – he was the top US rookie in the Atlantic Series that year according to JR, not Rookie of the Year.

JR Hildebrand

01/21/09 JR Hildebrand is in Indianapolis this week meeting some of his Andretti Green teammates – Indy Car drivers Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti, who is a mere 10 months older than Hildebrand. From Indy, Hildebrand will drive in the A1 Grand Prix International Series, which will take him to New Zealand, Indonesia, Mexico, Portugal and Great Britain.

"This is like being recruited out of college to go play Triple A for the Yankees," he said. "This sort of is my time to shine and my time to show that I really am what the press says. I really can do what everybody thinks I should be. I'm basically going to be in the driver's seat this year of my career and of my future because I'm stepping into the best seat in the house."

Hildebrand will be stepping into the Indy Light car driven by Raphael Matos, last year's series champion who signed to race in the IndyCar Series for Luczo-Dragon Racing this year.

It was at a young age that Hildebrand first heard the name Andretti. His dad raced a Trans Am at vintage car events and Mario Andretti's cars or Mario Andretti himself sometimes showed up.

"I heard the name from a lot of different sources when I was a little kid and pretty quickly – as anyone would – came to grips with the fact that he was pretty much the man," Hildebrand said. "Even with people who are not familiar with racing, the Andretti name is synonymous with open wheel racing and the Indy 500 and success."

Hildebrand, who started racing go-karts at the age of 14, finally got his big break a few years ago when his dad, an accountant in San Francisco, and mom, Maria, were invited to the Andretti Winery in Napa prior to an IndyCar race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma. One of John's clients at the time was a one of the sponsors of an Andretti Green Racing car driven by Dario Franchitti.

Young Hildebrand sat down next to Marco Andretti in Napa but he soon struck up a conversation with J.F. Thormann, executive vice president of AGR. By the end of the evening, Hildebrand had his business card and e-mail address and his full attention. Hildebrand kept in contact with Thormann and Thormann kept his eyes on Hildebrand's racing career.

By the time Hildebrand won rookie of the year honors in 2007 in the Champ Car Atlantic Series then became a serious contender to win the points championship in the Indy Lights Series last year, Thormann and AGR co-owner Gary Peterson were recruiting Hildebrand to join their team.

"I think I had sort of made my mark that I was somebody who had a lot of potential," Hildebrand said.

Andretti Green Racing is banking on it. It's furnishing Hildebrand with first-class equipment and engineers. AGR has signed Hildebrand to a one-year contract hoping they nabbed Hildebrand as a rising star.

"He is a rocket," said 38-year-old John Ruth of San Francisco, who first raced against Hildebrand at the Jim Russell Arrive and Drive Karting School at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma. "Andretti is obviously one of the top names in racing. That car, that team. They win races. To bring him in, they have supreme confidence he is the person they want to try out to put into the major leagues."

Hildebrand realizes it's a big window of opportunity.

"It is definitely a time-certain sport," he said. "This is a little bit of a make-it-or-break-it situation and I do need to take advantage of the opportunity that I've been given."

AGR is certainly keeping Hildebrand busy. A few weeks after signing with AGR last November, Hildebrand was in L.A. visiting sponsors when he got a call from AGR headquarters at noon informing Hildebrand that he needed to drive to San Francisco to catch a midnight flight to Malaysia to drive test Marco Andretti's car at an A1GP race there. Hildebrand barely had enough time to pack his clothes and his passport in Sausalito before sinking into a coach class seat for a 14-hour flight.

Hildebrand will be spending even more time on planes through March as he jet-sets to other A1GP races. But at least now he has fodder for in-flight conversation with fellow passengers that's easy to understand.

"Technically I'm kind of teammates with Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan and these guys that mainstream America knows. That's a little bit of an adjustment," Hildebrand said. "When I was in high school a lot of times I was sitting on an airplane and people would ask me what I was doing and I would make something up."

Hildebrand can tell the truth now but he knows the reality of his association with Andretti Green Racing is that he has to impress co-owner Michael Andretti, Mario's son, and everyone else in the AGR garage.

"I have the opportunity to be in an Indy car next year. This really is for all the marbles," Hildebrand said. "I intend on doing everything I possibly can leading up to the (Indy Lights Series) season and through the season to make this happen. That's what I need to do."

That's not what Hildebrand expected, especially at the raw racing age of 21. But it's a challenge and Hildebrand is driven to succeed.

"When it comes down to it this is why I do it. To be in a position like this," Hildebrand said. "I thrive off the competition and the anxiety that you get from being put in a position that it really is make it or break it. This is exactly where I need to be, exactly where I want to be right now to be able to follow my dreams and really make it happen." Marin Independent Journal

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