JR Hildebrand is embarking on his 11th attempt at immortalizing himself with a spot on the prestigious Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
There’s history around every turn at Indianapolis, and Hildebrand is no different. Especially this year.
This history buff who understands and appreciates the 112-year history of the Racing Capital of the World will team up with four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt to drive the No. 1 ABC Supply / AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet.
The car will feature a throwback livery honoring Foyt’s first Indianapolis 500 win 60 years ago, in 1961, and Hildebrand couldn’t be more excited to hit the track in that car Tuesday for opening day of Indianapolis 500 practice (10 a.m. ET, live on Peacock Premium).
“You couldn't do it in a cooler way than to join AJ Foyt Racing in this 1961 throwback car with ABC Supply,” Hildebrand said. “It's looking really cool. It's one of those things you're like, ‘Man, I wish we could just get it for a couple days with no sponsors, no nothing, just to get out there.’ It's such an awesome paint scheme, the base livery is so cool. I'm definitely looking to feed off a little bit of that energy from our livery.”
Hildebrand, 33, grew up appreciating all different angles of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. From the personalities to history, he was a fan of it all. As he has aged, he has attended several vintage auto races and loves seeing the different drivers and pieces of technology on track that continue his appreciation.
That has made him savor his time with Foyt. Hildebrand joined the team for the Indy 500 Open Test in April even though he wasn’t on track. He wanted to get a sense of the team chemistry, and he wanted to spend time with the legendary Foyt, who has seven championships and 67 INDYCAR SERIES wins – both records.
“Being around A.J., spending a little bit of time with ‘Super Tex,’ was fun,” Hildebrand said. “I think it's somewhere that he's even mentioned in a few of the interviews that I've noticed over the last month or so how kind of appreciative he is of what the Speedway has meant for his career and his life, all that kind of stuff. Just to be able to kind of listen to a little bit of that reflection is really cool. It really hits home how important the place is and what a significant part of history it still is being at Indy.”
While Hildebrand will represent history this May at IMS, he has history here, even if he is just 10 years into his Indianapolis 500 career.
Hildebrand is forever engrained in the minds of race fans for his part in the spectacular finish of the 2011 race when he crashed out of the lead exiting Turn 4 on the final lap, finishing second to Dan Wheldon.
The Boulder, Colorado, resident understands the finish is a part of not just this race’s history, but his own. He insists it doesn’t bother him when it gets brought up. In fact, thinking back to that fateful day gives him added confidence, because he was in position to win the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He knows he can win if given the right situation.
And this year could be the right situation for Hildebrand and A.J. Foyt Enterprises. He is joining the team at a time when the organization is seeing an uptick in performance, led by four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Sebastien Bourdais.
Hildebrand is one of four Foyt drivers attempting to qualify for this year’s race during NTT P1 Award qualifying this weekend, alongside Bourdais in the No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet, Dalton Kellett in the No. 4 K-Line Insulators/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet and Charlie Kimball in the No. 11 Tresiba/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet.
AJ Foyt Racing President Larry Foyt believes the team’s two full-time drivers (Bourdais and Kellett) and the drivers joining the team just for May (Kimball and Hildebrand) give his team a legitimate shot at the Indianapolis 500 win.
It would be the team’s first victory at Indy since Kenny Brack won the 1999 Indianapolis 500, and the team’s first INDYCAR SERIES win since defending Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato got the team a win at Long Beach in 2013.
“At the end of the day, he can win the thing,” Foyt said of Hildebrand. “That's what we're going there to do. When all that came together, it was really a no-brainer for us. I'm sure it's some extra work, the whole team, we got everybody together, everybody has to buy into it and say, Hey, we're doing this because it's going to be a good program.”
Hildebrand has four top-10 finishes in 10 starts. Outside of his second-place finish in 2011, he finished 10th in 2014, eighth in 2015 and sixth in 2016. He also has two appearances in the Fast Nine Shootout, with a best starting spot of sixth in 2017.
But the Sausalito, California, native knows this race isn’t going to come easy, especially for those drivers that only compete in the Indianapolis 500 and not the other races on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule.
“I think we're looking ahead to just a hypercompetitive field at the Speedway this year,” he said. “I think it's more important than ever. One of the things as a driver watching the first bunch of races, watching them closely through practice and qualifying, not that it's never the case that you need to bring your A game, but in every aspect of what you do on track as a team and as a driver, it couldn't be more important now.”
For Hildebrand, the work begins now. After Indy 500 veterans take to the track from 10 a.m.-noon Tuesday morning, he will take part in the Rookie Orientation Program and refresher test portion of the day from noon-2 p.m. before the track opens for Indy 500 practice from 3-6 p.m.
From there, the race is on to write another page of history.