DETROIT – Ed Carpenter Racing’s JR Hildebrand seemed very much at home at in front of a group of 50 students from Central High School on Thursday.
A former National Merit Scholar as a high school student in California, Hildebrand’s academic background in math and science once brought him offers from colleges such as the University of California-Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Hildebrand, 29, chose to continue his racing career, but has continues his educational pursuits as an advocate for STEM education and as an adjunct professor for Stanford’s vehicle dynamics and autonomous vehicle program.
Talking with robotics and vocational technology students at Central High during a visit to promote this summer’s 2017 Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix presented by Lear and Comerica Bank Free Prix Day on June 2, Hildebrand discussed STEM topics, reinforced the importance of math and science subjects in high school and college and shared his gut-wrenching second-place finish in the 2011 Indianapolis 500, where he crashed within sight of victory on the final turn of the final lap.
“I’ve always been interested in the math and science of what we do in engineering in racing,” said Hildebrand, driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. “When I was a student, I really thought this stuff was cool. It’s a great experience for me to come here today and talk about the opportunities in the workplace and in racing for kids who have a passion for math and science.
“I’ve done a lot of work in inner-city LA schools, and it’s great to be out here in Detroit and I’m looking forward to giving the kids a little inspiration hopefully in what they can get involved in.”
This season will be Hildebrand’s eighth in the Verizon IndyCar Series, but just his third as a full-time driver. In the 2017 season-opener at St. Petersburg, Hildebrand finished 13th to winner Sebastien Bourdais.
“I look at this year, my first being back full-time for a few years, a lot differently,” said Hildebrand, who has raced part-time for Ed Carpenter Racing, finishing 10th, eighth and sixth in the past three Indy 500s. “We are seeking to get on a learning curve. We know there are some things we need to get better at. But it is a process, and I think that is what is kind of exciting about it.
“It’s a challenge. Now it’s a matter of continuing to learn and hoping to execute better and better as we go along.”
And Hildebrand is pumped to be driving the full season with Carpenter.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” he said. “I’ve had some great experiences the past few seasons in a part-time driver role. But it is a breath of fresh air to be there (full time) and I think we can do great things together.”
Hildebrand, who worked his way through the racing ranks from karts to Formula Russell, USF2000, Atlantics, Indy Lights to the Verizon IndyCar Series with a test drive for F1 team Force India in 2009, urged Central High students to look to the world of automotive engineering and racing for future employment.
“There are many jobs available,” Hildebrand said. “From computers, to factory to race track. Data acquisition, engineering, mechanics, crew … logistical support. It’s an exciting world out there.”
Working on the autonomous, or driverless-car program, as a test driver at Stanford, Hildebrand referred to himself “in some sense, a human guineas pig.”
“But it’s such a cool program,” he said. “I’m helping to bring some real-world knowledge to the academic field.”
On his life-changing experience at Indy in 2011, when all he had to do was keep his car off the wall and capture the 500 as a rookie for Panther Racing, Hildebrand told students the event, though, heartbreaking, has made him stronger and a better driver.
Passing a slower car, Hildebrand got in to the marbles and shot up against the outside wall, his car heavily damaged but still sliding across the finish line behind the winner, the late Dan Wheldon.
Hildebrand never did make an excuse for his mistake.
“From a psychological perspective, I’m glad I chose to deal with it the way I did,” Hildebrand said. “That could have been pretty pear-shaped, you know. It forced me to deal with things quickly. I certainly didn’t feel like a rookie anymore.
“You lose that sort of blissful ignorance. But it has absolutely motivated me to go back (to Indianapolis) because you know things you could have done better, not just in the race, but throughout the whole month.
“I’ve learned. I’m more prepared to win there now than ever.”
Would have he stayed behind the slower car and not attempted the pass in hindsight?
“Yes, with the benefit of hindsight, you’d try something different,” Hildebrand said. “At the time, I had a lot of concern we were low on fuel and were running slower than the other cars that were catching up to us.
“Kind of instructively, the thought of jamming the brakes in the corner didn’t seem like the right thing to do.
“Looking back now, I probably could have gotten away with it. But, at least I keep telling people, it didn’t happen a lap earlier. We still finished second.”
Hildebrand told Central High students he’s looking forward to the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader weekend in June at Belle Isle that will see the Verizon IndyCar Series race Saturday and Sunday. The same group from Central High will get to make a field trip on Comerica Free Friday to watch practice and qualifying and to get a behind-the-scenes look at the action in the INDYCAR paddock.
“It’s a crazy back-to-back stretch, coming from Indianapolis straight up to Detroit,” Hildebrand said. “But it’s a great time of the year and two races is always intense.
“Belle Isle is a taxing weekend and very difficult on crew, cars and drivers. But it’s a cool event. We love having the support of Chevrolet and the City of Detroit. We are looking forward to sharing it with the students from Central High School.”