JR Hildebrand knows how to make an entrance.
The driver of the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing car was accompanied by a couple of National Guard friends in delivering the official entrant list for the 96th Indianapolis 500 to Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation President and CEO Jeff Belskus.
The group pulled through Gate 1 at the Speedway in a National Guard-branded Hummer H3 to display the team’s and its primary sponsor’s support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "Hiring Our Heroes" initiative, which helps veterans and their spouses find meaningful employment in the private sector.
Click it: 2012 Indianapolis 500 Entry List
Three past winners and three IZOD IndyCar Series champions are among the drivers named to the 34 entries filed for the May 27 race. The Indianapolis 500 will be the first oval race for the new car, and the distinctive sound of turbocharged engines returns to the “500” for the first time since 1996.
“We’re 39 days away from the Indianapolis 500 and the excitement is building,” Belskus said. “We have a lot of interesting things going on with new equipment that will make its oval debut and engine competition for the first time since 2005, so we’re excited to get things going for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.”
Hildebrand, the 2011 Chase Rookie of the Year award recipient and race runner-up in one of the most memorable finishes in history, was among the drivers who tested the new Speedway aero configuration on the 2.5-mile oval April 4. Opening Day is scheduled for May 12, which also will feature the Celebration of Automobiles, with Pole Day qualifying May 19 and Bump Day qualifying May 20.
“We’re all race car drivers and we’re here to win,” said Hildebrand, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion who is coming off a fifth-place finish in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. “We’re excited to get back on the track. I think you’ll see a lot more cars running on that first day than before because there’s a lot more things to figure out. We’ll hit the ground running.”
“The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on Memorial Day weekend includes events saluting active-duty and retired U.S. military personnel. The Hiring Our Heroes campaign complements the Month of May activities.
Last season, Panther Racing began a program in which it hosted local employers at each respective race venue to help educate the community on the need, and benefits, of hiring military members. This season, in conjunction with Hiring Our Heroes, the team is expanding that effort by hosting upwards of 50 local business leaders at each domestic IZOD IndyCar Series event, and by supporting hiring fairs held in local race markets and around the country.
Chris McFadden, a pit crew coach and the inside-rear tire changer on the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing car who accompanied Hildebrand to the Speedway, is a National Guard member.
“There’s a big employment problem, especially with the National Guard and reserve, and we feel like Chris is a perfect example of what those men and women have to offer once they come back home,” Hildebrand said.
Hiring Our Heroes has conducted more than 90 hiring fairs since its inception in March of 2011 and has connected nearly 90,000 veterans and military spouses with 4,600 different employers in 44 states and the District of Columbia. A transition and jobs fair, in association with the American Legion’s 94th annual national convention in Indianapolis, will be held Aug. 25.
Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2010) leads the list of past winners, which also includes Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Dario Franchitti (2007, 2010) and Scott Dixon (2008). Castroneves will attempt to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only four-time winners. Franchitti will attempt to become the 10th driver to earn at least three Indianapolis 500 victories.
IZOD IndyCar Series champions assigned to cars include Dixon (2003, 2008), Franchitti (2007, 2009, 2010, 2011) and KV Racing Technology’s Tony Kanaan (2004). Four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais also aims to make his first Indianapolis 500 start since 2005.
Five IZOD IndyCar Series regulars, plus a three-time winner of the Firestone Freedom 100 and the reigning USAC National Drivers Championship title-holder comprise a strong rookie class that will participate in the Rookie Orientation Program on May 10: Rubens Barrichello, Bryan Clauson, Wade Cunningham, James Jakes, Katherine Legge, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud. Barrichello, the most experienced driver in Formula One history, will make his oval-racing debut at Indianapolis.
Cunningham, the 2005 Firestone Indy Lights champion, competed in three IZOD IndyCar Series events in 2011. He’s won the Firestone Freedom 100 at the Speedway in 2006, 2009 and ’10. Clauson, who has earned the USAC National Drivers Championship trophy the past two years, competed in six Firestone Indy Lights oval races in 2011.
By the numbers:
3 - Former race winners: Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2009), Dario Franchitti (2007, 2010), Scott Dixon (2008).
4 - Former pole winners: Helio Castroneves (2003, 2007, 2009, 2010), Tony Kanaan (2005), Scott Dixon (2008), Alex Tagliani (2011).
7 -- Rookies: Rubens Barrichello, Bryan Clauson, Wade Cunningham, James Jakes, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Katherine Legge.
11 -- Most previous starts: Helio Castroneves.
15 -- Drivers entered who have won at least one race in either IZOD IndyCar Series or Champ Car World Series/CART competition.
21 – Youngest driver: Josef Newgarden.
39 – Oldest driver: Rubens Barrichello (Barrichello turns 40 on May 23, four days before Race Day.)