JR Hildebrand wasn’t ready to think about the offseason.
Yet there it loomed after the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma – the home race for the native of Sausalito, California – and Hildebrand was once again a driver without a ride following his 14th-place finish in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.
Team owner Ed Carpenter announced on Sept. 13 that Hildebrand will not return to drive the car in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Instead, Spencer Pigot – who had driven the sister No. 20 Chevy at road and street events most of the past two seasons – will move over to drive the No. 21 full time next season. Carpenter will continue driving the No. 20 car on ovals in 2018, with the pilot for the road/street races to be named.
Hildebrand, 29, has been a Verizon IndyCar Series driver since 2011, but had not been a full-time competitor since 2012. He forged his relationship with Ed Carpenter Racing from 2014-2016 by posting three top-10 finishes in the Indianapolis 500 and driving for the team in two of the INDYCAR Grands Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course
Hopes were high when Carpenter named Hildebrand to drive the No. 21 Chevrolet the entire 2017 season, but the results weren’t as hoped. Podium finishes on the short ovals at Phoenix and Iowa marked Hildebrand’s only top-10 results all season. He finished 15th in the final point standings.
“It’s just unfortunate to have it pan out this way,” Hildebrand said, “but we sort of ended up with an approach this year that we needed to figure things out and we needed to learn stuff.”
Hildebrand said he and first-year Verizon IndyCar Series engineer Justin Taylor seemed to always be chasing issues with the car instead of building from session to session throughout a race weekend.
“There was a lot of events where – one way or another because I’m sorting through stuff or different stuff on the car to just find some direction and figure out where we might be able to find some significant gains instead of just tuning on the same thing all the time – we lost performance, for sure, as far as our results were concerned because of that.”
In an online blog he posted the day it was announced he would not be returning, Hildebrand went into detail on how he and Taylor tried new, divergent approaches to developing car setups that may not have always worked, but in his mind were worth the effort. Hildebrand believes the program would have paid dividends in a second season with ECR.
“It’s frustrating to end up in a situation where that ends up not being something that we’re able to carry forward,” he said. “That’s really the intention with having that sort of mindset, is to be able to keep working on it through an offseason into next year and put everything you eventually learn to good use, but you’ve always got a limited time in this industry. I guess we weren’t producing quickly enough to see that continue.”
Team owner Carpenter admitted it was difficult to let Hildebrand go, but felt the upside for Pigot, 23, was the deciding factor.
“We had seen a lot of (Hildebrand) on the ovals and knew what we were getting there,” said Carpenter. “We had seen a little bit of him on the road courses with two Indy GPs (before this season) and a couple other tests he had done for us. We saw enough there that we felt like he deserved a chance to be in the car full time again.
“I would just say that over the course of this season, I didn’t have the ability to move forward with both guys full time and just didn’t see as much growth out of him or as high of a ceiling, to be totally transparent, to feel like that was the right decision to make right now for the future for us.”
Carpenter also said that Taylor, hired from Audi’s World Endurance Championship program to be Hildebrand’s engineer this season, will not return. Carpenter was quick to add that he would still call upon Hildebrand if the right opportunity became available.
“We can only do what we have resources to do and partners to support,” Carpenter said. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t have belief in JR. Certainly if we get another partner that wants to run a car at Indy, he would be the first person I would call without a doubt.
“It was a three-year process to get JR into this opportunity, so I didn’t really plan to go through all that time and effort – the intention was never for it to be a one-year deal. You just have to evaluate things constantly to try to make the best decisions for the team. I thought that was the direction that we needed to go and our partners agreed.”
The cerebral Hildebrand has no regrets. He will take the experience as a beneficial one, no matter the outcome.
“I learned a long time ago not to judge a season of anybody’s based on results,” said the 2011 Indianapolis 500 runner-up. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes. I’ll look back at this year and remember the high points and I’ll remember the low points for what they were.”