J.R. Hildebrand, the 23 year old race car driver from Sausalito, California is a rookie in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Yesterday was Pole Day at Indianapolis and he was able to qualify for his first Indianapolis 500. Can you imagine? How many boys growing up and even men racing right now have dreamed of the chance to race in the Indy 500? It will be great to watch this year with 2 Northern California drivers in the race including Townsend Bell, who is originally from San Francisco. Here is a release from J.R.’s team, Panther Racing about Pole Day.
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – (May 21, 2011) – An eventful Pole Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway concluded with both Panther Racing drivers JR Hildebrand and Buddy Rice solidly in the show for the 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Rice led the team by making the Top Nine Shootout and will start in 7th position in the No. 44 entry, Panther’s highest start in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing since 2006 when Vitor Meira qualified sixth. Hildebrand was the highest-qualified rookie in the field and currently sits in the 12th position as 24 of the race’s 33 positions were filled on Saturday.
This is the second consecutive year that Panther has put a driver in the Top Nine Shootout, after Ed Carpenter made it in 2010 and eventually qualified in the eighth position.
“The car was good all day,” Buddy said. “The track stayed in really good shape (after the rain) and I knew as soon as I got out there everything was going to be OK. Everything’s been good this week; we’re happy. I don’t think a lot of people expected JR and I to be up there, and we were a bit conservative on the last run here, but we didn’t know what we had with the way the weather was after the rain. I’ve just got to thank John Barnes and everybody at Panther Racing for giving me this opportunity. I’m just glad to be here after being gone for two years and it’s the Centennial, so I’m really happy to be a part of that.”
For Rice, this marks his best start in the Indianapolis 500 since he was the polesitter in 2004, the same year he captured the Borg Warner Trophy. During today’s Top Nine Shootout he completed laps of 225.925, 225.876, 225.728 and 225.619 for a four-lap average of 225.786 mph. Rice’s speed was almost identical to what he ran earlier in the day (225.746 mph) to qualify for the Top Nine.
Hildebrand becomes the third rookie to qualify a Panther Racing car at Indianapolis, along with Tomas Enge (10th, 2005) and Mark Taylor (14th, 2004). He is currently the IZOD IndyCar Series leader in the Rookie of the Year chase and finished runner-up at Indianapolis in the Firestone Indy Lights race in 2009.
“The racer in me always wants to go back out there and go a little bit quicker, but this was a great job by the entire crew,” Hildebrand said. “The conditions today were catching a lot of guys out. It cooled off a little bit and we had a pretty hefty cross-wind during the run. We feel good about where we’re at and everybody at National Guard Panther Racing has been awesome and having Buddy Rice has been a huge help to the team as well. There is so much collective experience between them that it’s been a fairly low-key setting in our garage, which has made it much easier to make smart decisions moving forward. I certainly owe a majority of the success we’ve had to those guys, and coming in as a rookie you don’t want to set too high an expectation for yourself, but the equipment is awesome. The National Guard car has been running great all week and we have some pretty high hopes for where we can end up at the end of this thing.”
The 23-year-old Californian posted lap speeds of 225.674, 225.549, 225.433, 225.659 for a four-lap average of 225.579 mph.
Hildebrand was the top qualified rookie in a tight battle with Newman/Haas driver James Hinchcliffe, whose four-lap average of 225.572 mph was nearly identical to Hildebrand’s average of 225.579 mph. Hinchcliffe is also second in the IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year chase to Hildebrand by just three championship points.
“We expected that both our cars would do really well today and our guys did a great job,” team owner John Barnes said. “Buddy’s been a great teammate to JR and there has been amazing support between the two of them – they’re doing a helluva job. I’m just so happy with how our team prepared for this week. We haven’t started this far up the grid with both cars in a long time, and I know both the National Guard car and the No. 44 car will have great setups on race day. These two drivers have worked better together as a team than any teammates we’ve had. Buddy’s been very engaged with JR and has helped tutor him to be better, and what’s great about JR is you tell him something once and he’s so bright and just gets it. I’m also very happy to see how well Vitor Meira and Dan Wheldon did today, they’ve been a big part of our success in the past at Indianapolis and huge contributors to the National Guard during their time in the No. 4 car. I wish those two the best as well.”
Panther has finished runner-up in the Indianapolis 500 for three consecutive years starting from 18th (Wheldon, 2009-2010) and 8th (Vitor Meira, 2008). The team has also finished inside the Top Ten in six consecutive Indy 500s.
A total of 24 cars qualified today, with another day of qualifications starting tomorrow at 12 noon at the Speedway. After 33 cars are qualified tomorrow, traditional bumping will ensue with the slowest qualified car being bumped until the gun sounds to conclude the day at 6 pm.
The 95th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race will be broadcast live on ABC on Sunday, May 29th at 12:00 p.m. with additional coverage provided by the IMS Radio Network, www.indycar.com, XM channel 145 and Sirius channel 211.
To follow all of J.R. Hildebrand’s stats and race results please visit his driver page at www.racing-reference.info.