By: Ashley McCubbin
10 years ago, JR Hildebrand looked to be headed to victory lane in the Indianapolis 500. Instead, he found himself crashed into the turn four wall with a runner-up finish while Dan Wheldon got to enjoy the sweet glass of milk.
“It’s obviously a bittersweet memory in some respects,” he told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “For me, it’s just kind of a part of being a racer. Stuff happens. I think at the end of the day, for me it’s a positive thing for me to be able to look back on and know that I’m ready for any kind of situation like that that happens again.”
While that performance is the one many fans reflect to when they hear his name, he feels the nine races since, with just three top-10’s, have been better 500s from a driver’s perspective.
“Every year I feel like I come out of Indy with something else,” he commented. “Something new in my toolbox, something else that I’ve learned, a new situation that I’ll be more prepared for the next time around. All of that just gives me confidence that when the car is right, we kind of get things together, that I’ll be able to capitalize for sure.
“Even the last time that I was full-time in 2017, we had a couple of podiums that year. Just being able to kind of put all these pieces together. I would have obviously have preferred to have been full-time since 2011, right? That’s just now how it works out. You got to kind of take every little experience that you have in the car and learn from it and get better, be kind of ready for what’s next.”
Although conventional wisdom would lead to believe coming so close adds fuel to fire, that is not the case for Hildebrand. While he felt an urge to find redemption in the first couple years that followed, he now believes the 500 is a race you do not need any extra motivation to win.
“Now when I show up at the Speedway, I know how much all the little things matter,” he explained. “I know how much the process itself matters. You need to be able to take it one step at a time and be more just kind of in the moment if you’re going to be successful there. To me it’s just not a distraction, not something that I think about, not something that really has an effect on my approach or mentality in terms of my desire one way or the other at this point.
“I think if I went and won the Indy 500, that would be the narrative probably. To me they’d be completely independent situations at that point. Like I look at myself as a different driver, a different person even in some ways just in terms of it’s been 10 years, a lot has changed. My attitude has a racer and within the sport has evolved substantially since then.
“To me, when I look forward to coming back to Indy, it’s just because I look forward to coming back to Indy and competing in the Indy 500, going through that process of trying to do all the little things right that are in my control. So that’s my point of view on it these days.”