Panther Racing's decision to hire J.R. Hildebrand brought together the same elements and inevitable comparisons of its surprise selection of Sam Hornish Jr. 10 years earlier. Hornish was inexperienced, young and American, just like Hildebrand. And neither brought a dime of sponsorship to the table.
Hildebrand has made only two starts in IndyCar. Hornish had eight before joining Panther. Hildebrand celebrated his 23rd birthday on Jan. 3, Hornish turned 22 halfway through his first season. Of the six drivers Panther has put into its flagship No. 4, Hildebrand and Hornish are the only Americans and the least experienced.
If Panther wants him to become another Hornish, Hildebrand would be happy to oblige. Hornish won 11 races and the 2001 and 2002 championships in the Izod IndyCar Series with Panther and tacked on a third in 2006 with Penske Racing. He's the sole American to win the title since Buddy Lazier in 2000.
Hildebrand doesn't faint at the similarities being drawn. He takes it as a compliment.
"Obviously, with Sam's record, that's quite an honorable position to be in, people thinking I'm able to achieve what he did," Hildebrand said. "It's sort of a similar situation. The series is a bit of a different series with the high number of road courses we have now, but I don't look at any particular event or race as being a tough spot.
"We're capable of being fast rolling off the trailer and working together the best we can. I'm convinced already these guys [Panther] are up to the challenge. I think our aim [in 2011] is to be in a position to win races.
We'll be a one-car operation for the majority of the season and that's a daunting task, maybe unreasonable [expectations] for some people. I have 100 percent faith we can put ourselves in a position to be there. There's a hell of a lot of preparation pre-event and this team is known for its prowess. They've been bridesmaid more times than they'd like to remember."
Panther has one victory in the past seven years since Hornish moved on, by South African Thomas Scheckter at Texas in 2005. He replaced Hornish for two seasons and was followed by Brazilian Vitor Meira from 2006-08. Dan Wheldon, the Indy 500 winner and IndyCar champion in 2005, drove the No. 4 in 2009 and 2010.
Wheldon finished second at Indianapolis the past two years and 10th in the points in 2009 and ninth last season. Panther and Wheldon never consistently clicked in developing a competitive road course car.
This isn't the same Panther team, personnel wise, as when Hornish was there, but it's still led by racing veteran John Barnes. Barnes was responsible for constructing the original ownership group and team and carries the titles of CEO and Managing Partner.
When Barnes went looking for a new driver last fall, he took a driver with a primarily road racing background to Phoenix International Raceway, one of the nastiest 1-mile tracks IndyCars have ever raced. It was a staple of IndyCar racing through USAC, CART and IndyCar seasons for 40 years before falling off the schedule in 2006. Barnes knew what Hildebrand could do on a road course. He was throwing him into the fire to see if he was ready to handle the short ovals like Milwaukee and Iowa, two stops on the 2011 schedule.
Hildebrand had never seen it in person before the two-day tryout in early December.
"There were some fairly adverse conditions," he said. "There hadn't been IndyCars running there in quite some time and the tire was significantly different than what they sued to run there. I'd never been there and I hadn't driven on an oval since Indy Lights [in 2009]. There were some pretty significant challenges.
"After we got the car sorted out with the tires, we got down to our target lap time by noon of the first day. I had some substantial saves keeping the thing off Turn Two, one in particular two-thirds through the first day. I had a pretty hefty save keeping it off the wall in Turn Two. I had to catch it more than once and it showed on the [telemetry] trace. I came in and John Barnes said, 'Thanks.' It would have been a fairly abrupt end to the test."
Hildebrand also did a 30-lap race run and did some of them flat, his foot stuck to the floor of the Dallara. It's a feat veteran drivers struggle to accomplish.
"On the first new tire run of the second day, I was flat out for three or four laps in a row," Hildebrand said.
Panther had gone to Phoenix planning to test several drivers, but Barnes, engineer David Cripps and the rest of the team were sold on Hildebrand quickly.
"We tested him at Phoenix and brought along my friend Al Unser Jr. to help us with the evaluation and all of us knew by lunchtime of the first day that we'd found the next driver of the No. 4 car," Barnes said. "We know we have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but our expectations are very high for the 2011 season."
Hildebrand signed a multi-year agreement. The No. 4 will be sponsored by the National Guard for the fourth straight year.
"I have to say, being fairly honest, the way the test [at Phoenix] went stands out as one of my better racing moments," Hildebrand said. "It's not often you're in a position to earn a job."
Hildebrand didn't start racing until he was 14. He grew up in Sausalito, Calif., the first city across the Golden Gate Bridge going north out of San Francisco, and his father, John, owned and drove a vintage 1968 Trans-Am Camaro. The Hildebrand family had season tickets at Infineon Raceway, a short drive up the road in Sonoma, and Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, a couple of hours south in Monterey.
J.R. Hildebrand was an avid athlete, eventually become a star outfielder at Redwood High. But his passion was racing before he ever got into a kart.
"If you walked into my room when I was 10, you'd have found 500 Hot Wheel cars and no baseball cards," he explained. "Cars and racing were always my passion. I played all the video games."
Infineon built a karting track run by the Jim Russell Racing School when Hildebrand was 14. The Russell school has a program that rewards its fastest karters to move into junior formula series. Hildebrand won the school's graduate run-offs in 2003 and won seven races in the SCCA Formula Russell championship.
Gino Pomilia, his high school baseball coach, thought he was a pro prospect and encouraged him to pursue it. Hildebrand said he was pursuing racing.
After graduating from high school with a 4.12 grade-point average, M.I.T. accepted him. Hildebrand said he was pursuing racing and asked for a two-year deferral. That was almost five years ago.
Hildebrand won an astounding 12 of 14 races in the 2006 Cooper Tires Formula Ford 2000 championship, an entry-level open-wheel professional series.
AARWBA, the nation's oldest organization of auto racing journalists, voted him to their prestigious All-America first team in the at-large category.
The Formula Atlantic Series was next, followed by two in Firestone Indy Lights, IndyCar's top development series. Hildebrand's first Indy Lights victory was on the oval at Kansas in 2008. He had four wins and won the Lights championship in 2009.
"The 2006 season in F2000 and 2009 in Indy Lights really cemented my progression to the next step," Hildebrand said.
Hildebrand out-dueled several competitors on a simulator to earn a Formula One test with Force India in December 2009.
"For me personally, the F1 test was significant in certain ways," Hildebrand said. "The reason I got to do the test was I effectively beat out several European drivers in the simulator test. The test in the car didn't go as I liked, but what happened behind the scenes was an eye-opening experience.
"The Formula One car is the fastest [on a road course] in the world and to learn what a car is capable of doing, it had a big effect at how I looked at driving race cars."
Veteran IndyCar owner Dale Coyne had an open seat sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America last year. He and Alex Lloyd tested for the job at Sebring and Coyne chose Lloyd, a former Indy Lights champion who had driven in two Indy 500s and one other IndyCar race. Those three races made the difference for Lloyd. Hildebrand was runner-up.
"It certainly was frustrating not have gotten the Coyne ride," Hildebrand said. "At the same time, it left me optimistic that there were going to be opportunities out there that I didn't have to bring a budget to. It gave me faith that all the efforts I had made were worthwhile."
With Mike Conway out for the rest of the season with injuries sustained in the Indy 500, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing chose Hildebrand for Mid-Ohio and Infineon. Hildebrand finished 16th at Infineon and a 24th at Infineon, where he was eliminated in a crash with Marco Andretti. Hildebrand had the fastest lap of the race.
"I think the two IndyCar races were definitely important in getting the Panther ride," Hildebrand said. "I think the fact, and this is me speculating, knowing that a guy can get out there and handle going through a race weekend, understanding what it's all about regardless of the results, makes a difference to a team owner. The second race [Infineon] having the fastest lap of the race, being in the top 10 in practice, those are reasonably impressive for jumping into a car in midseason.
"It also gave me something to talk to the team about. I could identify what I thought I could do better, what I thought I could do well and, from an engineering standpoint, what was better for the cars. If I hadn't drove those races, I wouldn't have know that."
Can Hildebrand emulate Hornish's success at Panther and become the next American IndyCar champion? As they say, that's why they run the races. The 2011 IndyCar season will be the biggest test of Hildebrand's career, but he's never failed one in a remarkably accomplished young life.