IndyCar driver JR Hildebrand's initial exposure to racing was at a track then known as Sears Point, a 30-minute drive north from his home in Sausalito, Calif. There he watched his father drive a '68 Camaro in vintage races, and attended the annual Sprint Cup and NHRA drag racing events.
That same track, now known as Sonoma Raceway, spawned Hildebrand's driving career when it built a go-kart track in 2002, when he was 14 years old.
"I was pretty competitive in the stick and ball sports and, until then, there wasn't anything convenient close by to go racing," Hildebrand explained. "After the go-kart track opened at Sears Point, there was no reason not to dive in a little deeper."
Hildebrand began with a karting class and won the Jim Russell Sprint championship in the TaG Series 125cc class in 2002. Two years later he was in cars at Sonoma, winning the SCCA Formula Russell championship. He decided it was time to move on from Sonoma and pursue a professional driving career.
"When I won the Russell championship in 2004, that was the turning point," Hildebrand said.
Hildebrand ripped through the proving grounds, winning championships in F2000 and Indy Lights, and returns for his third race at Sonoma in the Izod IndyCar Series on Aug. 26.
Naturally, he'd like to do well on his hometown track in front of so many friends and family, and the amount of media attention he receives motivates him as well. But Hildebrand has his mind focused on the big picture: finishing out the season with three strong results.
"For us, it's not about points, it's about breaking through and putting together the performance we're capable of having on the track," Hildebrand said. "We have some momentum -- we legitimately passed four or five cars on the race track at Mid-Ohio and that's not easy. We didn't have the right strategy and it kept us from finishing higher. We found some performance in the car and we're looking build on it at Sonoma."
The 24-year-old Hildebrand is in his second full IndyCar season with Panther Racing, and, statistically, they're right where they ended last year: 14th in the points with two top-five finishes and five top-10s.
"Our performance in a general sense has improved and we haven't seen the results for a variety of reasons," Hildebrand said. "That's kind of frustrating. It sounds like a lot of excuses, but we've had major brake issues and a new car (Dallara) and a new engine (Chevrolet). We've had small mechanical problems that have been difficult for us to hone in on. We were a one-car team at the start of the year, and those kinds of issues are easier to get a handle on with for the two- and three-car teams. It's much easier to figure out where you're deficient."
Panther has been, operationally, a two-car team with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing since Indianapolis, and merging part way through the season has proved to be a challenge.
"Oriol Servia has been great, and Dreyer and Reinbold understands the benefits of having more than one driver working on things," Hildebrand said. "But it's been two different groups of people working on a new car and everybody has different ideas. It's taken a little time to feel the situation out.
"We've had some breakthroughs in the last couple of weekends. We've streamlined things and we're reaping the benefits."
Hildebrand thinks the final two races on the IndyCar schedule, a street race in Baltimore and a two-mile oval at Fontana, Calif., will be good tracks for Panther, too. He was fifth at Long Beach and seventh at Toronto in street races, and finished fifth at Texas, another high-speed oval, earlier this year.
"Toronto was one of the tracks where we had major braking issues," Hildebrand said. "We were pulling our hair out throughout practice and finally figured what we were doing in the morning warm-up.
"Sonoma and Baltimore present opportunities to make some big gains. It's hard to say we're ready to break out and win a race, but we can have good finishes. Fontana stands out. It's a wild card, [IndyCar] hasn't raced there in a long time. [...] We'll definitely have a fighting chance (to win)."
Hildebrand's dramatic second-place finish in the 2011 Indy 500 -- he led going into turn four on the final lap, hit the wall and had the presence of mind to drive the crippled car down the track -- established him as a rising star in the IndyCar series. It also helped him become a well-known sports figure in the Bay area.
"For whatever reason, I've had a strong local media presence and that's been cool," Hildebrand said. "It didn't really happen until I got to the IndyCar level. I'm a huge Bay area sports fan and it's cool to have that interaction with the local media."
Hildebrand has raced twice at Sonoma, finishing 24th with Dreyer and Reinbold in his two-race season of 2010 and 16th in his rookie year of 2011. Hildebrand also had his biggest victory at Sonoma, starting on pole and leading every lap to clinch the Indy Lights title in 2009. Hopefully, he can improve upon those finishes.
"It's a place I know pretty well," Hildebrand said. "We have a lot of faith we're doing the right things to improve."