Bay Area native Hildebrand happy to be back in the driver's seat at Sonoma 

click to enlarge MARSHALL PRUETT
  • Marshall Pruett

J.R. Hildebrand is back to where it all began.

As the only Bay Area native — Hildebrand was born in San Francisco and grew up in Sausalito — in Sunday's IZOD IndyCar Series GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma Raceway, Hildebrand has good reason to enjoy his homecoming.

Especially this time around. Hildebrand, 25, had been without a ride in IndyCar since the end of May after Panther Racing parted ways with the 2006 graduate of Redwood High School, located in Larkspur. For the first time in his burgeoning career, Hildebrand was off the fast track.

But on Aug. 12, Barracuda Racing announced Hildebrand and Luca Filippi would share the No. 98 car for the rest of the season, with Hildebrand racing in Sonoma and in IndyCar's season finale in Fontana on Oct. 19.

"I'm looking forward to getting back in the race car and showing what I can do," said Hildebrand, who was at Second Harvest Food Bank in San Jose — Barracuda Networks is a supporter of the food bank — on Tuesday to raise awareness about local hunger. "As much of a bummer it was [parting ways with Panther Racing], I had the option to be pissed off about it or choose to look at the positive side of what's going on. I'm excited and confident as I've ever been."

And so it is for Hildebrand, who refuses to be defined by moments that can haunt an athlete's career. For Hildebrand, that moment came as a rookie in the 2011 Indianapolis 500, when he famously crashed in the last corner of the final lap, handing the victory to the late Dan Wheldon.

But make no mistake: Hildebrand doesn't plan on being a supernova, someone who burst onto the scene and came within fumes of winning motor sports' greatest race, only to fade away.

"You have to accept that you might not ever be back in position to win the Indianapolis 500 again," he said. "That's how things go, but I'm never going to give up."

Hildebrand grew up attending races at Sonoma and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and he never wavered in his belief that he could make it as a professional. But just in case his racing career never materialized, Hildebrand had something else to fall back on — his intelligence.

Out of high school, Hildebrand earned a full academic scholarship to the engineering school at MIT. He actually graduated a semester early with a cumulative 4.12 grade-point average, earning acceptance letters from Cal and UCLA. Hitting the books, though, had nothing on hitting the brakes.

"Nothing compares to getting in the car and having your heart rate at 175 beats per minute for 2½ hours like it will be at Sonoma," Hildebrand said.

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