The sight of his father in a 1968 Camaro — that’s all it took.
“My dad had a vintage race car when I was kid,” J.R. Hildebrand said, recalling his father and the West Coast racing circuits he competed in. “That was just a hobby for him. We don’t come from a racing family, really.”
That distinction, however, has changed.
A competitor in the IZOD IndyCar Series, Hildebrand, 24, this weekend will get behind the wheel at the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, the birthplace of his racing career.
“That’s really sort of where I cut my teeth,” said the Sausalito native and driver of the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing car, recalling his go-kart teachings at the Jim Russell Racing School, located at the Sonoma raceway.
That was 10 years ago, in an era where winning races meant the school would foot the bill for classes and further teachings.
And Hildebrand won. A lot.
“I think if I hadn’t been able to do that, to get to a point pretty quickly ... I’m not really sure that I’d be here doing this today,” he said. “I always thought about it as something that would be really cool as a kid, but I didn’t have the vision of myself being the next Dario Franchitti, or whatever. I really loved cars, and that stemmed into really loving racing.”
That passion propelled Hildebrand though the ranks and ultimately to his IndyCar debut two years ago. Last year, he competed in his first full IndyCar series, finishing 14th in the standings. And with three races to go in the 15-race series, Hildebrand is currently ranked 13th.
But the series has been a stalling one for the sophomore driver.
Hildebrand had a top-10 ranking after the first four road and street courses. That changed when they switched to the oval tacks.
“We just had a bunch of issues basically,” he said, citing engine and mechanical failures. Those failures prompted Hildebrand not to finish two races.
“That was a little bit of a blow. Those were races that we really could’ve done well at,” he said. “That put a little bit of a hurting on our championship standing.”
But with a top-10 finish last weekend at Mid-Ohio, Hildebrand will look to ride that momentum onto his home track.
Though he fears he won’t have too much of an advantage.
“I’m now racing against a bunch of guys that have been racing IndyCars at this track for almost as long as I’ve been driving anything,” Hildebrand said.
But if home-track advantage isn’t a go, Hildebrand will at least drive a hometown car of sorts, for his vehicle sports the 49ers logo and colors.
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was one of the original partners in Panther Racing, and sported No. 4 as a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. The car is a tribute to Harbaugh.
“It’s coincidental that I’m from here,” Hildebrand said. “But it’s a total added bonus to me, because I grew up with the red and gold.”