J. R. Hildebrand was leading the 2011 Indianapolis 500 in the final turn when he swung wide around a slow car and skidded into the wall. Though the side of his car was destroyed, Hildebrand coasted to a second-place finish, a fantastic result for a rookie.
Hildebrand grew up in Sausalito. He played baseball in middle school and is a big fan of the Giants. But he grew up obsessed with car racing. Having turned 26 in January, Hildebrand awaits the start of his fourth Indy car season, which begins in March.
How does a kid growing up in an affluent part of Marin County become a race car driver?
My dad raced classic cars. He had a ’68 Camaro and would race it six or seven times a year at Sears Point and Laguna Seca. Growing up, I played a lot of different sports. At 13 or 14 it all converged when they opened go-kart racing at Sears Point.
What’s your favorite race?
Indy [The Indianapolis 500] is the obvious answer. It’s so hard to drive. It’s got very long straightaways and narrow corners. It’s the fastest track that we go to. The rules at Indy in terms of aerodynamics are relatively open. The teams are allowed to remove downforce on the cars. You have to ask yourself, How brave are you?
How do you deal with the fear that comes with racing at 200 mph?
You have to separate the feeling from the fear. You’ve chosen at that point that you’re going to try to qualify. You rid your mind of any distraction, the fear of “what if.” What you have to do is allow yourself to separate your thoughts. It’s a matter of having an ultra-sensitive focus on what is happening this second. When accidents happen, they only solidify [that racing] is what I wanted to do — and that ends up outweighing the risks at play.
You had a 4.12 GPA at Redwood High School in Corte Madera, and you were accepted at MIT. Do you find that any of the other drivers are jealous of how articulate you are, or of your brains?
You don’t get to that level [Indy car driver] without being really switched on, really smart. In school, advanced calculus was directly applicable to something that was happening at the racetrack. That made science and math extremely important, just to understand what’s going on [at the racetrack] for my own sake. Once in the car, everything becomes much more physical and subconscious [rather than intellectual].
We can make a few adjustments in the cars: the roll bars, the cross weight, engine maps, the gears. It’s a little bit like chess at 200 miles per hour.
How much training do you do?
During the offseason, I work out quite a bit. In a week I’ll bike 70 miles three or four times, with 7,000 feet of elevation. In the car, you have very high-intensity heart rates. I do a lot of hill work and treadmills, a lot of core strength to deal with G-forces, a lot of work on my shoulders and back.
What’s your favorite car-racing movie?
Steve McQueen in Le Mans.
What about last year’s car movie Rush?
That was the first movie in a long time that captures a little bit of the essence of what’s really going on in the car. I’ve had the chance to drive some of the cars from that time. It was a much more raw time period. The cars then were not as sensitive as modern cars. You had to take the bull by the horns.
What’s your goal?
It’s about going to Indy and drinking the milk. [The winner of the Indianapolis 500 drinks from a quart jug of milk.]
What kind of car are you driving these days?
I drive a Cadillac CTS-V station wagon.
What’s the fastest you’ve driven in Sausalito?
I’ve never gotten a ticket in Sausalito.
What’s the fastest you’ve driven in San Francisco?
I don’t want to put a number on it. I’ve definitely driven some fast cars and tested the limits of their velocity — usually on the way to the airport.