Car Talk with J.R. Hildebrand

J.R. Hildebrand at Texas (Team Chevy)

I’ve had a lot of time for J.R. Hildebrand since I met him in 2005 as part of Jeremy Shaw’s Team USA program, and a huge amount of respect for the way he handled the aftermath of the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

I’m glad he made it back to the IndyCar Series full-time with Ed Carpenter Racing this year for a number of reasons. Obviously, it’s a great story when a driver overcomes obstacles that have been thrown in his way, so just seeing Hildebrand back in a car every week is a great tale of redemption.

I appreciate that he lives life by his own rules, growing out his hair and living in Colorado to enjoy the outdoor lifestyle that is such a wonderful aspect of that part of the country.

Most of all, I’m glad that a 29-year old badass is out there showing the younger generation how to be an all-around car enthusiast who appreciates the past and embraces the future. J.R. Hildebrand loves cars and he loves driving – and not just in a race car on a race track. His daily driver is a slammed Cadillac CTS-V wagon and he also rolls in a pink ’60 Coupe De Ville with a ‘Dan Gurney for President’ sticker on the rear bumper.

Hildebrand and I share a similar attitude about a good road trip, as well as a sense of optimism about cars and car culture in the future, whether or not those cars are the autonomous ones he is helping develop as one of his side jobs.

I’ve always enjoyed talking to J.R., so it was a pleasure to reach out to him this week to get material for a profile that will be published later this year in the Sonoma Raceway souvenir IndyCar program. He had some really interesting things to say abut the future of driving and individual mobility, so I thought I would share the outtakes from our interview here.

Patrick and J.R. Hildebrand in 2011, when they both had shorter hair (John Oreovicz)

We started by talking about how he grew up with a car enthusiast/racer for a father.

J.R. Hildebrand:   He started vintage racing just because he was a car guy – I don’t think it was much more than that. I grew up in a GM family. We always had bow ties in our garage, and he started out as a guy that had muscle cars and hot rods from the time he was a teenager. That sort of translated into doing a little bit of racing as a hobby as he got older, and I grew up around that.

I grew up as a car guy. I wasn’t expecting to be a race car driver, or even with that clearly on my radar when I was really young. I’ve just always loved cars. I played baseball at a competitive level for a long time, well before I started racing go-karts. But if you had walked into my room when I was ten, you would have seen 300-400 Hot Wheels cars and no baseball cards.

I grew up with a really intense passion for the automobile, and racing is a part of that.

John Oreovicz:   We hear that young people are more interested in cell phones than they are in cars and fewer kids are eager to get a driver’s license. As a twenty-something who is involved with future automotive technology, how can we help groom future car enthusiasts?

JRH:    It comes down to understanding why people are enthusiasts about cars and what there is to offer from that perspective. I think there’s no doubt that the ‘mobility environment’ will change, driven out of utility. As ride sharing increases and it’s easier for people to get around without owning a car, you’ll see fewer young people actually owning their own cars, particularly in urban areas.

One way to look at that is to think of the automobile is something that will become commoditized, as just a mode of transportation. The other way to look at it is that it would allow people to make their own personal vehicles more specialized. That’s actually something that I believe pretty strongly in as we go forward. I think we can take greater advantage of the automobile, as a reflection of your identity and personality, and tastes and styles and passions, as the mobility space continues to change.


JRO:    Like the old adage “You are what you drive.”

JRH:    Yes. At some point, maybe it’s ten years or twenty years from now, I may not need a small SUV to get around town and do all the things I need to do, and need it to get good gas mileage. It actually opens the door to me, if I have that expendable income, to buy a 1971 Alfa GTV or something that I might just drive around on the weekends because I don’t need a car that does everything.

I think it’s a confusing time right now and there are a lot of small trends we’re starting to see, like young people not being as engaged in the automotive industry. But I would say we should hold out hope that this will continue to evolve. That being said, I do think the automotive industry and the community of enthusiasts, together, as a group, have a responsibility that we should take on to ask for great cars.

We look at a lot of cars on the market and think, ‘These are the cars we have expectations that young people should buy.’ But I think, ‘Why would a young person think these cars aren’t boring if all we are producing is boring cars?’ I think young people now, as much as ever, want to be able to express themselves, and as it all starts to shake out, the automobile will still be a part of that expression.

J.R. Hildebrand in action at Iowa (Phil Abbott/LAT for Team Chevy)

JRO:    I’ve always thought that cars and driving are such a major part of life, especially in America. Almost everybody drives and cars are everywhere. If you can have an interest in cars and car culture and you drive some enjoyment from driving, it makes life more interesting. You can see an unusual car, like a ’72 Chrysler Newport, and you think, ‘Man, you don’t see one of those every day.’

JRH:    There is absolutely so much more distraction in our lives these days. Me, I love road tripping. If I have the time, and it’s not like a royal hassle, I’d rather drive. I drove out to Indy from Colorado this year, I drove to Detroit from Indy, and drove down to Texas from Detroit, and then back home. For me, I really do feel a sense of release and freedom when I do that. I’m going to be on the road for a few hours, driving across the countryside, and it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m in Kansas or through the mountains. I can take some phone calls, I can have some time to myself – it’s just my time.

I can accept that I’m in a minority of people who feel that strongly, but that basic ability to get away and be in control of your own environment, is reflective of some basic human instincts and desires. I don’t expect that will become completely lost on people.