JR Hildebrand doesn’t dwell on what might have been in last year’s Indianapolis 500. There’s no time for that, anyway.
Yes, he was leading on the final lap and headed to almost certain victory in the biggest race of his life. But as he came upon the slowed car of Charlie Kimball, he went too high and smacked the wall in the final turn. Dan Wheldon sailed by him for the win, and Hildebrand, a rookie last year, skidded to a second-place finish.
“It’s not super difficult to kind of compartmentalize the whole situation, because it’s not something I deal with in practice,” Hildebrand said. “When you play baseball, you hit ground balls a million times a day. If you flub one in the game, it’s like, well, you know, you screwed up. You screwed up doing something that you should know how to do.
“With this, it’s kind of like you don’t have (a slower car) kind of situation come up in practice. You don’t have that kind of thing happen besides when it maybe ends up happening during the race. I don’t beat myself up because it’s just not something that you really deal with.”
And it’s not something Hildebrand can carry into this year’s race. When Indianapolis Motor Speedway opens Saturday for the first day of practice, every team and every driver must be focused on what is expected to be the most wide-open Indy 500 in years.
As if a new car and competing engine manufacturers weren’t enough, a flurry of recent off-track activity has added layers of intrigue to the May 27 race.
There’s been handwringing among fans over potentially disappointing speeds, and concerns that IndyCar won’t have a full 33-car field. While both are steeped in tradition, fans seem more upset about speed and car counts than the drivers.
“We will have a 33, but, honestly, if we didn’t, I think we need to focus on the quality, not on the quantity,” said Tony Kanaan. “I believe that with the economy right now, it’s been remarkable how many cars we’ve already got, and it’s just a number. You start 33 cars, I know it’s tradition this and that, but in the first lap you have a five-car accident, you’re already down to 27 cars, so what’s the deal? I’m not concerned, I understand that the haters might criticize us for that, but I think we’ll be OK.”
And Hildebrand, who seemed disappointed by the speeds following an April test at Indy, now seems resigned to how difficult it is for everything to be perfect in the first year of a new car. Following Wheldon’s death last October, IndyCar has been conservative _ especially going into the first oval race of the season.
“I don’t foresee the speeds being super high this year,” he said. “That’s just kind of what we’re up against in terms of having a new formula and having a different kind of outlook on the safety side of the car. I think this year could end up being a little bit of an outlier from that perspective. It’s all just a work in progress.”
There’s an apparent shortage of engines, with Chevrolet at capacity in its first season back in the series in six years. Honda, the lone supplier the last six seasons in IndyCar, also says it is full.
And nobody wants a Lotus, it seems.
Dragon Racing has sued Lotus for $4.6 million and has yet to announce where it will get engines for drivers Sebastian Bourdais and Katherine Legge. Same goes for Alex Tagliani, as Bryan Herta Racing is expected to get a Honda engine for last year’s pole sitter but has made no formal announcement since splitting from Lotus last month.
Dreyer & Reinbold walked away from Lotus at the same time, but shored up its program when the team aligned with Panther Racing. That gives Hildebrand a teammate in veteran Oriol Servia, and he heads to Indianapolis feeling like he can compete on an even playing field for the first time this season.
Servia, who started on the front row last year and finished sixth in the 500, has been plagued by issues in the first four races because of DRR’s partnership with Lotus.