Some Unsolicited Advice For JR Hildebrand

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A couple of weeks ago, we learned that Spencer Pigot has been named the fulltime driver for the No.21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka car at Ed Carpenter Racing for 2018. The press release that came out made no mention of JR Hildebrand, the driver of that car for the 2017 season that just ended. By saying nothing, the press release said a lot – if you read between the lines. JR Hildebrand is currently out of a ride for next season.

I hate that for him. I think he’s a good driver. There were some extenuating circumstances beyond his control, like a new engineer for one. The fact that he had not driven a full season since 2012 was another. But I don’t think JR did himself a whole lot of favors, either.

We all know JR’s story. As a rookie driving for John Barnes in 2011, Hildebrand took the lead in the Indianapolis 500 with only a couple of laps to go when Bertrand Baguette was forced to pit for fuel – as many of the leaders were trying to stretch their fuel to the end, desperately hoping for a yellow; much like the 2016 race. Hildebrand seemingly had the race in hand when he rounded Turn Four for the final time with the checkered flag within sight. But fellow-rookie Charlie Kimball had slowed ahead of Hildebrand, forcing him to alter his line going through the turn. The result was Hildebrand hitting the wall and sliding towards the finish-line just as Dan Wheldon zipped by on his way to his second Indianapolis 500 victory.

You couldn’t help but feel for the guy. Hildebrand looked despondent as he crawled from his Panther Racing National Guard car. Wheldon had yet to drive into Victory Lane before the comparisons to Bill Buckner’s choke in the 1986 World Series began. It wasn’t pretty.

Hildebrand did not shake it off easily. His next three races had finishes of twenty-third, eighteenth and twenty-first; before he finally rebounded with a fourth-place finish at Iowa. Altogether, that and his second-place finish he was credited for at Indianapolis would be his only Top-Five finishes in Hildebrand’s rookie campaign as he slogged toward a fourteenth place finish in points.

The 2012 season was a little better. After a sluggish start to the season, he had a fifth-place finish at Long Beach and a seventh at São Paulo. Hildebrand had another fifth at Texas and another seventh at Toronto as he ended up eleventh in points. He wasn’t blowing the doors off of anyone, but the underperforming team he was on was assumed to be at least part of the problem. That is to everyone except for John Barnes.

After JR Hildebrand had an unforced error and crashed on Lap Three of the Indianapolis 500, Barnes unceremoniously dumped him two days later. He didn’t drive again until Sonoma, when Bryan Herta’s Barracuda Racing let Alex Tagliani go seeking better results themselves. Hildebrand finished sixteenth at Sonoma and drove again for Barracuda in the season finale at Fontana, finishing eleventh. Other than driving in three straight Indianapolis 500’s, Hildebrand never set foot in an IndyCar again until this season.

JR Hildebrand is an intelligent guy. He is one of the few current drivers with a college degree – his boss Ed Carpenter being another one of the few. But in my mind, Hildebrand did not exercise good judgment this season once he got the second chance that many drivers never get.

Many will disagree with my assessment and think I’m being very shallow, but hear me out. Keep in mind, I’m not above being shallow and superficial at any time – but in this case, I don’t think I am.

Racing is a results business. Finishing fifteenth in points for the 2017 season was not a good result. But, like it or not, racing is also dictated by sponsors. If you’re in danger of underperforming on the track, you’d better make sure that your sponsors are in love with you.

I have to think that the sponsors were not thrilled that JR decided to give his appearance a transformation last offseason. From the time we saw him in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 to the beginning of this season, Hildebrand had gone from looking like a young prep to a young perp. He grew his hair out and apparently chose to throw all of his shampoo bottles away. While he was at it, it looks like he chose to chunk his razor blades too. His appearance became downright scary looking. Every time his face was shown on television, Susan would let out an audible “Yuck!”

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Yes, I’m old. Even when I was young, I was old. But you know what? Those that make sponsorship decisions are old too. It seems to me that a high-end vodka company carrying the name of a famous golfer is not going to embrace the idea of someone who looks like a hobo, becoming the face of their product. In one season, JR Hildebrand went from being a likeable sympathetic figure to someone who looked like someone you would want to root against.

Why Hildebrand chose his last-chance season to sport this look is beyond me. It seems to me that if you’ve gotten that coveted second-chance that rarely comes your way; you would want to do whatever it took to play nice and keep everyone happy. Instead it seems like Hildebrand thought this would be the perfect time to reinvent himself into some kind of a bad-boy image. In my opinion, he didn’t pull it off.

I’m sure there was nothing in his ECR contract that said that Hildebrand had to keep his hair short and neat. But by the same token, there was probably nothing in the sponsorship contract that said they couldn’t fire a driver due to his overall appearance. To me, it just wasn’t a smart thing to do in his first year back.

If Scott Dixon decided to embrace the motley look, it may not have been popular with Chip Ganassi or his sponsors; but Scott Dixon has enough skins on the wall to pull off such a stunt. Dixon is a four-time IndyCar champion and has an Indianapolis 500 win to his credit. Of course, he also has Emma at home to make sure he keeps a neat appearance.

Hildebrand has none of those. He has a lot to prove. He is still a relatively inexperienced driver with only two full seasons under his belt and was four seasons removed from his last one coming into the season. His most notable moment is crashing on the final turn of the last lap while leading the Indianapolis 500. Deciding to take on the looks of someone who sleeps under a bridge when he finally got another chance, was probably not the smartest move Hildebrand has ever made.

I know I’ll be derided for being so narrow-minded and chastising someone for expressing themselves. Personally, I don’t care if he grows his hair down to his knees or shaves it off and tattoos his entire scalp. It’s his business. But the image portrayed by a spokesperson is a company’s business and they are within their rights to get rid of him if he is scary to look at in the sponsor’s suite at the track. Thumbing your nose at the norms within corporate America is not the best angle to take when you are a marginal driver. If their driving results were identical, who do you think most corporate sponsors are going to want schmoozing their clients – Josef Newgarden or the disheveled version of JR Hildebrand? I think you know the answer.

So please don’t take this as an attack on JR Hildebrand. I personally like the guy and I hope he gets another shot in IndyCar with another team sometime in the very near future. If he does, I hope someone will do him a favor and sign him up for the Dollar Shave Club.

George Phillips

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31 Responses to “Some Unsolicited Advice For JR Hildebrand”

  1. Bruce Waine Says:

    George – Given the undertone msg of your posting, I thought that you might have included and give equal time to evaluating Danica’s off-track persona, etc.

  2. I can’t disagree with you on this. JR has never been a great speaker, not a lot of personality, and his appearance has suffered.

    Since Spencer Pigot is replacing him, we can finally see the put up or shut up about him. Much like Connor Daly, I am so tired of hearing about Spencer deserving a ride. He has one now, much like JR< he might just get this shot, so he better do well!

    • “Finally see the put up or shut up”? Spencer Pigot has 22 total IndyCar starts, with only two on ovals (and he’s scored 5 top-10s in those 20 road and street starts, in partial schedules with limited testing). How fast do you think drivers are supposed to display results?

      And I couldn’t disagree with you more strenuously about JR not being a good speaker. Have you actually heard him interviewed? He thinks and speaks not just in complete sentences, but complete paragraphs. I find his candor and thoughtfulness to be a refreshing outlier from 99% of racing driver interviews.

  3. Couldn’t, and didn’t, have said it better. Amen.

  4. The moment I saw him I coined this nickname: JR Hildebeast!

  5. I had hoped against hope that you would get through your latest Hildebrand rant without mentioning his facial hair. Now I realize that the whole point of your blog today is simply to once again revisit your point of view about his appearance. In the name of God and his hippie son, give it a rest. Perhaps if Hildebrand does shave and get a haircut he could land a major show like “One Take Only”.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    I think it is much, much more likely that Hildebrand’s hair and beard were an aerodynamic disadvantage this season than an issue for his team’s sponsors. Now if his sponsor was a razor company…

    JR has had the misfortune of spending his only full seasons in Indycar with teams that were ill-prepared to be competitive on road and street courses. That said, showing folks you can rise above the level of your equipment from time to time is important, and Hildebrand did not do that at all this year while his teammate Pigot did. Still, I am glad he got a 2nd chance and I’m sorry it did not work out.

    • Hopefully JR’s 2018 facial aerokit look will meet with the Phillips Stamp of Sartorial Elegance and reduce drag.

    • Quite true all, ‘Skinky. Again, people forget, but prior to this season, minus his debut two races for DRR, those couple fill in races for Herta and the couple Indy GPs for ECR/CFR (and at one of those, he should have finished in the top-6, except the car/team let him down), his only road course starts have come for Panther. Post-2008 merger, here’s how many podiums Panther scored on road and street courses: zero (and they weren’t all that great on those tracks pre-merger, either). And while Pigot was obviously really, really quick this year, he didn’t manage any top-5s, either.

      Like Dylan mentions below, the turnover from one driver who’s obviously now a superduperstar (Josef) and a fairly elite engineer (Jeremy Miless, who went to Alexander Rossi’s car, and we can see the late season results after those two got a chance to “gel”), meant it was gonna be a rough season. JR mentioned on a blog that he wrote that his team tried a lot of fairly unconventional things to try to get on the pace at some tracks, and it’s obvious that many of them didn’t work. He also held his hand up and said that some of the techniques that he personally tried didn’t work, so he also shouldered a good chunk of the blame, but it’s also fairly obvious that the team shoulders a lot of blame, too. JR was better than this running for freaking Panther, after all.

      At the end of the day, I think JR getting tossed out for next season boils down to this: the other side of the garage has a kid who’s clearly really, really quick (whereas JR looked only to be “periodically quick”), and comes with a bit of his own sponsorship (in the form of Rising Star Racing). A potential top-10 future talent plus sponsor cash (which JR doesn’t have) is gonna win out. And as long as Ed stays in the #20 car for the ovals, there’s only one seat up for grabs. I don’t think hair had much to do with this.

  7. “Personally, I don’t care if he grows his hair down to his knees or shaves it off and tattoos…” Yada, yada, yada.

    And yet, you spent nearly an entire blog post harping on his “appearance ”

    If you hadn’t noticed, plenty of athletes have long hair, beards, tattoos, etc. Hildebrand’s appearance isn’t the issue. It’s his lack of results.

    Now, you may place some of that blame on his team, but overall he hasn’t shown any significant ability to make his car better, or provide the feedback his engineering team needs to do so.

    This focus on his personal appearance is a kind of an excuse for two problems: the lack of results, which translates into a lack of sponsors. And the lack of interest in Indycar by the sponsors themselves. Because when teams like Ganassi, Penske, etc are cutting back on the number of cars they field, and title sponsor Verizon is apparently exiting the series, this concern about any one drivers looks is only a whitewash of the real issue. Which is a generally uninteresting aspect of Motorsport:controlled, contrived, spec racing with no real interest (or promotion) or anything other than the Indy 500.

  8. This seems like a pretty bad take on the issue. Considering the issues Kahne and Danica are having in NASCAR, not to mention the issues Kenseth is having (re: results) I’m not sure that Hildebrand should shoulder the blame for sponsorship problems. As for results while it is true Hildebrand didn’t preform particularly well, neither did the 20 car as discussed on this very blog. I think the reality is that almost anyone who replaced Newgarden was going to struggle to put up similar results. I mean, Pagneaud didn’t win a single race his first season at Penske while Newgarden won the title. Other than Pagenaud, Power, (sadly) Dixon and maybe Alonso, no likely could come into that car and get the same results Newgarden did. I’ve always been a Newgarden believer, but this year really shows that he is an elite driver, and much like Pagenaud with Sam’s team, very few people will be able to replicate those results.

  9. “It’s an awful awakening in a country boy’s life to look in the mirror in total surprise at the hair on my shoulders and the age in my eyes.”

    This really has nothing to do with the conversation, but I like the lyrics. Maybe people will stop taking everything so damn seriously.

    • Thanks for putting up those lyrics Paul. When I look in my mirror each morning at my long hair and the look of age in my eyes, I often think: “I thought getting old would take longer.” Ron

    • billytheskink Says:

      I was more reminded of “And the sign said ‘long-haired freaky people need not apply'”, but that is much more eloquent… and also doesn’t imply the George has a sign on his garage that reads “long-haired freaky people need not apply”.

  10. I’ll take another approach. I found J.R.’s look kind of refreshing in a world of choir boys that drive race cars. NASCAR is the worst they all look the same and are locked in corporate speak. I think the pressure sponsorship puts upon a driver sucks the life out of them. IndyCar needs characters just like any another sport but characters can’t be manufactured, they have to be authentic. IndyCar needs more Paul Tracy’s and I really don’t care what they look like as long as they are originals.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Go back a bit further to the 1960’s in Formula 1 for additional long hair drivers…………….. include Graham Hill in your list. :o)

      • I’m convinced that for the bulk of his career, half of Jackie Stewart’s body mass was sideburns. Can you imagine how quick he’d have been, had he gotten rid of that 20 pounds riding way up high and out in the air stream?

        • billytheskink Says:

          Those sideburns served a purpose, though, or did you think his Tyrells were generating all of their downforce from those giant wings?

  11. Simon Garfunkel Says:

    I’m with George on this. If you are a former series champion, you’ve got the chops to grow your hair out and look like a hippie. If you’re lucky enough to get the second chance you’ve been seeking for three years, your best move is to play the corporate game. The results may have been what did JR in. But if it was a 50-50 decision made by a sponsor, his new appearance didn’t help. It sucks that corporate America focuses more on what a person looks like than how well he can drive a race car, but it’s a fact of life and JR should have known that. It sucks for him if he didn’t. If he knew it and chose that appearance anyway…he’s now paying the price.

    • I agree it didn’t help him with the sponsors in my opinion.
      It’s George’s blog he has a right to say what he wants to like it or not.

  12. Brian McKay Says:

    I’m a day late to read and comment.
    “I personally like the guy and I hope he gets another shot in IndyCar with another team sometime in the very near future,” but looking like a 1970s BeeGee or a homeless person doesn’t help his cause.
    And he doesn’t have a college degree.

  13. I think the results were more of a problem than his appearance. In 16 starts (he missed Barber), JR had 14 finishes of 11th or worse. 8 of his finishes were 15th or worse. He had two good races (podiums at Phoenix and Iowa), but 2017 was nearly all famine and no feast.

    No one should have been expecting Newgarden-esque results, but 2 top-10 finishes isn’t enough to justify another season from a 29 year old driver with only 3 full seasons of experience. There are younger drivers with similar experience levels.

  14. I too find JR refreshing. It is too bad that he didn’t have the results he needed to keep his full time ride. I’ve often wondered how well he would do in a top team with a good car. And although he didn’t complete a degree in engineering, his interest in the sciences is a plus to a team. I remember JR working with high school students regarding STEM. (And oh, by the way I believe he was accepted into MIT and I’m not sure any of us can brag about that).

    You cannot always judge a book by its cover. I’m so glad I don’t prejudge my very tattooed and body pierced students. Their commitment to their fields is admirable. It’s just a different generation.

  15. Whatever happened to the idea that you cleaned yourself up if you wanted a job. Was always pretty good advice. Self-marketing can be a big deal. And how a person presents themselves can say a lot.

    He needs to start with a haircut.

  16. Tom from Lake Forest Says:

    JR’s value as a driver includes every aspect of his persona – driving ability or roads, ovals, streets, his personality, communication skills, sponsor relationships, financial demands, fan appeal, and yes, appearance. The way he chooses to assemble and present that whole package is his business. Love your blog, George, but this time I think you’re off base. JR’s appearance is his business.

  17. Randy Holbrook Says:

    Best take ever! I love that you are not afraid to state your opinion. Common sense is a great thing.

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