Who hired J.R.? Panther Racing

By Dave Lewandowski

Panther Racing announced it signed J.R. Hildebrand to a multi-year contract. He’ll drive the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing entry for the 2011 IndyCar Series season.
OK, now the work really begins.

“It’s exciting right now and the whole thing is coming together as you might dream it,” said Hildebrand, who participated in a two-day on-track audition with the team last week. “I’ll start losing sleep over our next test day soon. I’ll try to take it all in and enjoy it as much as I can right now, but I certainly don’t take this opportunity for granted. I will very quickly be switching gears and focus on what I need to do to take advantage of the situation moving forward.

“From the first time I came here to talk to the engineers — and that was some time before the test — I felt like I got along really well with everybody. It’s a great core group of guys, and there’s a lot of continuity because many have been here for a long time and work together really well. I found that I was able to adapt fairly seamlessly, particularly once we got going on the test day.”

Hildebrand, 22, of Sausalito, Calif., won the Firestone Indy Lights championship in 2009 (four victories, six poles, 11 top-five and 12 top-10 finishes). Last year, he made his IZOD IndyCar Series debut with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and also started at Infineon Raceway, where he ran as high as fourth position and posted the fastest lap of the race.

Hildebrand and Panther Racing CEO and managing partner John Barnes spoke periodically over the past 12 months about potential opportunities, and Hildebrand “made a particular point of trying to continue to be a part of the conversation” since late in the 2010 season.
“As we got a little further down the road and things started to shake out for other drivers and other teams, it became clear that this test that we ended up doing last week was going to be a fairly measurable, determining factor,” Hildebrand said. “It became a little bit of a proving ground for me both from a driver skill standpoint and also giving feedback and working with the team.”

The two-day test at Phoenix International Raceway sealed the deal.

Hildebrand will take over the wheel from Dan Wheldon, who competed in the No. 4 entry the past two seasons. It’s a transition similar to 2001, when Scott Goodyear retired and 21-year-old Sam Hornish Jr. came on board. Hornish, of course, delivered 11 victories and two IZOD IndyCar Series championships for the team.

“J.R. is an extremely impressive young man and he’s going to be a great fit for the National Guard and Panther Racing,” Barnes said. “We took a very calculated and methodical approach to making this decision because anybody who represents the 350,000 soldiers in the National Guard has a tremendous responsibility both inside and outside the race car. We feel like J.R. is going to be a tremendous asset to the IZOD IndyCar Series, and what really set him apart is his ambition and his intelligence – this is a kid who was a National Merit Scholar, and accepted to M.I.T.

“We tested him at Phoenix last week and brought along my friend Al Unser Jr. to help us with the evaluation, and all of us knew by lunchtime of the first day that we’d found the next driver of the No. 4 car. We know we all have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but our expectations are very high for the 2011 season.”

This 2011 season will mark the fourth year of National Guard being the primary sponsor of the No. 4 car. Representing the National Guard and its 350,000 soldiers domestically and abroad is “an honor,” according the Hildebrand.

“I’ve already got a small taste of all the programs I’ll be a part of through this sponsorship and I just couldn’t be more excited to get more involved in everything that goes along with this partnership,” he said. “I’m certainly excited about this opportunity and I’m definitely looking forward to every piece of this program moving forward.”

Hildebrand is the sixth driver in the No. 4 entry, joining Goodyear (1998-2000), Hornish (2001-03), Tomas Scheckter (2004-05), Vitor Meira (2006-08) and Wheldon (2009-2010). Wheldon, the 2005 IZOD IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion, finished ninth in the championship standings this year with a high finish of second in the Indianapolis 500 and at Chicagoland Speedway.

source http://www.indycar.com/

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