J.R. Hildebrand may be an internationally known IndyCar racer, but deep down he’s still just a Northern California kid who loves a good thrill! Hildebrand, who in May finished 11th in the 2018 Indianapolis 500, has had a need for speed since he was a young teen racing go-karts in Sonoma, California. However, it was a classic car that made Hildebrand first fall in love with racing.
“My dad had a ’68 Camaro road racer and he was racing it when I was a little kid,” Hildebrand remembers. “I grew up around vintage racing and, being from Northern California, we were close to Sears Point Raceway and Laguna Seca, so I saw everything.”
Hildebrand shares his father’s passion for classic cars. However, his taste is quite different from his dad’s. Instead of choosing a fast muscle car to drive when he’s not on the track, Hildebrand has instead elected to go with a low-and-slow custom 1960 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. “I love it because there’s no performance element here and there’s not supposed to be,” Hildebrand said. “[As a racer] you just think you need to get places as fast as humanly possible, but in a Coupe de Ville, it’s just not an option. It’s very liberating!”
We chatted with J.R. about the pressures of Indy Car racing, his weirdest fan encounters and why he ditched his numbers-matching ’66 Chevelle SS.
GG: You have been racing professionally for over a decade now. What’s the scariest thing about the sport?
J.R. Hildebrand: You can’t hide from your results. It’s a very black-and-white kind of thing. You’ve got to be able to put it all together when it counts. A lot of people think [what I do] is risky, and it is compared to other jobs, but…people don’t realize how well-prepared we are for all those risks. You kind of become wired to forget about them. You see how much you can trust your mechanics and engineers and all the other drivers racing against you. It’s a high-risk situation, though. You’re moving 230mph and are surrounded by concrete walls. But, if you’re going to get to the big leagues, you have to be prepared to fail… a lot.
GG: People dream of racing in the Indy 500 once. You’ve done it eight times. How does that race compare to other races you’ve done?
J.R. Hildebrand: There’s a lot of tension. You have 35 cars trying to qualify for the 33 spots, and there will be some people who go home, so that adds tension. But the quality of the field is so high…everyone is so good now, so it’s hard.
GG: When you’re not going fast, you like to cruise in your 1960 Caddy. Why did you choose a low and slow car over a fast muscle car?
J.R. Hildebrand: I grew up around the pony/muscle car stuff and I had a ’66 Chevelle SS that was numbers-matching and super nice. I loved the car and it was fun, but it doesn’t compare [speed-wise] to the other cars I drive. It was so nice I didn’t like driving it that much. I didn’t want to go bananas if someone hits it with a shopping cart. I wanted something I could drive and not stress. I had a few buddies with Lincoln Continentals that liked them because they are low and slow. I’m a GM guy so I thought about something equivalent. I looked at Caddilacs and the ’60 was the year for me. I found one on Craigslist in 2013 and picked it up. It needed some work, but I didn’t want something that was pristine. I wanted something I could personalize a bit. The whole experience of driving a [low and slow] car is much simpler than [driving a fast car]. I’ve come to really appreciate that.
GG: Are there a lot of racecar drivers that are secretly classic car fans?
J.R. Hildebrand: There are a lot of racers into classic cars, but the Indy Car racers mostly lean toward the sports cars and modern cars. I’m in the minority of the guys who lean toward hot rods. I went to Bonneville during Speed Week and fell in love. There were more bitchin’ ’32 Fords there than you’ll ever see in one place in your whole life. That would be lost on a lot of the other [Indy Car] guys but I loved it!
GG: Indy Car fans tend to be very passionate about the sport. What’s your weirdest fan experience?
J.R. Hildebrand: I haven’t had many crazy interactions with fans in person, which is nice, but I have a few folks who have somehow gotten my phone number and that turned into a pain in the ass. Social media has changed everything when it comes to fans. When I first came into the sport 10 years ago, you had a much bigger buffer to the fans. It’s not a good or bad thing, but now [that they have more access to you] it opens you up to more random encounters online.
GG: Is there a lot of pressure to please your fans?
J.R. Hildebrand: I’ve never found there to be a lot of pressure. Being good to your fans, or being a good role model, is not always just being the good guy about everything. Part of it is speaking up if you think things need to be different and allowing yourself to be vocal about who you are. But, you have to respect the position you are in. I embrace that I have the chance to influence people.
GG: What’s one hobby you’d like to try?
J.R. Hildebrand: I don’t do any water sports, but there’s an awesome boating culture in California—vintage speed boats, sailboats, stuff like that. I haven’t gotten into that but I have thought about it. There’s a healthy number of race car drivers who are trained pilots too. One thing for sure is I’d like to have a small fleet of motorcycles. I’d do it now if it wasn’t so outside our [racing] contract!
GG: You were born and raised in Northern California. Are you the typical NorCal guy?
J.R. Hildebrand: I think so! I’m not a beach guy. I like being out near the mountains – biking, doing BMX, being outside. I live in Colorado now, but I get back to NorCal pretty frequently. I miss the Northern California car culture, though. It’s so legit there. In Colorado people dig my [’60 Cadillac Coupe de Ville] but there’s not the same type of car community here that there is on the West Coast.
GG: Racecar driving, BMX bike-racing: Is it safe to say you’re an adrenaline junkie?
J.R. Hildebrand: I wouldn’t say I have an insatiable appetite for doing crazy stuff. But I race BMX bikes, go mountain biking, go-kart. It’s the speed and the chaos that got me hooked! I definitely enjoy it but now I probably consider myself a ‘calculated’ adrenaline junkie. I think about things more now. But I love things that go fast!
Cadillac photos by Austin Warnock Photography