SONOMA – J.R. Hildebrand proved to be a quick study as a student at Redwood High School in Larkspur, becoming a National Merit Scholar and getting accepted into MIT’s engineering program before he set his sights on driving race cars.
This year on the IndyCar tour, his first as Ed Carpenter Racing’s full-time driver, has been just as much a learning experience for Hildebrand.
“It was a year of learning in a much more focused way than normal,” he said while relaxing with family and friends in his hometown of Sausalito before this weekend’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
The binge course to learn new tracks, or experiment to find more speed, was the result of Hildebrand stepping into a full-time role with the team after three years of driving only a partial schedule. With eight years as an IndyCar driver and a 2009 Indy Lights championship behind him, Hildebrand is hardly a rookie. But the commitment to a full season of driving required more intensity.
Also, as a smaller team racing against multi-car juggernauts such as Penske Racing or Ganassi, Ed Carpenter Racing is at a distinct disadvantage without teammates to share testing data. The team fields only one car on oval tracks, except for Indianapolis, and two cars on road courses.
“We had to experiment because we don’t have four full-time cars with four full-time drivers who have a history of finding small distinctions in set-ups,” said Hildebrand.
At some tracks, while other teams were looking for minor tweaks on a set-up to gain fractions of a second a lap, “we weren’t always just fine-tuning,” he said. “If you stick to what you know, there’s a lot of value in that, especially in the middle of the season when you have to race and perform.
“But I’ve always believed you have to test to learn and get out of your comfort zone. As a team, we made a conscious…