You'd think a guy who drives 220-plus mph for a living would want some sort of Ferrari or other exotic play toy for his off-hours, but in the case of IndyCar racer J.R. Hildebrand, you'd be thinking wrong. He comes from a GM/Chevy family and there's nothing he likes better than climbing behind the wheel of this 325-horse SS396 Chevelle.
That, however, is only part of this tale. How he got this matching-numbers A-body is the real story.
The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was one of the most exciting in recent memory. Running first on the last lap was a promising rookie named—drum roll, please—J.R. Hildebrand. Just 23 years old at the time, he had a good-sized lead. Everyone thought he would win the centennial edition of the greatest spectacle in motorsports. Then disaster struck. As he was passing a slower vehicle on the outside in the final turn before taking the checkered flag, he lost control and hit the wall. Hard.
Remarkably, J.R. still managed to finish Second at the Brickyard. What followed could have been ugly, but he handled the post-race aftermath like an experienced driver twice his age. He didn't shy away from the onslaught of questions. Unlike athletes in other sports, he didn't blame anyone else, go on a tirade, shove a cameraman, or otherwise make excuses. J.R. simply manned up and in the process gained the respect of everyone associated with the sport.
Panther Racing team owner John Barnes always had that kind of admiration for the young racer. After watching Hildebrand run two IndyCar events in 2010, Barnes invited him to test at Phoenix International Raceway to be the driver of the No. 4 National Guard–sponsored machine. Hildebrand was impressive enough to earn the full-time ride, and it was at Indianapolis where he showed a worldwide audience his potential. While J.R.'d do anything to change the ending of that race, he handled the media scrutiny with aplomb, and by doing so brought tons of positive attention to the National Guard car and its sponsors.
Barnes was so pleased that he decided to do something special for J.R., something above and beyond the call of duty. Knowing J.R. is a huge fan of classic Chevy muscle cars, Barnes purchased the red SS396 you see on these pages and presented it to J.R. at the race shop in Indianapolis.
"I was shocked. It was a gesture you just don't see anymore," J.R. said.
That's putting it mildly.
Like many young enthusiasts, J.R. got his love of Bow Tie muscle from his father, John (with an assist from an uncle, Craig).
"When I was growing up, my dad was a GM guy. We had Novas, Impalas, Trans Ams—all cars from the '60s and '70s," JR recalled. "He had a '71 Corvette we'd cruise in when I was pretty young, maybe 5, 6, or 7. Then he got a '68 Camaro A-Sedan racecar. He and his brother built a motor and ran it in West Coast Trans-Am vintage racing events."
An upbringing like this would not only likely make you a Chevy lover, but it probably propelled his interest in motorsports at an early age. "It was part of my life when I was a little kid."
As he got older, he got into karting and then real cars. He learned to drive a stick on a '95 Firebird Trans Am—this was necessitated by his graduation from karts to a real racecar. This Poncho was also the car he used for transportation in his high school years. He still has it with him in Indiana and it's become a project for him and his father. There's also a stroked small-block '68 Camaro project they are working on.
"It's one of those things. You get sucked into thinking about cars all the time," he says, maintaining he spends much of the off-season on eBay and Craigslist looking for deals. "It's therapeutic. Definitely a work in progress."
Upon graduation from high school, he was a National Merit Scholar and passed up a chance to go to the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology in order to pursue his racing career. He won the Cooper Tires Formula Ford 2000 title, then the Atlantic Championship, and then moved on to Indy Lights. He earned his first victory there in 2008 and won the championship the following season, with four victories and six poles. In his rookie year in IndyCar, he had two top five finishes and five top 10s.
Still, the Chevelle is what gets his adrenaline going off the track. He describes it as bare bones--no power steering, no power brakes, plus a manual trans. It's got the stock 325-horse L36 Rat, a four-speed gearbox, and little else. The passenger-side exhaust manifold is new, but otherwise it's a matching-numbers car.
"It transports you to a different place. It looks great, sounds great--it's all part of the experience" is how J.R. describes it. "Just the smell …"
He's hooked. That much is obvious. Hopefully, as his career progresses, J.R. will be able to make more of his Chevy/GM dreams come true. He'd love to get a '61 Biscayne and a Tri-Five or two, maybe even a late-'50s Pontiac.