As opposed to the thousands of kids who fantasize about being racecar drivers, John Randal “J.R.” Hildebrand had no illusions about becoming a professional racer. There are too many externalities that affect your chances, he says.
Hildebrand grew up around vintage racing. His father is an accountant but had a ’68 Camaro that he raced up and down the West Coast (at tracks like Laguna Seca, Sonoma, Coronado). As a child, Hildebrand would go watch and help his dad as much as he could. And living just outside San Francisco they were equidistant to Sonoma (then Sears Point) and Laguna Seca, and had season passes to both.
Even though Hildebrand spent a lot of time between the track and having the cops show up at two in the morning because his dad was working on the Camaro’s timing and the neighbors were freaking out, he didn’t start racing until he was about 14 years old. For his dad it was just a hobby and there wasn’t a strong push for J.R. to become a racer. He did attend a couple of karting schools growing up but things changed for him when Sears Point opened up a karting school. It made it easier for him to train and race. But now, he also credits racing games and sims with teaching him some fundamentals so that by the time he was in a kart the learning curve was much flatter.
It wasn’t until he was racing Formula Atlantics and Indy Lights that he really considered racing a viable career option. He had already been accepted to MIT but it really crystalized for him, upon winning his, and his team’s, first Indy Lights race. They went to victory lane and Bobby Rahal, whose Rahal Letterman team had a working relationship with Hildebrand’s, met him in the winner’s circle to congratulate him. The next season Hildebrand won the Indy Lights Championship convincingly for Andretti Green Racing, and that season he tested their Indy car a couple of times and felt that racing Indy cars was the next logical step.
Hildebrand has raced at the Indy 500 five years in a row and finished in second place in his rookie season. He would’ve won, but a last lap, last turn miscalculation cost him victory. He’ll be back this year too, although he can’t disclose with whom yet.
In addition to racing, Hildebrand has founded IndyLab VR, which uses the newest, latest, and greatest virtual reality technology to teach students in traditionally underperforming schools what goes into racing (e.g. the physics, mechanics, etc…). He says that it’s “the manifestation of what has always been an internal drive for me to give other people the context that I had when I was growing up for why math and science is (sic) interesting and important and engaging. To me that is so clear because I grew up around racing and saw the engineering element of what happened at the track and how important, not only just the little pieces of that were, but how important the process of that was… and [how important it is] for students and their education.”
Paraphrasing Hildebrand: we saw a transformation in results between a traditional curriculum and IndyLab VR because the students were actually interested and invested in the content. It allows students to be completely immersed and block out distractions. It seems appropriate for a guy who thought he might become an engineer, and instead became a racecar driver, to inspire and teach kids who might dream of being racers, but may have to settle for becoming engineers.