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Hildebrand Benefits from Extra Time away from IMS

Like everyone, JR Hildebrand wishes the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge was being held in May. But he conceded Thursday that this three-month delay necessitated by the global COVID-19 pandemic has benefited his Dreyer & Reinbold Racing program, which also fields a car for Sage Karam.

“Honestly, having a little extra time hasn’t been a bad thing for us since we were just getting ready for this one race anyway,” said Hildebrand, who is driving the No. 67 DRR Salesforce Chevrolet. “(We’ve built) up the engineering capacity a little bit. We’ve got some different programs this year that were not here for our efforts in the past. As a group, we’re not all that mad about (a race in August).

“Everything being apples to apples, it’s not been a bad thing for us to have had a three-month delay.”

The “500” will be held Sunday, Aug. 23 – 91 days after it was intended.

The delay meant that Hildebrand, who does not have a full-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES ride, had been out of an Indy car for 15 months before Wednesday’s first practice. He said he used the additional time to focus on his preparation, and he made the most of it.

Those who know Hildebrand, who has been driving an Indy car since 2011, aren’t surprised by how he maximized his offseason. Away from driving, he is an adjunct professor in Stanford University’s engineering department, specializing in autonomous vehicle development.

Hildebrand’s mind is one that always seems to be churning, learning.

“I’ve definitely been putting some time in places I didn’t before, just to kind of explore,” he said. “Where can I get better in places? Where can I show up here and have a few extra bullets for different kinds of situations? Having the extra time from May to August has made that easier, frankly. It’s given me more time with the slowdown that we’ve all experienced to kind of think about some of those kind of things.

“Talking with other athletes, understanding mental strategies. Not necessarily for high-pressure moments or anything, but in other sports what are guys doing that maybe translates. Every athlete explains his best performance in much the same way, so just trying to understand that and tap into that. It’s something I wish I had done 10 years ago.”

It’s easy to forget how well Hildebrand, 32, has performed at IMS over the years. Even after nearly winning as a rookie – he crashed in Turn 4 coming to the checkered flag and ended up second – he has posted three other top-10 finishes and has consistently been a Fast Nine Shootout contender in qualifying.

Hildebrand has maintained his relevancy in this sport despite competing in only one NTT INDYCAR SERIES race per year during the past three seasons.

Hildebrand also has driven for a pair of teams with deep roots to IMS -- Ed Carpenter Racing, which is co-owned by former IMS chief Tony George, and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, a team inspired by Floyd “Pop” Dreyer, who first worked the “500” in 1927 as part of the Duesenberg Automotive Company.

Driving for those teams has given Hildebrand an appreciation for how IMS has transitioned from Hulman & Company to Penske Entertainment Corp.

“You talk about history at the Indy 500, and we’re passing it off to good hands from that perspective,” Hildebrand said. “I think it’s exciting. I obviously had the good fortune being around Tony George and the Hulman-George family a lot racing for (ECR). I have tremendous appreciation for what that family has done over the course of decades here, right?

“But I’m excited for what’s coming next. Roger (Penske) has obviously already brought so much improvement here – it’s bum luck, a bad deal for him in his first year that this is the hand we’ve all been dealt. But I expect big and great things for the ‘500’ for years to come under his stewardship.”

Practice resumes Friday, with the Fast Friday session scheduled for 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m., with live coverage on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.

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