J.R. Hildebrand sees the progress at A.J. Foyt Racing.
The 34-year-old California native, who finished 15th in a one-off appearance with the team at the Indianapolis 500 last year, is back with even more opportunities after being confirmed for all five oval races for 2022. He will share the No. 11 Chevrolet entry with Tatiana Calderon, who has already begun her rookie campaign consisting of road and street circuits.
“I guess to me, the thing that I like about the squad is just there’s kind of like a grittiness to the attitude that the team has,” Hildebrand said, during a media availability on Friday. “There’s not like an expectation internally for this year that we are going to be operating in every way like (Team) Penske or (Chip) Ganassi (Racing) or something.
“I think that there’s a bit of an honesty about, ‘All right, we’ve got to make up for the fact that maybe we don’t have those kinds of budgets and are not able to tap into these kinds of resources.’ We’re not doing a ton of days in the wind tunnel and all that kind of stuff. But the team has done an awesome job even with a little bit of certainty in terms of how things are going to end up working out for the year, without having quite the same access or whatever, without having the same in-house resources as some of the bigger teams.
“They’ve done a really awesome job at just figuring out ways to account for that basically and figuring out — I don’t want to say it’s like scrappy, but it’s just I’d say intelligent ways of accounting for some of those differences, and just having sort of a head-down mentality about working through stuff and being able to do that development in their own way and showing up and being ready to rock and roll.”
It’s no secret the team has endured some tough seasons over the last several years. While the likes of Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske have flourished with wins and championships in the NTT IndyCar Series, A.J. Foyt Racing has chipped away with just the occasional top five result to show for its efforts.
In fact, the last time the team tasted champagne in Victory Lane was 2013, when Takuma Sato put in a superb drive to win on the Streets of Long Beach. Only three trips on the podium have followed in the days since.
While being around the program the past 10 months has allowed Hildebrand to see the improvements firsthand, he isn’t alone. Rookie Kyle Kirkwood, who pilots the team’s No. 14 entry, previously mentioned the squad’s strong off-season.
Glimpses of that showed during pre-season testing and again at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where Kirkwood managed qualify a solid 12th and utilize strategy to climb as high as fifth. The pace was there to hang tough before the strategy play soured the outcome with an 18th-place finish.
“Kyle has been super impressed with the car on road and street circuits so far through the testing,” said Hildebrand, who helped mentor Kirkwood at a rookie oval test at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago. “I think that’s a testament not only to his ability to be able to just get in and get there, but at some point — when you’re racing against Scott Dixon and Alex Palou and Josef Newgarden and (Alexander) Rossi and (Colton) Herta and whatever — the car has to be there, also, to be able to compete with those guys on those teams. Kyle, I think, still knows that he’s got room to grow and improve and get better just as a driver. He’s got some headroom still from that perspective.
“That, to me, just points to the fact that a lot of the things that the team is doing, the way that they have started to find ways of developing the car through the off-season are working and that they’ve got like a really high degree of efficiency from that perspective. I think one of the things that really stood out to me about this group is just the overall attitude kind of from the top down about what we’re here to do. This is a team that I think understands kind of where we’re at. Their expectations are not like out of control from that perspective, but we’re here to show up and win.
“At the 500 last year, we just got to work. There was no screwing around. There was no, like, being downtrodden about where we were at. It was like, this is just a process, and if we keep executing together and we keep talking and we keep doing the things you know you have to do as a group to get competitive, whether you’re at the top of the sheets or the bottom or whatever, we just went out and did it. There was, in a weird way, like an ease to it like I’ve not experienced at every team that I’ve been to, certainly kind of like jumping into a new group of people.
“I think that’s some of what Kyle has experienced, and it feels like a team that’s on its way up. They’re getting things figured out in a way that are going to scale over the course of the year, over the course of the next couple of years, and that’s a fun thing to be a part of.”