Panther Racing have confirmed long-circulating rumours that they have signed 2009 IndyLights champion JR Hildebrand to drive the #4 National Guard Panther Racing entry for the 2011 IndyCar Series season.
The 22-year-old Sausalito, California native made his IndyCar debut in this year's Mid-Ohio and Sonoma rounds, sitting in for the Mike Conway at Dreyer & Reinbold after Conway sustained serious injuries at the Indy 500. He did not compete in the 2010 IndyLights series to defend his title.
"This is my first full-time IndyCar ride and the Panther #4 car is one of the best seats in the IZOD IndyCar Series, so to be able to start my career with a team with this kind of pedigree is just huge," said Hildebrand.
Panther Racing has captured a total of 28 race victories in its history (15 IndyCar, 13 Indy Lights). The #4 had previously been driven by Wheldon (2009-2010), Vitor Meira (2006-2008), Tomas Schecker (2004-2005), Sam Hornish Jr. (2001-2003) and Scott Goodyear (1998-2000). By far the most successful of these was Hornish, who delivered 11 victories and two IZOD IndyCar Series championships for the team before moving off to NASCAR.
"It's exciting right now and the whole thing is coming together as you might dream it," continued Hildebrand. "I'll start losing sleep over our next test day soon. I'll try to take it all in and enjoy it as much as I can right now, but I certainly don't take this opportunity for granted."
The deal was sealed after a two-day test last week at Phoenix International Raceway which earned him rave reviews from the team's CEO and managing partner John Barnes: "We tested him at Phoenix last week and brought along my friend Al Unser Jr. to help us with the evaluation, and all of us knew by lunchtime of the first day that we'd found the next driver of the #4 car."
"He's extremely talented," two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Unser Jr. said. "He's got a great team at Panther Racing, and he's going to come across a lot of different challenges, and he's very calm, very collected and mature. What I like about him is that he's come out of Firestone Indy Lights, and he's shown that series has been very good for him and all of that is very positive as he moves into the next phase of his career."
"JR is an extremely impressive young man and he's going to be a great fit for the National Guard and Panther Racing," John Barnes continued. "We took a very calculated and methodical approach to making this decision because anybody who represents the 350,000 soldiers in the National Guard has a tremendous responsibility both inside and outside the race car. We feel like JR is going to be a tremendous asset to the IZOD IndyCar Series, and what really set him apart is his ambition and his intelligence - this is a kid who was a National Merit Scholar, and accepted to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]."
2011 will be the fourth year with National Guard being the primary sponsor of the #4 car.
The announcement leaves Briton Dan Wheldon, the 2005 IZOD IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion, without a seat in the series for 2011. He finished this season ninth in the championship standings this year with his best finishes being second in the Indianapolis 500 and at Chicagoland Speedway.
Chip Ganassi Racing has scheduled a press conference for Thursday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to make "a major announcement concerning the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season," but this is thought to be to confirm the signing of Graham Rahal to drive for a newly established satellite team to be housed at a separate shop from Ganassi's existing Target squad, and that Rahal will be joined in that new team by another young American driver, Charlie Kimball, who has driven in the last two IndyLights seasons.