TSO Feature Blogger – J.R. Hildebrand – “That was a little more drama during qualifying weekend than we wanted !!”.

TSO would like to welcome J.R. Hildebrand as our guest blogger for the “Month of May.” The eight-time Indianapolis 500 starter is back with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for a second year with software as a service provider Salesforce.com returning to sponsor the Sausalito, Calif. native. We’re looking forward to Hildebrand’s insight on what goes on behind the scenes in Gasoline Alley between the driver, his crew and engineering staff.

“That was a little more drama during qualifying weekend than we wanted !!”

A relieved J.R. Hildebrand is interviewed by NBC Sports after safely making the field for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge (Photo Courtesy of INDYCAR – Chris Jones)

Hey there. It’s JR again. And I wanted to fill all of you in on how the qualifying weekend went for myself and my teammate Sage Karam in the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team. Well, all I can say is that qualifying wasn’t exactly how we had planned it but I’m happy that we are both in the 33-car field.

I’ll start 21st and Sage will start 31st after some very wild weather and track conditions on Saturday and Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We had good setups on Friday when Chevrolet gave us more horsepower for qualifying. But the weather changed significantly for Saturday.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a good draw number for qualifying and we had to wait until 2 p.m. in the heat of the day to make our first run. We saw the faster guys go out in the first hour before the heat and wind picked up around the track. And the winds were unpredictable too.

My engineer Erik Petersen and I worked on Friday night to develop a car that could handle a lot of the variables during qualifying. We started to take some downforce off the car late on Thursday’s practice, but we didn’t get serious on our qualifying setups until Friday with the added horsepower.

The biggest thing for Saturday’s qualifying setup was we didn’t have enough data points on that kind of heat (the high 80s). We don’t have a big history of that type of weather here. And you can’t just throw the kitchen sink at the setup. We knew we had another run for that day. We ran a 229 lap on my first qual lap and then the car fell off with the heat and the wind in the corners. We just couldn’t maintain that pace at that point in the day. Actually, the wind wasn’t that big of a factor in the first four-lap run. But we couldn’t maintain the mid-corner speed we wanted. That erodes the lap time.

The team decided to make the changes for the elements and we went right back in the qualifying line. Unfortunately, there was no one in the line and we didn’t allow enough the car to cool down. We probably needed an hour to sit for everything to sit and cool. The car was faster in the second qual run, but we lost a little horsepower for going out so quickly. We don’t use the cooling tubes as the NASCAR boys use with the stock cars. It runs cold water back in the systems and cools the engine and car faster.

Now with hindsight, we saw how the weather affects the car in those conditions. Had we cooled for another 45 minutes, we would have been better, but not as good as later in the day when everything cooled down.
We knew we could go quicker again if the conditions improved just slightly. And when we went out at the end of Saturday, the car was good with two 228 laps. On the third lap, I hit a wind gust entering turn three and that pushed the car towards the wall. I had to feather the throttle and it cost us some speed. That is why the last two laps were off a bit. I was happy we got a cloud cover for our final run. That definitely helped the conditions for a four-lap average.

We could have had another turn of the front wing for grip but the car was grippy immediately at the start of the final run just that a little gust on the third lap hurt us. But I knew we would be good for the top 30 after the first two laps. I would have like to have averaged over 228 on Saturday but we were close at 227.908.

We knew we had the speed for a qualifying performance, but the conditions were just so tough. And getting that late draw number put us in a tough spot from the start.

And Sage had to do the same on Sunday, but he drove an excellent qual run for the fastest of the Last Chance qualifying.

I am happy for the Salesforce crew because they work hard all week to get our No. 48 car prepared very well. And the runs we had earlier in the week were good in race setup too.

J.R. Hildebrand and the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing crew that helped him qualify for his ninth consecutive Indianapolis 500 (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR – John Cote)

The DRR team has always had good race setups. I knew that when I was at ECR. It was tough to stay with Sage in the race. So, we feel pretty confident going into Sunday now.