11/16/2012 06:06 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Driver Spotlight: JR Hildebrand

JR Hildebrand is a rising star in the IZOD Indycar Series. He was born and raised in Sausalito, California and grew up watching races at Sonoma Raceway and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. "From when I was 4 or 5 whenever there was an Indycar race, Nascar race, Drag Race or AMA, we were there," says Hildebrand.

So what made him want to race in open wheel cars? "Having seen everything, it was blatantly obvious that the open wheel cars were the quickest ones out there and the most capable," he says. Hildebrand began racing go karts at the age of 14 and from there ran Jim Russell Racing Drivers School at Sonoma Raceway.

In 2007, he drove in the Mazda Atlantic Series for Newman Wachs Racing, where he had a best finish of 2nd at Cleveland. He then moved up the Firestone Indy Lights Series in 2008 driving for Andersen Racing. He scored his first win at Kansas Speedway that year and finished 5th in the standings. In 2009 he joined the powerhouse AGR-AFS Racing team where he had a breakout season, winning 4 races and wrapping up the series championship. He spent the 2010 season trying to put together a full time Indycar ride, and in August he got an opportunity from Dreyer and Reinbold Racing to run 2 races. In his first race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, he finished 16th. He made another start at Sonoma Raceway, where he set the fastest lap of the race, but wound up finishing in the 24th position after contact with another driver.

In 2011, Hildebrand signed with Panther Racing for his first full season in the IZOD Indycar Series. "I spent a season trying to put together an Indycar Deal, so I think that made me appreciate the opportunity more once I got it." He had to earn his ride though. The test that proved his worth was at Phoenix International Raceway, where he clicked off impressive lap times. His rookie season was highlighted by a near win at the Indianapolis 500, where he came within one corner of winning the race, but hit the marbles while driving around lapped traffic and drifted into the wall. He kept his foot on the gas, but Dan Wheldon drove by and took the win. He finished the season with 4 top tens and 1 podium at Indy, but came up short on Rookie of the Year honors. He also spent the entire last half of the season driving with a torn ACL.

The results of the 2012 race do not match how well Hildebrand and Panther Racing ran. "We've had our ups and downs over the last few years, but on the average we think we are competing on a higher level, says Hildebrand." He also felt that this year was a big learning process for his team. "The strategy that we started the season from a setup perspective was completely different from what we had at the end of the year." on the ovals, Hildebrand was super competitive. "We had some really good cars, but he weren't able to capitalize on it for a variety of reasons." He finished the season with 6 top tens and 1 top five and 60 laps led, 56 of which were led at the season finale at Auto Club Speedway. He had several good runs going until bad luck reared its ugly head. He was running in the top ten at St. Petersburg when his engine blew, and at Fontana he had a race winning car when contact with Ed Carpenter sent him into the wall and took him out of contention. The Panther Racing crew was able to repair the car and he still rallied back to finish 11th albeit two laps down.

Hildebrand also had the opportunity to test a Force India Formula 1 Car in 2009. There was a shootout between some drivers that had won championships in Europe that he was originally not supposed to be a part of. "I knew some people at Force India, and at that point it was more of a favor," Hildebrand says. He ran in a McLaren simulator where he and Paul di Resta posted the fastest times of all the drivers in the group and they were both granted a test in the actual car. "All around it was a very cool experience," says Hildebrand. As far as moving up to Formula 1, Hildebrand is satisfied where he is at. "It's been on my radar, but it's never been the be-all end-all of my motorsports career, I'm very happy being in Indycar and enjoy the challenge that is presented by racing on so many different types of tracks."

Being sponsored by the National Guard, Hildebrand actively supports his sponsor. He takes part in various National Guard events around the country. One program he is actively involved in is the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, which is geared towards helping at risk kids that have dropped out of high school. Several Youth ChalleNGe awareness events are held at various Indycar races throughout the season.

Off the track Hildebrand is an avid San Francisco Giants and 49ers fan. He also has a passion for classic cars. He has a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle in his garage which was a present from his team for his performance in the Indianapolis 500 in 2011.