JR Hildebrand was a two-sport athlete in high school. Football wasn't one of the sports. But he'll be wearing a San Francisco 49ers uniform this week.
The Redwood High grad does have something in common with 49ers quarterback Alex Smith … head coach Jim Harbaugh is also co-owner of Panther Racing. Hildebrand's No. 4 National Guard IndyCar — in honor of Harbaugh, who wore the number as quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts — will have a 49ers paint scheme for this weekend's GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.
"I grew up watching a lot of sports. It's great to get out of my own realm a little and get into something else," said Hildebrand, a Sausalito native. "I grew up a Niners fan. After last year I was really impressed. They have more bullets in their gun this year. There's always a chance they can win the championship. They have a hell of a roster."
Hildebrand also grew up following the San Francisco Giants and was a talented baseball player for the Redwood Giants in high school.
Hildebrand, in his second full season of IndyCar racing, is 14th in the overall championship points standings entering this weekend's action. He trails points leaders Will Power by 146 points.
Ryan Hunter-Reay is second in the standings, just five points behind Power, the two-time defending champion at Sonoma. Helio Castroneves, another past Sonoma winner, is third in the standings.
This has been a difficult season at times for Hildebrand, who has just two top-five finishes in 12 starts. Mechanical issues kept him from finishing in Milwaukee and he got caught up in a crash in Iowa during back-to-back races in June.
"It's hard not to get frustrated with this. We've had weekends where stuff just has not gone our way," Hildebrand said. "It's tough to handle … but part of the job is to deal with that. At Panther Racing, I think we do that well. … You learn from what you can and try to do better."
Hildebrand has a chance to earn his first career IndyCar victory at his home track Sunday, although he doesn't feel like he necessarily has an advantage at Sonoma.
"The home field advantage kind of disappears when I'm competing against guys who have been racing these cars as long as I've been driving anything," Hildebrand said Wednesday, sitting next to four-time and defending IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, who made his debut in 2002.
That was the same year Hildebrand won the Jim Russell Kart Series TaG 125 class championship. He dominated the karting track at the Sonoma race facility, but even then he knew he'd be competing on the big road course.
The 2.31-mile course, which features hills and near-blind turns, has been altered slightly for the GoPro Indy Grand Prix to allow for more passing this year, with 12 turns and 85 laps.
"I'm something of a purist. I'd like to run the course the way it was originally designed," Hildebrand said.
Franchitti is glad to see the changes. "It increases the passing chances. The corners that were taken out weren't really part of the character of the track. It's going to be an exciting race."
IF YOU GO
GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma
- When: August 24-26
- Course: 12 turns, 2.31 miles
- Distance: 85 laps
- 2011 Race Winner: Will Power
- Tickets: www.racesonoma.com/indycar