“Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines.” With those words, nearly three dozen drivers will fire up their racecars on May 27 and cross the bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to challenge each other in America's greatest test of speed and endurance, the Indy 500.
JR Hildebrand will be among those behind the wheel. Earlier this month, this Trailblazer sat down with Salesforce Chief Creative Officer, Colin Fleming, to talk about the unusual path he took from a normal childhood in Northern California to become one of the world's top drivers, how he's overcome the challenges he's found on the road, and his work with virtual reality (VR) and autonomous vehicles. Here’s a short excerpt from the interview held at Salesforce HQ in San Francisco on May 4.
COLIN: Today, you're known, of course, as a racecar driver. Was that something you always wanted to do? How did you get started in this whole world?
JR: I grew up in Sausalito, and my dad had a '68 Camaro that had been a racecar when it was new. He vintage raced it when I was a kid, so that took us to the track.
As a little kid, I also drew a lot of cars and I thought of myself as maybe being more on the design side. But then as I got a little bit older, I started playing some video games and becoming a little bit more intrigued by the actual thought of driving. The first time that you get in a go-cart and you feel the speed and the sensory overload — it's like chaos. And from that point on, everything kind of shifted.
Still, I got going when I was 14. While that sounds young to the average person, every other guy that I raced who was my age had started much younger. So having started late meant that I was a little bit further down other paths, too, not least of which was my education. I was also playing baseball competitively.
In some ways, getting into it a little later meant that I kept a pretty short leash on my own view of where this was going to go. Really, I never at any point had the expectation that I was going to become a professional racecar driver despite how much I might've wanted that to happen. It was a very low odds.
It really didn't sink in that I was going to be able to genuinely pursue it as a career until I won the Indy Lights Championship. Professional driving was the only logical next step. So it really wasn't until I was grabbing for that last rung on the ladder, that I believed it.
COLIN: Talk to us about the first time you drove around in Indy at 200 miles an hour. What was it like to cross the bricks for the first time in your career?
JR: It's an emotional moment — driving into the place, going through the tunnel, knowing that you are about to go on track. It still gives me a little tingle down my spine. The place is a living, breathing organism on its own, so you don't ever take it for granted.
COLIN: You've had some pretty incredible successes and some pretty tough setbacks. How do you get over those challenges?
JR: In motorsports, you can't hide from your results. And my rookie year in the Indianapolis 500 had a really crazy end of the race. We were running well during the race but took a different strategy at the end of the event. The way it was going to work out was that we were going to make one less pit stop than everybody else. Usually, it saves you a lot of time. But we were then going to have to be saving fuel and I was going to end up with all the guys that made the extra pit stop, chasing me like a pack of hounds — or like Dobermanns with hand grenades in their mouths. And then, two laps to go, I catch up with this car that's running out of gas. It's going 40 miles an hour slower than I am, right in the middle of a corner. You have two possible choices at that point. One is jam on the brakes, and try to follow them through the corner and re-accelerate down the front straight away. The other was to go for the pass. I got up in the marbles and hit the wall, and coming out of turn four, finished second instead of winning the race.
We say a lot that you have to learn from your mistakes, you know? In a lot of people's minds, that's just identifying a mistake, understanding what it looks like from the outside, and saying, 'let's try and not do that again.' For me, I had to really dig into it, and really understand for myself — introspectively — what was going on here. Like, if this actually happens again, what are the other ways to deal with this? As opposed to just adding that to the list of things not to do next time. So, for me, that has been actually a very enlightening way of dealing with things that don't go right. Because in our sport, in particular, it's not just one team against another, it's you against 32 other guys.
COLIN: Let's talk about racing and innovation.
JR: Motorsport, historically, has thrived on innovation. It has been — for the fair majority of its history since the early 1900s — designed to be a proving ground for new automotive technology. It was meant to be the place that you came out with and proved your new stuff against everyone else's new stuff. It's still a big part of its core essence, which is what drew me in because in a lot of ways it requires a more math and science-y background.
COLIN: You mention your math and science background. While you were accepted at MIT, you deferred so that you could race. But you came back to it to help get kids excited about learning. That kind of thing is important to what we call “Trailblazing” where we talk about how people blaze trails that others can follow. Tell us about your work in VR and math.
JR: My experience growing up and going through school was unique. I was seeing a lot of the things in my textbooks play out in real life because I was racing. I was at the track, looking at data to figure out how to go a little bit faster through some corner — that's speed and acceleration and all these types of things. After becoming a professional driver and getting a little more of a platform to stand on, I thought, 'I really need to try to translate that back so more people and more students and more kids can see that same connection' — because it was so powerful for me.
My view of it was that the way you learn math — the examples through which you learn math — go a long way toward making it interesting or not. We felt like virtual reality was a means of producing a totally immersive experience, and even a short video was a really exciting way to try to produce that. So we made this virtual reality film. The students would put on a VR headset and get introduced to the racecar by it coming from behind them — out of nowhere — and blasting right past them. It was a lot of fun to play in a three-dimensional world as opposed to framing something right in front of your face. Through a narrated overview, the students would then zoom in close-up on the car, see the wings of the car changing the air flow as the angles changed. It was a cool way to bring to life something that we thought was really awesome and fun. The students reacted instantly just how we thought they would: by taking the headset off, reorienting with their surroundings, and wanting to immediately know more.
COLIN: What does it mean to be a Trailblazer for you?
JR: For me, it's being able to understand and block out that fear of failure, or fear of being different. I've made some unlikely or unorthodox decisions at a lot of junctions. I chose to quit playing baseball after being really good at it for a long time, to pursue racing and then bailed on going to MIT to do the same. And as a professional, even in my spare time as a professional driver, I've ended up with a much more diverse array of other things that I focus on outside of the track. Like, I'm working with Stanford guys on autonomous vehicle technology, and I'm really passionate about math and science education at the middle and high school level. I don't feel tied to having to be on some super specific path. So I think it's kind of getting over those fears that we have, and say things like, 'man, this is really what I'm supposed to do.' That's important. Each of the things I do have helped me be a better version of myself.
Do you want to blaze your own trail like JR? In the same way he's using cutting-edge technologies to bring the science of racing to life, you can get started on your own journey by learning what opportunities the Fourth Industrial Revolution might have for you. The "Impacts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution" module on Trailhead is a great place to understand what a world of connectivity, machine learning, and artificial intelligence means for business and society. Check it out here.
This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the many voices and stories that make up Salesforce’s diverse community of Trailblazers and is based on an original piece published on The Trailblazer.