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INDIANAPOLIS, In. – Race driver JR Hildebrand is an Indianapolis 500 celebrity, but last week on his way to Indy he was just another repair job at Alex’s Radiator and Auto Repair in Goodland, Kansas.
Well, not just any repair job.
Hildebrand, a true car guy who’s just as comfortable driving his bagged 1960 Cadillac Coupe de Ville as he is a 230-mile-per-hour Dallara IndyCar, decided to pull the grand old ride out of storage in Boulder, Colorado, and cruise 1,100 miles to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
At 33, Hildebrand loves the classics, especially cruising in a ride nearly twice his age. It helps him separate from the pull of Twitter, Instagram and text messages before two weeks of foot-to-the-floor stress. Interstate 70 would be his perfect world.
“It was highly eventful for the first 300 miles,” said Hildebrand, who is practicing this week for his 11th start in the 500 on May 30.
The Caddy, a 390-powered pink beauty he calls Rosie, “had been sitting for a year, but it fired right up” and cruised just fine early in the trip. But as it approached the Colorado-Kansas state line, the suspension's airbag controller started flickering, the windows were slow to roll up, the gas gauge didn’t work and the engine started to stumble.
“I’m thinking maybe I’m only getting seven miles per gallon and I’m out of gas,” Hildebrand said. “So I peeled off, ran a light and got to a gas station. It only took 12½ gallons and was dead. It’s pretty unlikely that the collector in the fuel tank was leaving six gallons in this thing. I took a jump, and once I got it fired up, I got it back on the road and it ran fine for another 40 or 50 miles, and then the same thing started to happen. I pulled in and got another jump." (His wife Kristin was following behind in their Subaru, along with their dog).
He stopped in Goodland and bought a new battery, “figuring the battery was toast at that point, whether that was the problem or not,” he said. “They did their diagnostics thing at the parts store, and it wasn’t totally clear what was wrong.”
Assuming the problem was somewhere in the charging system, he headed toward a nearby NAPA only to find it was closed. Along the way, though, he noticed Alex’s Radiator and Auto Repair.
“There were a bunch of hot rods there in various states of disrepair, and I thought these guys would know what’s up,” Hildebrand said.
He pulled off the street and explained his issue to Ray West, son of Alex, the shop owner.
“Ray said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got you right here,’” Hildebrand said. “His buddy, who was there, is the parts guy for the NAPA that was closed. Ray told him, ‘Go get me one of those GM one-wire alternators.’ The other guy rolled over to NAPA, opened it up and got an alternator, we came back and cranked it on. It took like 10 minutes and it fired right up.”
They talked a little about racing; Ray showed Hildebrand the stock car he races at a nearby quarter-mile dirt track, and Hildebrand showed him a photo of his Indy car.
“He said he was on his way to a race in Indianapolis. Did he win?” Ray asked when contacted Wednesday. Told that Hildebrand is practicing this week and the 500 isn’t until May 30, he said, “I liked his car. He’s got a nice Cadillac.”
Hildebrand cruised back onto I-70 to complete his drive to Indy, albeit with a typical classic-car-guy concern. What if the new alternator didn’t really fix the issue?
“I was thinking, why not go buy like 10 batteries and keep swapping them out, and then return them all when I get to Indy?” he said. “But I decided a slightly smarter and more cost-effective option was buying an inverter, a battery charger and another battery to put in the Subaru, thinking if this thing dies, I’ll swap with the fresh battery and re-charge this one.”
It wasn’t necessary, and Hildebrand made it to Indy with a great memory that only an old classic like his 1960 Coupe de Ville can deliver.
“Once you commit to a road trip, you’ve got to just fire it off,” he said. “We pulled like 700 miles on Friday coming out here, and it ran like a champ. It fires up every time.”
If his A.J. Foyt Racing Indy car can run that smoothly for 500 miles, the journey will be complete.