- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- After parting ways with former series champion Dan Wheldon following two winless campaigns, Panther Racing is going back to the future by signing a young American to pilot its entry in the Izod IndyCar Series.
Indianapolis-based Panther has hired 2009 Indy Lights champion J.R. Hildebrand as the driver for the team's No. 4 National Guard sponsored car. An official announcement is expected Tuesday.
For Panther, it's a transition similar to the one the team made in 2001, when retiring veteran Scott Goodyear was replaced by 21-year old Formula Atlantic graduate Sam Hornish Jr. Hornish went on to become Panther's most successful driver, winning 11 races and two IndyCar Series championships for the team between 2001 and 2003.
Hildebrand recently tested Panther's National Guard-sponsored entry at Phoenix International Raceway and was impressive by all accounts. Aside from being quick on the track, the 22-year old Californian was judged to be a perfect representative for the Guard after its car was driven by Brazilian Vitor Meira and Englishman Wheldon over the past four years.
"We took this test very seriously and wanted to make sure we understood the scope of our decision if we decide to make a driver change," said Panther owner John Barnes in a Dec. 8 interview with SPEED Channel. "What's important is that whoever drives for us next year fits into the Panther family.
"The team was encouraged by J.R.'s intellect, his ability to grasp suggestions from our team and how quickly he adapted to a track he's never been to."
Hildebrand's appointment to the Panther ride is not the only good news for fans hoping for greater American involvement in Indy car racing. Chip Ganassi has scheduled a Thursday press conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he is expected to announce he is teaming with legendary drag racer Don Prudhomme to run a satellite Indy car team out of Prudhomme's shop in Brownsburg, Ind.
Drivers for the Ganassi/Prudhomme team will be Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball, a 25-year old Californian who competed in Indy Lights for Andretti Autosport in 2010.
Kimball, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007, is reported to be bringing sponsorship from Novo Nordisk, a global healthcare company that specializes in diabetes care.
Rahal, 21, is the son of three-time CART Indy car champion Bobby Rahal. He became the youngest winner of an Indy car race when he triumphed in the 2008 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg while driving for Newman/Haas Racing.
Rahal's car will be backed by Service Central, the parent company that operates NTB (National Tire and Battery), Big O Tire and Tire Kingdom retail outlets.
Six American drivers are now set to contest the full IndyCar Series schedule in 2011, with Ed Carpenter also slated to run at least nine events for Sarah Fisher Racing. Hornish, who won the 2006 championship while driving for Team Penske, was the last American to win the IndyCar title.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.