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Motorsports Math

Why Go to MIT When You Can Race Cars?

Why you should care

At the heart of the adrenaline-pumping thrill of race car driving is some serious math and science. Just ask JR Hildebrand, the driver changing racing, and learning, one lap at a time.

When you love – really love – math and science, there’s no greater thrill than getting a college acceptance letter from MIT. Unless maybe your other life’s passion is IndyCar racing. In which case, you have a tough decision to make.

Source: Todd Rosenberg

Non-fans might be forgiven for thinking that most race car drivers come from a pretty narrow demographic band of Southern good ol’ boys. But just like the quickly growing ranks of race car fans, the face behind the wheel is changing. Case in point: one JR Hildebrand.

Born and raised in the Northern California postcard town of Sausalito just ten miles north of San Francisco in Marin County, the 25-year old Hildebrand started racing go karts at age 14. His dad, a CPA, raced a ’68 Camaro as a hobby, but it quickly became a serious endeavor for JR who moved on to IndyCar where he currently ranks 25th in the series. But it’s not just geography that makes him unusual.

“I can definitively say that I am the only guy who’s ever been sitting on a pit lane doing derivatives, trying to keep up with his math homework,” Hildebrand tells OZY. Despite missing plenty of days of high school due to his racing schedule, Hildebrand was accepted to a number of top-tier schools, including vaunted science university, MIT.

I can definitively say that I am the only guy who’s ever been sitting on a pit lane doing derivatives, trying to keep up with his math homework.

The university administration granted Hildebrand a deferment, but his success on the racing circuit has pushed college further and further down the road (sorry, MIT). But that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten his lessons.

For a teenage Hildebrand, math was literally mixed up with his time at the track, and that allowed him to understand abstract mathematical principles in a concrete way that few people get to experience quite so vividly.

Sitting in class graphing acceleration versus velocity, he thought, “Oh my god – we are collecting all this data right at the race track. This could go right in our textbook. It’s happening in real life.” Shouldn’t every kid get inspired about math and science like that?

Hildebrand thinks they should. Watch our interview above to hear what it’s like to sit in the driver’s seat of a car hurtling around corners at 240mph, and how Hildebrand plans to bring the excitement of the track to young math and science students around the country.

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