"What we do is competitive," he says. "I expected massive backlash. I know how this works. People who watch expect you to be great all the time. If I were watching, I'd expect the same.
"I was also sponsored by the National Guard. I had a responsibility to that. I'm a nostalgic American, not a flag-waving one."
He clicked back into driver's mode when he realized he had no brakes. He banged harmlessly into the wall on Turn 1 and finally stopped. It was time to climb out and start facing the music.
Still a racing rookie, he performed like a public relations pro.
Sunday, he will start 10th in the Indy 500. He says he is happy with his car, that his focus all month has been more on racing than on qualifying.
Hildebrand the rookie had replaced Wheldon on the Panther Racing team in 2011, then lost the biggest race of his life to the man he had replaced.
He was still a rookie when, five months later at Las Vegas, he was near the front of a 15-car wreck that sent the popular Wheldon's car airborne into a fatal crash and put Hildebrand in the hospital.
He is no longer a rookie. At 23, he had a defining moment in his sport. Now, at 25, he hopes to have another, but in his race car, rather than in front of reporters.
That would create a moment of irony. Hildebrand will drive a DW12 Chevrolet. The chassis is named in honor of Wheldon.