JR Hildebrand was one turn away from winning the Indianapolis 500 and within sight of the checkered flag when the 23-year-old rookie made the ultimate mistake.
Leading by almost 4 seconds with a lap to go, Hildebrand skidded high into the wall on the final turn, and Dan Wheldon drove past to claim an improbable second Indy 500 win Sunday in his first race of the year.
”It’s a helpless feeling,” Hildebrand said.
Wheldon, the 2005 winner but without a full-time ride this season, appeared headed for his third straight runner-up finish when Hildebrand took the white flag needing only to make it through the last of 200 laps around the 2 1/2-mile speedway.
The first three turns went smoothly. Then Hildebrand came up on another rookie, Charlie Kimball, in the fourth turn. Instead of backing off, Hildebrand moved to the outside to make the pass and lost control, slamming the wall to a collective gasp from the crowd of 250,000.
”I caught him in the wrong piece of track,” Hildebrand said. ”I got up in the marbles and that was it.”
Hildebrand’s crumpled machine slid across the finish line, still hugging the wall, in second place. While Wheldon celebrated, IndyCar officials reviewed the video to see if Wheldon passed the wrecked machine before the caution lights went on. He clearly did, and Hildebrand’s team, Panther Racing, said it would not protest.
”I just felt a lot of relief. It’s an incredible feeling,” Wheldon said. ”I never gave up.”
He took the traditional swig of milk and headed off on a triumphant lap around the speedway – a lap that Hildebrand should have been taking.
Instead, the youngster stopped by the garage to get a look at his mangled car, which was hauled through Gasoline Alley instead of being wheeled into Victory Lane. He’s now in the company of athletes such as Jean Van de Velde, who squandered a three-shot lead on the 72nd hole of the 1999 British Open, and Lindsey Jacobellis, whose wipeout at the 2006 Winter Olympics cost her a certain gold medal.
They had it in the bag – then threw it all away.
”I’m just frustrated. It’s not because we came in here with the expectation of winning and we didn’t,” Hildebrand said. ”I felt like I just made a mistake and it cost our boys. I guess that’s why rookies don’t win the Indianapolis 500 a whole lot and we’ll be back next year, I guess.”
The 100th anniversary of America’s most famous race was dominated much of the day by Chip Ganassi’s top two drivers, defending champ Dario Franchitti and 2008 winner Scott Dixon.
But after a series of late pit stops, things really got interesting. Second-generation racer Graham Rahal spent some time up front. Danica Patrick claimed the lead but was had to stop for fuel with nine laps to go. Belgium driver Bertrand Baguette had already gotten past Patrick, but he didn’t have enough fuel, either.
When Baguette went to the pits with three laps to go, the lead belonged to Hildebrand. All he had to do was make it to the end.
He came up one turn short.
”My disappointment is for the team,” Hildebrand said. ”We should’ve won the race.”
Not that Wheldon isn’t a deserving champ. Despite plenty of success in his IndyCar career, he lost his ride at Panther Racing – where he was replaced by Hildebrand, no less – and couldn’t find a regular job this season.
He sat out the first four races of the year, then picked up a one-race deal with Bryan Herta Autosport. Surely, Wheldon will be able to find a better gig now after beating Hildebrand by 2.1 seconds with an average speed of 170.265 mph.
”Dan Wheldon, he’s a great winner,” Patrick said. ”And what a great story. He hasn’t run this year. … That’s really cool.”
Still, it was a bitter disappointment for Patrick, who ended up 10th.
”It’s more and more depressing when I don’t win the race,” said Indy’s leading lady.
Patrick knows about misfortune leading to victory for Wheldon. His first victory came when she led late in the race, only to have to back off the throttle to save enough fuel to make it to the finish.
This time, Wheldon never led a lap until the last one, the first time that’s happened since Joe Dawson won the second Indy 500 in 1912.
It was the second time a driver lost the lead on the last lap – it happened to another rookie, Marco Andretti, in 2006 – and it’s something Hildebrand will always remember.
”Is it a move I would do again?” he said. ”No.”
Rahal finished third, followed by hard-charging Tony Kanaan, who came all the way from the 22nd starting spot to contend for his first 500 win. Dixon was fifth, followed by Oriol Servia, while Franchitti lost speed in the closing laps and slipped all the way to 12th.
Right from the start, the Ganassi cars showed just how strong they would be on a sweltering day at the Brickyard, where the temperature climbed into the upper 80s and the heat on the track was well over 100 degrees.
From the middle of the front row, Dixon blew by pole-sitter Alex Tagliani before they even got to the start-finish line, diving into the first turn with the lead.
Tagliani ran strong through the first half of the race but began having problems with his handling. One car after another went by him as his laps speeds dropped into the 190s. Finally, on lap 147, he lost it coming out of the fourth turn and banged into the wall for a disappointing end to an amazing month for his car owner, Sam Schmidt, who watched the race from a wheelchair in the pits.
Schmidt has been a quadriplegic since a racing crash 11 years ago, but he’s turned his efforts to building an IndyCar team. He had another car in the race, one-off driver Townsend Bell, who started from the inside of the second row and ran in the top 10 much of the day until he was collided with Ryan Briscoe on lap 158.
Briscoe’s crash summed up the day for IndyCar’s other elite team.
Roger Penske’s trio of drivers capped a disappointing month with a grim performance on race day.
On the very first stop, Will Power drove out of the pits with a loose left rear wheel, which flew off before he got back on the track. While it bounced down pit road, Power set off around the 2 1/2-mile oval on three wheels, sparks flying out from under his machine as it limped back for another tire. He finished 14th – the best showing for Penske Racing.
Helio Castroneves, hoping for a record-tying fourth Indy win, started back in 16th spot after struggling in qualifying and did his best just to stay on the lead lap, much less challenge for the lead. That effort ended when Briscoe and Bell got together – and Castroneves ran off a piece of debris, shredding a tire. He wound up one lap down in 17th.
Briscoe’s crash left him in 27th.
There was only one wreck on the much-debated double-file restarts but plenty of thrilling moves – just what IndyCar officials were hoping for when they imposed the NASCAR-style procedure after each caution period.
At one point after taking green, Castroneves had to dive onto the lane that cars normally take coming out of the pits just to get through the second turn.
For Hildebrand, the cheers turned to groans on the final turn.