It’s Indy. Plain and simple, it’s Indy.
Nothing is ever a given at this 2.5-mile oval in Speedway, Indiana. It rewards and destroys in the blink of an eye. Dreams become reality at this place and dreams die hard here as well.
So it went on Sunday during the 100th anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500, which will now go down in history as a result of one of the event's most jaw-dropping outcomes in a long time. As drivers unable to make the finish on fuel fell away one-by-one, there stood two combatants: J.R. Hildebrand of
Panther Racing and Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, both having pitted at the same time on Lap 164.
Hildebrand managed to pass Franchitti for second with four laps to go and when Bertrand Baguette was forced to relinquish the lead one lap later to pit, it appeared that Hildebrand, a young man from Sausalito, California that carries himself with remarkable confidence and poise for a rookie driver, would finally bring Panther Racing its long-awaited first 500 win.
The two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champions had come into Sunday the bridesmaid for three straight 500s, in 2008 with Vitor Meira and in 2009 and 2010 with Dan Wheldon. Hildebrand was new to the Speedway but we’ve learned never to count out Panther at Indianapolis. Sure enough, the No. 4 was there at the end again – and this time, it looked like it’d finally be No. 1 at the top of the pylon.
But as Hildebrand crossed into Turn 4, he had to go on the outside of the lapped car of Charlie Kimball. Disaster struck.
“I quickly decided, knowing that the cars in second and third were coming pretty strong, that rather than downshift a bunch -- you know, sort of risking slowing the car way down the front straight to stay behind [Kimball] – I thought I’ll breathe it and go to the high side, because it was a move I used earlier in the race to get around slower cars in a fairly similar situation,” he recalled.
“I guess, just with the tires as worn as they were, the run being as long…as it was, there were a bunch of marbles on the outside. Once I got up there, there wasn’t a lot I could do.”
And with that, Hildebrand’s 500 win turned into a nightmare with a sickening crash into the Turn 4 wall. He managed to hustle his battered machine to the yard of bricks, but not before Dan Wheldon passed by him to claim his second Indy 500 victory in stunning fashion.
One of the IZOD IndyCar Series’ brightest stars for years, Wheldon found himself out of a job when he and Panther parted ways after last season and he was unable to lock down a new ride for 2011. Instead, he decided to focus all his efforts on the Indy 500, the race he loves more than any other. He joined up with his old Andretti Green (now Andretti Autosport) teammate Bryan Herta, whose own team made its 500 debut last year.
But Herta, who served largely as the development man on the classic Andretti Green lineup of himself, Wheldon, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti, made sure to note on Sunday that despite their long friendship, that wasn’t the reason he chose Wheldon to drive his No. 98 machine.
“He’s flat out the best driver I think there is around this place,” he said. “That was the reason why we hired Dan Wheldon.”
In turn, Wheldon hailed his car owner’s honesty and his dedication.
“One thing I’ll tell you about [Herta] is he will not do anything that is not going to be successful,” the English driver said. “If it’s not going to be successful, he will have no part of it whatsoever. That’s a true talent.”
However, their victory makes for an interesting conundrum. What happens now to the alliance between Wheldon and Bryan Herta Autosport?
As a one-off program, the future is uncertain for both and as of now, Wheldon looks set to return to his home in St. Petersburg, Florida and to his diaper duties as the father of two young children. Then there’s the prospect of the IZOD IndyCar Series heading to Texas in two weeks without the winner of its biggest race.
One of the most surreal moments in the 500’s recent memory has the potential to evolve even further, as a driver that has now won twice in the world’s greatest race could be gone for the rest of the season.
It’s something that Wheldon has had to make peace with.
“It’s one of those things that’s difficult,” he said. “I really feel I have the talent to be in a full-time seat. With all due respect, I like this team. I’m fed up with changing teams back and forth. I’d like to stay in one place and stay there for the rest of my career.
“But it is what it is and I don’t want to get frustrated at the things I can’t control. It will actually give me more satisfaction while I’m sitting on the beach with my wife that I have a second Indianapolis 500…It’s good to deliver for her, my two boys, my family back home, too.”
Triumph for Wheldon, heartbreak for Hildebrand. For 99 years, the 500 had been the site of many such moments. On its 100th anniversary, it added one more of each.
Once again, plain and simple, it was Indy.