The Indianapolis Motor Speedway celebrated its 100th birthday in grand fashion on Sunday, but the cake came with trick candles, it would appear. An American was poised to win the 100th anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500. On Memorial Day weekend. While driving a car sponsored by the National Guard. But in the most dramatic ending in the 95 runnings of the 500, IMS changed her mind at the last minute, making a two-time winner of Dan Wheldon.
Dan Wheldon, who was let go by Panther Racing in the offseason, ran in the top five for most of the day, but seemed destined for another podium finish as the field cycled through late pit stops. Instead, IMS handed him a lifeline, as rookie JR Hildberand was bitten by Turn 4 on the last lap while leading in his No. 4 National Guard car, making Wheldon, in a one-off entry for Bryan Herta Autosport, a two-time champion of the Indianapolis 500.
In the spec era of IndyCar racing, Wheldon collected his second Borg-Warner Trophy, making him the third driver in the last 11 years to capture at least two, bookending his rise as an up-comer in 2005 with Andretti-Green Racing to his one-off, last lap pass in a Bryan Herta Autosport entry this year.
It was only the second last lap pass in the venerable history of the race and the second since 2006, when the last American won at Indianapolis, Sam Hornish, Jr. This time, it was an Englishman who was the beneficiary of an American's mistake, as Wheldon came around Hildebrand on the exit of Turn 4 after the rookie found the wall while coming around the car of Charlie Kimball.
Not wanting to slow behind Kimball and allow Wheldon to close on him, Hildebrand instead tried to get around Kimball in Turn 4, subsequently getting up the turn and into the marbles, sucking up him into the wall. The right side of his car heavily damaged, Hildebrand was still able to cross the finish line in second, but Wheldon was able to get by before the yellow waved, sending the 2005 Indianapolis 500 winner to Victory Circle for the second time in his career.
Asked what he saw when he passed the wrecked No. 4, Wheldon said,
My emotions, I didn't have any. Right up until the point that I passed JR, I didn't. I was so focused. It was one of those races where it was so competitive that you had to be on your game. And the wind seemed to be getting under the front of my car. If I wasn't on the same line every time at turn three, I would have to lift. I was catching bears, I wasn't focused on what was going on in front. I had the run on her through Turn 3 and 4, then pulled out.When I saw him crash, I mean, I knew it wasn't serious. As soon as I knew it was not serious, there was a little smile on my face, I will say. From that point, it was just making sure that I didn't do anything silly. Then I think I got on the radio and started crying.I'm not normally that emotional. But having been through what we've been through, being able to deliver this for everybody is certainly very gratifying. Proud of everybody. In terms of what it will do for the future, it will make me a happier person on the beach. In terms of more races, you'll have to ask these guys.
The tub crashed by Hildebrand was the same run by Wheldon in 2009, when the veteran took Panther Racing to its second straight runner-up effort in the 500. Wheldon would finish second again in 2010 before departing the team; with his win, Wheldon matches Bill Holland for the best three-year run in Indianapolis 500 history.
For Hildebrand, the mental scars will likely run deep. Marco Andretti still agonizes over his defeat from 2006 when suffered the only other last-lap pass in 500 history, but the driver from northern California should have plenty of other opportunities to justify his 'Captain America' moniker.
Giving his post-mortem just after being released from the IMS Medical Center, Hildebrand commented:
I knew we were really tight on fuel coming to the end, and the spotters were in my ear saying, 'The guys are coming and they're coming hard. We had to conserve a little fuel and the tires were coming to the end of their stint. I was hanging a little on to get the thing around.I made a judgment call catching up on the 83 (Charlie Kimball) and I thought I don't really want to slow down behind him and pull out on the straightaway, and I've been able to make this move on the outside before and so I went to the high side and because it was at the end of the stint I got up in the marbles and that was it.I'm OK, but this is not really about me at this point. You always show up to try to win. My disappointment is for the team and for National Guard as a sponsor. It's one of the those things, as a driver, you never really know what you're going to expect. We knew we had a fast race car. We knew if the race came to us, we may be in a position to sort of finish top three, top five.
Still, this will nag Hildebrand and Panther Racing as one that got away. With the Dallara chassis likely in its final year, the Indianapolis 500 saw parity throughout the grid, with one-off and part-time entries able to run as capably as traditional powers Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Over the last few years, Panther had shown itself capable of running with those teams at Indianapolis, and was in position to finally get over the hump in the final year of the chassis. Instead, Wheldon stole the show, becoming the first winner since 1987 to take the Borg-Warner Trophy after not running any of the year's races prior to the 500.
In his IndyCar career, Wheldon traditionally ran with the upper echelon teams in the IZOD IndyCar Series, breaking in with Andretti Autosport at the height of its power and then moving over to Target Chip Ganassi Racing before heading to Panther Racing. It was while running with Andretti that Wheldon was teammates with Bryan Herta, who would field Wheldon in his one-off bid this year. The Englishman captured the 2005 Indianapolis 500, grabbing the lead from Danica Patrick late in the race, but would largely serve as a footnote in the recap of the race, as Patrick catapulted to national fame instead.
His teammate-turned-owner was reflective on the friendship built between the two several years ago:
When Dan came to Andretti, or actually when I came to Andretti, Dan was already there. But he was the kid, the rook. I actually came in, kind of the old guy, the experienced guy. Then we had T.K., obviously, Dario came back after he'd been hurt. It became kind of the Four Musketeers.We had a lot of fun together on and off the track. We had an opportunity, the four of us got together for dinner about a week ago. Literally we laughed till our sides hurt just reminiscing about those times.So there was a bond that formed between the four of us during those years that will never change. It wasn't the reason that I brought Dan to the team or asked him to drive for us, not because he's my buddy. It's because he's, flat out, the best guy there is around this place. That is the reason we hired Dan Wheldon.Our friendship is our friendship, and that will never change. But, obviously, this has been another bonding experience. It serves to bring us closer.Someday when we're old guys laying on the beach, we can still talk about this.
Entering the 2011 IZOD IndyCar season, Wheldon was relegated to a footnote once again. Failing to land a ride after being released by Panther Racing, Wheldon took the next available opportunity, reaching an agreement with Herta to drive the No. 98 William Raast car in the 500 and looking for additional opportunities to run the car throughout the season.
When it appeared that Wheldon would run Indianapolis only, he signed up to serve as a color commentator for future IZOD IndyCar Series races this summer, but his win could change all that. Several one-off drivers were clear that the easiest way to gain a full-time ride was simply to win the Indianapolis 500. Now that theory will be put to the test, as the IZOD IndyCar Series must market the winner of its biggest race.
For most of the sunny Sunday, series officials could not be expected to be preparing to market Wheldon. The Target Chip Ganassi cars of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon dominated the day, alternating the lead and ultimately splitting strategies to seemingly ensure that one would enter Victory Circle. Fueling on Lap 164, Franchitti attempted to stretch his fuel to the end but came up a lap short, costing him a chance at his third 500 crown. Dixon lead early but was victimized by a couple of slow stops, but still was sitting in the best position as the race wound to a close.
Out front of a group of cars that pitted around Lap 180 - including Wheldon, Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan - it looked as is Dixon would inherit the lead should Franchitti, Hilderand or Bertrand Baguette need fuel. Instead, Dixon was forced to converse fuel late, as he did not receive enough on his final stop. The mistake capped an eventful week for Target Chip Ganassi Racing in the pits, as Franchitti and Dixon were both underfueled on their qualifying runs last week.
While Dixon was forced to save fuel, Wheldon powered through the group, passing both Kanaan and Rahal for position, allowing himself to apply pressure on Hildebrand in the final lap. Following the race, Wheldon commented:
On the radio with 20 to go, they said: 'Listen, this is the deal. Some people are going to try to make it on fuel. You're one of the guys that can make it to the end. But you've got to go and you have to make sure you get everything out of the car that you possibly can.'So I said to myself at that point, I'm going to move the weight jacker every lap to optimize every single corner, adjust the roll bars to be able to just maximize everything. I didn't have a problem. I was able to catch traffic perfectly without having to lift. They said that there was one person that potentially could make it, I believe. So that made me even more hungry. I started pressing the overtake that Honda brought to the series.On that last lap I was trying to deal with bears between Turns 3 and 4. In the corner of my eye, I saw him hit the fence. I just carried on by. As Bryan says, you have to make it to the bricks with a car that can go forward with all four wheels. At that point, I knew it was mine.
And when Hildebrand got into the marbles on the final corner of the final lap, Wheldon took his lone lead of the day, capping an era in which he mastered the Dallara chassis at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.