KENNEDY: A Memorable Indy 500


LOS ANGELES — The 2011 Indianapolis 500 definitely lived up to the hype and delivered a classic, memorable race as expected. It was the best Indy 500 in decades.

“The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” phrase is still true. The 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500 in 1911 will be recalled and remembered for the next 100 years and longer whenever exciting, dramatic Indy 500 races are discussed.

The 2011 edition had action, drama, two-abreast restarts for the first time, and of course that shocking race leader crash by rookie J.R Hildebrand, 23, in the final turn on the last lap. He negotiated the track’s four turns successfully799 times, but the 800th and final turn bit him.

It was ABC-TV Wide World of Sports “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” encapsulated in an instant. Hildebrand was about to become a rare first-time winner in his initial 500 start. He would do so on the patriotic Memorial Day weekend driving a camouflage color No 4 car sponsored by the National Guard. Add to that fact that the unheralded rookie is an American driver from Sausalito, Calif., and you would have had a major upset and patriotic one at that.

If Hildebrand had won the Indy 500 it would’ve book-ended NASCAR Cup rookie Trevor Bayne, 20, winning NASCAR’s biggest race — the Daytona 500 — in February. Both drivers are clean-cut, well-spoken, American-born drivers with tremendous upside. They both captured the imagination and consciousness of fans and media alike and represent the future of their respective sports. Hildebrand’s spotters were second-guessed for not informing him about his estimated four-second lead on the final lap.

As Hildebrand entered turn three on the final lap, Wheldon was at least half a straightaway behind him. Hildebrand could have slowed and followed the fuel deficient No. 83 car of fellow rookie Charlie Kimball (who was 13th and the last driver on the lead lap) safely through turn four and passed him on the frontstraight.

Hildebrand didn’t know that. Later he said he knew pursuers were closing in, so he tried to pass Kimball on the outside at turn four, lost grip on the gray surface and pushed up into the wall.

The image of Hildebrand’s car hitting the wall made all the evening TV news sports segments and photos of his crash made most newspapers Monday as well. Sports Illustrated magazine did not have that photo on the front cover, but ran it inside with the race story.

Hildebrand did keep his damaged car driving next to the wall towards the finish line at about 80 miles per hour and placed second, only 30 yards behind when Wheldon crossed the finish line.

Panther Racing owner John Barnes has now finished second in the Indy 500 four years in a row — 2008 Vitor Meira, 2009-10 Dan Wheldon and 2011 Hildebrand. Barnes is still seeking his first victory at Indy. It had to be a crushing outcome for him and his Panther team.

At May 31 victory celebration ceremonies the winner received $2,567,255 versus a P. 2 check of $1,064,895 for the runner-up. That’s a difference of $1,502,360.Wheldon sued Barnes last year for money he said was owed to him as the 2010 Panther driver.

It’s ironic that Wheldon kept his old boss from realizing his dream of an Indy 500 victory by beating his 2011 driver to the finish line by 2.1086 seconds.

TV replays showed clearly that Dan passed Hildebrand’s damaged car on the frontstraight right after the yellow light flashed. Wheldon was very emotional in victory lane after his stunning triumph because his mother, 55, had been diagnosed recently with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Dan had placed an Alzheimer Association decal on his winning car to raise awareness of the disease.

Personable Wheldon, 32, was the only driver in the top four finishers who had won a prior 500 (2005). Hildebrand, third-place Graham Rahal, youngest driver in the race and an American, and fourth-place Tony Kanaan would have been new faces on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Actually, the only other driver in the top 11 finishers who had won an Indy 500 was fifth finisher Scott Dixon.

So a new face on the famous trophy almost happened for the first time since 2008 (Dixon). Dixon led 73 laps in the 2011 Indy 500, adding to his 220 laps in front prior to this year. He moved into second place among active drivers with 293 laps led at Indy during his career.

Dario Franchitti led 51 laps this year to increase his Indy 500 total to 306 laps, tops among active drivers.

Wheldon led only the final lap (really only the final 300 yards) to move his career total to 235 and dropped from second place to third among active Indy 500 lap leaders. Castroneves (231) and Kanaan (214) did not lead a lap this year and remained in positions four and five, respectively.


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Tim Kennedy
Tim Kennedy is a veteran motorsports journalist. He worked as the CRA sprint car publicity director for 11 years beginning in 1968 and his Racing Scene column has been a motorsports staple since 1979.