The Most Incredible Indianapolis 500 Ever – Notes From the “500”

Big Bend, WI (May 30, 2011) – How fitting that ABC broadcasted the 100th anniversary of the running of the Indianapolis 500, after all this was the network that started Wide World of Sports with the moniker, ‘The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat.’

It was a Hollywood ending with rookie JR Hildebrand slamming into the outside wall on the last turn of the last lap, cagey veteran Dan Wheldon beating his old team on the way to victory. Rest assured, Hildebrand, young, American, knows the history of Indianapolis. However, Wheldon, the Brit, appreciates the place as much as anyone and hears the ghosts of Hepburn, Vukovich, Bettenhausen and Sachs when he walks the track at night.

The pre-race ceremonies were spectacular, Parnelli Jones driving the Marmon Wasp, the rest of the Indianapolis winners present driving winning cars of the past. Nice touch. On Saturday perhaps over 100 former drivers came back for the world’s largest autograph party in the Pagoda pavilion. It was neat revisiting with many of the drivers, some like Art Malone had not been back since the 1960’s. Chatted with drivers such as Chuck Hulse, Dennis Firestone, Vern Schuppan, Billy Englehart, John Martin, Steve Chassey, Tom Bagley and several others making it a special day for me.

This year as well as in years past, there is so much to do race weekend. It’s the epitome of – it’s not a race, but an event. For the fan, there are races all weekend, whether it’s O’Reilly Raceway Park, the Indiana State Fairgrounds or Anderson Speedway open wheel fans will be entertained. This place is like Mecca, all race fans should go to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day at least once in their lifetime.

The crowd and buzz was the most since the “split” in 1996. Writer, John Oreovicz who himself has admittedly at being one of IMS’s hardest critics acknowledged along with Gordon Kirby and Robin Miller that the buzz and crowds at Indy may be back. Traffic was backed up all around the Speedway and several media members spoke about taking two hours just to get into the track race morning after arriving within parking distance. Although empty seats were noticeable in the stands going into Turn three, the infield was packed. Just an extraordinary mass of people. There may have been more people on the inside of Turn three then in the stands outside of Turn three.

There are pros and cons regarding the ABC broadcast that has to juggle keeping to the new fan informed and the die-hard fan interested. As I watched the broadcast on Monday, yes there were many commercials in the early part of the race, however, producers have to try to get as many as possible early in the broadcast, the side-by-side during commercials help, but can be frustrating while watching live. I recommend listening to the radio broadcast on your laptop or following on Twitter if you want to stay up to date.

The race was really a sprint. Even for the cars running 15-25th place, they were running hard. One early restart in particular, Ana Beatriz had faster cars behind her, however was faster than some in front. She did a yeoman’s job of keeping her line while letting some of the top-10 cars go and still was able to pass several cars for position. Beatriz wasn’t happy with the final result (21st), “The conditions were pretty difficult. We made a mistake on our fuel calculation and had to stop a little bit earlier than everybody. That cost us a lap. We got left behind and couldn’t really recover. It’s a shame. The car was pretty good. Hopefully we can put it together next year. I mean, it’s tough. It was very competitive, and we just couldn’t get the yellows where we wanted so that we could get our lap back. We can’t really accept mistakes anymore. We need to understand how to get it right. If we do that, maybe we can have a chance at getting a win at the Indy 500.”

One point is the strong cars that took turns leading or making strong runs to the front, Scott Dixon took command and the start. For awhile with Dixon and Dario Franchitti running 1-2, some were thing, this could be a wipeout for the other in competition. Then pole sitter, Alex Tagliani took command and others like Oriol Servia, Dan Wheldon and later Graham Rahal took their turns at the point.

Who honestly thought going into the race that Andretti Autosport would have a strong race than Team Penske?

Easy money. If there was one driver causing the first crash in the first double-file restarts, over 50% if not more would had picked E.J. Viso in their “500” pool. Sure enough, there was Viso making hard impact into the Turn One wall on the first double-file restart. Smartest thing KV Racing did was hiring experienced hotshoe, Tony Kanaan. The new Lloyd Ruby of Indy looked good with about 20 laps to go however faded to fourth place.

How unbelievable was Dan Wheldon’s charge? With 19-laps to go, Wheldon was in 10th place, 33-seconds behind leader, Danica Patrick. 15-laps to go, Wheldon is 28.4-seconds behind leader, Patrick. 10-laps to go, Wheldon was 25-seconds behind leader, Baguette. 6-laps to go Wheldon is still 22-seconds behind Baguette. Baquette pits with three laps to go, Wheldon is running 5th about to be fourth with Baquette’s pit-stop running 18-seconds behind the leader. Hildebrand takes over the lead on lap 198, Wheldon is 7.8 seconds behind the Panther No. 4 car. The Ganassi cars of Dixon and Franchitti have their fuel problems, Hildebrand smashes into the wall, Wheldon charges to the win. In my opinion, surpassing the 2006 “500” finish of Sam Hornish, Jr. (in a Penske car and favorite to win) passing rookie, Marco Andretti. However, Wheldon and team knew they had a chance, You know what, it probably is different to what you guys were thinking. 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.’

Wheldon continued, “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.”

In 1967, Parnelli Jones was leading the “500” in the revolutionary STP turbine with three laps to go when a mechanical problem dropped him from contention as A.J. Foyt wins his third “500.”. That amazing finish is remembered in many Indy 500 books. In 2011, virtual unknown, Bertrand Baguette was leading with three laps to go when he had to pit to top off with gas. Baquette driving a “one-off” race for Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing had one of the most impressive runs of the day. The Belgium driver had made a good accounting for himself last year with Conquest Racing returned to the race to place seventh at Indy. He responded after the race, “My car was really great. I was hoping for better, but that’s racing. We tried. We failed. I would love to be back with this team. They did a fantastic job. They deserve to be full time in the championship. We’ll see what we can do.” (How did it feel to lead the race?): “It’s incredible – leading the 100th Anniversary of the race. It is something unbelievable. We had a good chance to win the race. We were hoping for a yellow, but unfortunately we were two laps too short. We had to pit for some more fuel in the car and go again. I enjoyed my time out there, and it was a great day for me.”

Jim Wilke, fellow race enthusiast from Alaska e-mailed me and made the excellent point, “The saddest thing for Hildebrand to consider is that he was -this close- to winning an Indy 500 and may never get another chance as Kevin Cogan and many others will wistfully tell him.” Others made the same point. I hope they are wrong. He should have a strong future.

It’s amazing to think on Memorial Day weekend that both National Guard-sponsored cars were leading the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola World 600 into the last turn and both lost. Unbelievable.

The No. 98 returns to victory lane. Last time was 1963 in which Parnelli Jones drove the Watson roadster “Ol’ Calhoun” to victory lane for owner, J.C. Agajanian. Son, Cary Agajanian is involved as a partner with Bryan Herta Autosport.

The question will be, how will promoter, Eddie Gossage get Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon into a car for the Firestone Twin 275’s at Texas Motor Speedway June 11th?

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