By: Tony DiZinno and Allan Brewer, IndyCar correspondents
- Last lap drama caps an epic race
- Double-file restarts go off without a hitch
- Heavy favorites go home empty-handed
Mix of action, passing and emotion fuel Centennial race
The 95th Indianapolis 500 was billed as “The Most Important Race In History” before the green flag ever flew. When the checkered flag fell, it entered the lore of legend following an unfathomable finish that accurately captured the two extremes of emotion: the thrill of victory and agony of defeat.
Dan Wheldon led the field for less than half a straightaway over the course of 200 laps. But when his competitors fell by the wayside, and in an image akin to A.J. Foyt driving through the smoke of accidents in 1967, Wheldon captured the victory for Bryan Herta Autosport. Wheldon’s second 500 victory is the same number of starts that BHA has in IZOD IndyCar Series competition – the team made its debut in this race in 2010.
His spirit just overcame all of us and made us believe, too.
“I love this place, this track, and the way the fans energize the Speedway,” Wheldon said. “Bryan gave me an outstanding team. This win is something I and my wife and my kids can be proud of when we’re on the beach in St. Pete.”
“We were on a conservative fuel strategy at first, but it was apparent as the race went on that Dario (Franchitti) was doing the same thing and we knew he had an advantage,” Herta said of the team’s strategy. “In the end we just had to beat them by going fast.
“It was Dan who believed in this, who had the conviction that we could come here and compete and win. His spirit just overcame all of us and made us believe, too.”
On the other end, second place finisher J.R. Hildebrand must have never felt so far removed from the win. A champion going through developmental series, and a rookie on the verge of ending a three-year runner-up streak for his team, was just those several hundred feet from winning. He rode up into the marbles, hit the wall, and the collective shock of potentially 250,000 fans echoed around the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Hildebrand lamented a rookie mistake that brought his race to an end a mere quarter mile from becoming a legend at Indianapolis.
“I knew, even as a first year driver, that the track would become a one-groove race course as the day went on,” he said. “I had some choice words for myself as it was happening, words I can’t repeat to the audience here.
“My biggest regret is not being able to give the National Guard a great public stage with a win at Indianapolis,” he continued. “I was standing on the gas coming down the straightaway hoping somehow I could still get to the line first, but then I lost my steering and that was it.”
This is the prestige of Indianapolis, and how these two were the ones that figured into the final outcome will be discussed for some time. Here’s how they got there.
MAKING IT TO CROSSED FLAGS
Despite instructions and discussions to the contrary, the green flag flew over this Indianapolis 500 with the 33 starters not aligned perfectly in 11 rows of three. The instructions were to do so, but Dixon got a sizeable jump from the middle of the front row to take the lead from pole sitter Tagliani.
Dixon led until lap 8 when Tagliani took the point back down the inside on the front straight. John Andretti and Graham Rahal were early movers, from 17th and 29th on the grid to 10th and 22nd, respectively.
Tagliani’s Sam Schmidt teammates Townsend Bell and Wheldon also figured into the equation (Wheldon’s BHA entry has a Schmidt technical alliance) in the top five. Coupled with Dixon’s teammate Dario Franchitti, those drivers primarily occupied the top five most of the first half of the race.
While the field set off, two fan favorites hit early problems which dropped them from any hope of contention. Simona de Silvestro, who rallied to make the field in one of IndyCar’s oldest Dallara tubs after a fiery accident in practice, contacted the wall early on and damaged her right front suspension. She returned several laps down but went behind the wall after 44 laps. Paul Tracy, meanwhile did likewise after contacting the wall at turn four. Tracy finished 25th and the same number of laps down.
The first 20 laps were clean before the first yellow flag flew. A crash-free month for the KV Racing Technology–Lotus team went south in a hurry when Takuma Sato lost control on lap 21.
Most of the field made their first round of pit stops on lap 23. A majority entered and exited without incident but one driver who didn’t was Team Penske’s Will Power, whose left rear tire was not properly secured.
The Australian and series points leader going in lost it on the exit, and drove his three-wheeled car back to the pits where he fell to 28th and into a position of no recovery. He eventually finished a lapped 14th.
“At the first pit stop, the wheel came loose and knocked the lead screw off, so I had no brakes,” Power said. “We did a stint like that, came in, and had to fix that, got a lap down, and that was it for the day.”
Following the first of the expected calamities on the double-file restarts, the restart itself was clean but Sato’s teammate E.J. Viso was overly ambitious into turn one on lap 28. Viso pinched James Hinchcliffe, who was sandwiched in the middle of a three-wide pack, and spun up the track and into the wall, ruining the right side of the car.
“I was running with Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe, and I believe that James missed a gear and he lost his momentum out of turn four,” Viso said. “Rahal went on the inside, and I went on the outside. Then when we were approaching turn one, I got hit on my rear left tire and it spun me.”
The Ganassi duo continued to lead the Schmidt trio as the race settled in for a 30-lap period of green flag running.
Some drivers needed green flag pit stops as lap 60 approached and when Franchitti stopped, almost immediately another yellow flew, this time when Jay Howard fell victim to the same issues that befell Power.
The English rookie’s right rear tire came off as he exited the warm-up lane, and he spun into the wall. The yellow split the field into those who had and had not stopped beforehand. Despite that, the field recycled in much the order as they had entered when the race resumed.
A hard charger to that point was another of the KVRT-Lotus cars, Tony Kanaan, who had advanced from 22nd to sixth. This marked the first of two of TK’s charges through the field; his progress was impeded during the round of pit stops when he and IndyCar series and 500 debutante Pippa Mann nearly collided in the pits.
When the race resumed on lap 70, an interesting set of circumstances happened. The lapped car of Ana Beatriz lined up to the outside of leader Franchitti, which set off a chain reaction of passing behind. Dixon passed Franchitti for the lead while cars went three and four-abreast on the front straight and through turns one and two. Everyone made it out unscathed.
Dixon and Franchitti continued up front until half distance when the next round of pit stops occurred. Crossed flags saw Hildebrand grab the lead for the first time as he stayed out longer than the Ganassi pair, becoming the 200th driver ever to lead the Indianapolis 500. One hundred laps later, Hildebrand and lap 200 would meet their unfortunate fate.
ONE HUNDRED LAPS FOR ALL THE MARBLES
At lap 100, the running order stood Hildebrand, Franchitti, Bertrand Baguette, Oriol Servia and Danica Patrick.
Hinchcliffe made contact with the wall in turn four to bring out the yellow as the leaders completed the halfway mark in the race, which again benefitted Franchitti (who had just come into the pits) with a timely yellow.
“We were just about to pit; the tires were just starting to go off,” Hinchcliffe said. “Bertrand got a good run on me, and I was really just trying to let him go. With how worn the tires were, at that stage of the stint I was just a passenger.”
A subsequent pit stop by Hildebrand put Franchitti back into first place on lap 104.
Racing resumed at lap 108, with Franchitti leading Servia and Marco Andretti, up from 27th on the grid, Ed Carpenter in fourth and Dixon in fifth position.
Servia overtook Franchitti going down the back straightaway on lap 113 as concerns about the handling of the 2010 Indy 500 champion’s car began to rise. In-car camera shots showed the Scot working the bars inside the cockpit with vigor to make the balance better with the Dallara.
At lap 120, Servia, Franchitti, Andretti, Dixon and Bell completed the running order of the top five. Servia continued to turn laps at 222 mph-plus as overcast conditions continued over the oval.
Franchitti retook the lead from Servia to hold down the top position on lap 130, followed by Dixon, Andretti and Wheldon. Slightly past the 300-mile mark, the average speed for the race stood at 172.549 mph.
Pit stops reshuffled the running order such that the leaders at lap 140 were Baguette, Franchitti, Servia, Dixon and Andretti. A lap later, Baguette made his next scheduled stop and Wheldon moved into the top five again.
Franchitti, still shifting the internal levers for better balance of the car, began to pull away from teammate Dixon establishing a nearly nine second cushion.
Another yellow came out on lap 147, when Tagliani made contact with the wall and broke the right suspension of the No. 77 pole sitting car. Tagliani attempted to pass Hildebrand rounding turn four but got high into the groove and onto the marbles.
The leaders took advantage of the yellow flag period to pit, insuring most of no more than a splash and dash fill on their final stop of the day. Kanaan moved into the top five when Andretti came into the pits.
On the subsequent restart, Rahal made a fabulous recovery from near-disaster in Turn one, piloting the No. 38 car onto the pit lane exit lane beneath the white line and emerging on a run down the back stretch that sling-shotted him through the top 10 to third place in a single tour of the oval.
Briscoe and Bell collided on lap 157, both cars ramming the wall in the south short chute. Bell moved down from his position on the outside of the front straightaway into the Team Penske car as both entered turn one.
With 100 miles remaining and still under yellow, the top 10 contenders stood Franchitti, Servia, Rahal, Dixon and Kanaan at the front, with Wheldon, Tomas Scheckter, Hildebrand, Patrick and Carpenter following in the second five spots. Andretti floated back to 11th place.
Rahal passed Servia on the restart, and Dixon soon moved past the Spaniard as well. With 30 laps remaining the order stood Rahal, Dixon, Kanaan, Servia and Wheldon as Servia’s No. 2 car continued its backward slide.
Dixon passed Rahal on lap 172 on a pace close to 224 mph, and two laps later Kanaan moved past the No. 38 car to take second place. Both cars were closing in on 40 laps since their last stop. Wheldon pitted under green, followed by Rahal and Servia, then Dixon.
With 50 miles remaining, Patrick took the lead of the Indianapolis 500 for the first time on the day in what might have been her final ’500. Scheckter, Baguette, Andretti and Franchitti followed. Patrick, on an alternate fuel strategy, was trying to stretch her fuel to the finish from her previous stop on lap 159.
Baguette moved past Patrick on lap 188 coming down the front straightaway, overtaking and moving into a modest lead through the short chute and down the back straight.
With only 10 laps remaining the order stood Baguette, Franchitti, Hildebrand, Patrick (who was in the pits for fuel) and Andretti.
Baguette, who also stopped on lap 159, continued to lead and stretched the gap to five seconds over Franchitti. With five laps to go the lead had ballooned to 10 seconds as Franchitti began to fall back, making laps barely over 200 mph. Hildebrand soon moved past Franchitti for second, as leader Baguette came into the pits for fuel with three laps remaining.
“It was surprising that I found myself in that position, as I didn’t know it was for the lead,” Baguette said. “We were hoping for yellow.”
Dixon moved past Franchitti’s ailing car and into second behind Hildebrand with two laps remaining. Both cars, however, were near to running out of fuel and Franchitti did with a lap remaining.
I was going to drive my car like it was stolen to the end.
Disaster struck in turn four as Hildebrand, with victory in sight, struck the wall. Wheldon was there to take the lead as Hildebrand’s stricken car moved down the front straightaway past the start/finish line. Wheldon flashed by Hildebrand under full power and across the line first to win his second Indianapolis 500, his first in 2005.
“I saw him hit,” Wheldon said. “I was passing Ana (Beatriz) in Turn 3 and had momentum coming onto the front straightaway. I was going to drive my car like it was stolen to the end.”
Hildebrand was second, ahead of Rahal in third, Kanaan fourth and Servia fifth.
Rahal and Kanaan both came from deep in the field, 29th and 22nd, to their top five finishing positions.
“Someone just told me we passed 67 cars today and didn’t win,” Rahal said. “I mean, both guys finished ahead of me, I passed Hildebrand probably four times today and I passed Wheldon once. I didn’t have quite the pace out front. But in traffic, I was as good as anybody.”
“We had a good car. We drove hard all day. It was a lot of fun,” said Kanaan in a distinct, short message.
Dixon, Baguette, Scheckter, Andretti and Patrick made up the top 10 finishers. Carpenter and Franchitti were the last two on the lead lap, ahead of rookie Charlie Kimball in 13th, the car Hildebrand was passing through turn four of the final lap.
Small consolation to Hildebrand and Baguette that these marked their best career finishes, as the two were both so close to a shock victory. As it was, Wheldon and Herta's triumph ensured the "little guys" of the series could earn the respect and win from the Speedway.