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Indy 500: 'A helpless feeling' - Hildebrand

30 May 2011

"Obviously, JR, don't even know where to start," said the moderator at the post-race press conference of those dramatic last few seconds in the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

"I don't, either," replied JR Hildebrand, the rookie who very nearly pulled off the upset of the year.

All Hildebrand had needed to do was clear the slow, lapped traffic of Charlie Kimball running low in the #83 on the inside line and then he would have been through turn 4 and taking the chequered flag. Instead, he found himself hurtling into the wall.

"Well, I knew we were running a little tight on fuel coming to the end, and I had spotters in my ears saying, 'Guys are coming, and they're coming hard because we were having to conserve a little bit of fuel,' and the tyres are at the end of their stint," he explained to a subdued media audience. "I was just hanging on to get the thing around.

"I made a last minute judgement call on the #83 car. He was out of the pits, and I thought, 'You know what, I don't think I want slow down for him around the wrong part of the track. I would have to slow down a lot to stay behind him, then pull out a lot to pass on the straightaway so I thought, 'Well, I've been able to make this move around the outside before,' and so I went to the high side and just got caught up in the marbles, and that was it.

"Is it a move that I would do again? No. I think the only reason I did it in the first place was that it had worked at different stages earlier in the race. But in hindsight, I think with the tires being as used as they were at that stage, that last run after the caution being for so long - it's obviously a learning experience for me, that the marble buildup is quite severe."

Did he have time to think about the accident as it happened? What was going through his mind as he realised that the marbles had taken control of his #4 Nation Guard Panther Racing car?

"Is this over the public PA?" Hildebrand asked with a rueful smile. "There were a few choice words going through my head at that moment, really fast and frequently until I hit the wall. They were still going through my head there, I guess.

"It's a helpless feeling driving the race car when you get in a situation like that. It can happen on road courses, it can happen at other places. It's most extreme at a place like this where it truly does turn into a one-groove track towards the end of the-race. That was certainly my mistake to have judged it otherwise."

It had occurred to him that possibly the momentum of his wrecked car might even then just about pull it off and clinch the race.

"I did for a second. The mirrors on our cars really aren't that great. It was tough to tell down the back straight. I took a glimpse to see where [Wheldon] was at," he said. "There was certainly a split-second where I thought, 'Oh, shoot, maybe I'll pull a Terry Labonte at Martinsville or Bristol or whatever it was that year!'" he said smiling, before it sank in again: "Obviously, no such luck."

Hildebrand was trying to be philosophical about how it turned out, to accentuate the positives and take some important lessons away from him.

"I'm smart enough as a rookie to not expect, no matter what's going to happen, I'm going to come to the Indianapolis 500 my first year and be in a position to win the race," he said. "As it turned out, we most certainly were. We were in a position that we should have won the race.

"So for me, it's not so much that I'm pissed off or disappointed that my face isn't going to go on the Borg-Warner. Just with this team, Panther Racing has finished second three years in a row now with the National Guard sponsorship, I felt like we had an incredible opportunity to get on a big stage for those guys."

Asked how he felt right now, Hildebrand insisted that "This is not really about me at this point. You always show up to try to win. But for me, my disappointment is for the team and for National Guard as a sponsor," especially with the Indy 500 being held as part of the ultra-patriotic Memorial Day weekend celebrations. "With so many servicemen and women out here for this weekend, it's really a treat to be a part of that. It would have been an outstanding feat to be able to get up on the top step of the podium for them, as well.

"It's not really like a personal thing right now," he continued. "Maybe down the road it will turn into a personal thing that I'll just be pissed off at myself for not doing whatever. In the end, it's really more about the people, for me at least, this team has worked so hard, it's such an integral part of being here at Indianapolis and being successful at Indianapolis, that's really where the sort of heartbreak is for me right now.

John Barnes, the co-owner of Panther Racing, was unswerving in his support for his devastated young driver.

"We came here with a rookie driver, and everybody says we're going to have trouble and everything. But I can tell you that he did a great job," said Barnes. "He drove to a fuel number I didn't think was going to be attainable. We're so proud of him and the people at Panther and the crew."

Hildebrand reciprocated the feelings. "John was great," he said. "That was certainly a welcomed face and emotion for me walking down the pit lane. Sometimes you never know what you're going to get from a team when you've just lost the Indy 500 by a spot or whatever. But he's a real driver's owner from that perspective. He's ultracompetitive, but at the same time he can understand I think the emotions of what the driver goes through, as well."

Panther were thought to be considering an appeal to the race result based on the way that Dan Wheldon had seemed to overtake Hildebrand under yellow flags after the smash while Hildebrand was still in motion, scraping down the track toward the finish line which he finally crossed in second place. In fact the course was still green until the chequered welcomed Wheldon home, but in any case IndyCar officials said that the result would have stood regardless.

"Brian Barnhart explained to us that because JR was a wounded car on the last lap, he was fair game," said Barnes. "I'm fine with that. It's a classy decision and we're not going to protest."

It's the fourth consecutive year that the team have finished in the runners-up position - always the bridesmaid, never the bride it seems. Vitor Meira did the feat for them in 2008 and then ironically it was Dan Wheldon who took them to second place in 2009 and 2010 before an acrimonious split with the team. Of all the drivers out there to lose the Indianapolis 500 to, that must have been the bitterest pill to swallow.

No one can deny that Panther have the pedigree to win the Indianapolis 500, and they'll be back again for another try next year - hopefully with an older and wiser JR Hildebrand leading the effort, both of them determined to lay any demons to rest by finally righting the cruel wrong of turn 4 and claiming the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in 2012.


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