29 May 2011
Indy 500: Wheldon takes second title as JR crashes
He kept on coming, and the crowd kept on cheering the prospect of an All-American victory on the ultra-patriotic Memorial Day weekend. Up ahead the only fly in Hildebrand's ointment was the slow traffic of Charlie Kimball, but Hildebrand kept up high to make sure he gave his fellow rookie enough room, not wanting to startle him and cause any crashes the last time through turns 3 and 4.
He went high ... and he kept on going higher. Once on the marbles he was gone and into the wall on the exit of turn four, just yards now from the famed yard of bricks marking the start/finish line. It was agonising: the impact against the wall had wrecked the car, there was no way of steering and no power, yet still the car ground its way over the remaining distance, clawing its way forward like some dying animal determined to get its offspring to safety.
It made it; the #4 slid all the way down the track and finally came to a halt on the entrance to turn 1. The only problem was that the process had been agonisingly slow, and before the wreckage could manage to get itself over the finish line there had been a blur of orange and white go past.
Unbelievably, Dan Wheldon had taken the chequered flag first, and would head to pit lane to drink the traditional glass of milk and don the winner's laurel.
"In the corner of my eye, I saw him hit the fence," said Wheldon. "I just carried on by. As Bryan [Herta, car owner] 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."
It was a horrible moment for Hildebrand, who had been holding his destiny in his own hands when he made the error that cost him the most famous of race victories possible. No one could quite believe it, and for a time rumours flew that Panther would appeal the race result on the grounds that Wheldon had overtaken Hildebrand under caution - a strict racing protocol no-no. Two hours later, an official review of the video and photographic evidence proved that the caution had not in fact been out when Wheldon passed Hildebrand's crushed car; and IndyCar officials made clear that even if this had not been the case they would still rule that the Panther was too "wounded" to be legitimately protected by the yellow flags.
Wheldon's victory was confirmed: the British driver who had been left without a regular season drive in IndyCar in 2011 had come almost out of nowhere to claim his second Indy 500 title, after two consecutive years of finishing second (all of them in different teams) and also with a third and a fourth to his name in ten starts overall in this famous race - quite a record.
Dan Wheldon couldn't quite believe it, and the tears streamed down as he climbed out of the car. Team owner Bryan Herta couldn't believe it either: while Wheldon's track record here is undeniable, no one expected him to be seriously in with a chance to win the race with a start-up team, even one run by a motor racing great like Herta.
"We came here to win," said his car owner Bryan Herta, who was a driver here in 2005 when Wheldon won his first Indy 500. "We always said we came here to win ... But we actually won!"
And as celebrations overran victory lane, spare a thought for the young man standing in disbelief next to a wrecked car, running his fingers through his hair, wondering exactly how he'd managed to not get a couple of dozen yards down the road in time.
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