Heartbreak Comes In Equal Doses To Triumph At Indianapolis 500
There have been many great drivers who have come close to winning the Indianapolis 500 but never got a chance to make it to the checkered flag as the winner of the world’s greatest race. Drivers such as Ted Horn, Lloyd Ruby, Michael Andretti, Scott Goodyear, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and JR Hildebrand have all appeared on their way to victory only to fall short for a variety of reasons.
In 2012, Takuma Sato added his name to that list.
He was driving a brilliant race with all the daring befitting the hardest of hard chargers. He had attached his Dallara/Honda to the rear of Dario Franchitti’s car when they passed leader Scott Dixon with two laps to go and an Indianapolis 500 victory on the line.
As the two cars took the white flag, Sato went to make his move, going to the inside of Franchitti in the first turn.
Two cars would go in. Only one would come out.
At high speed, the cars made contact and Sato went out of control, spinning and crashing into the SAFER Barrier in Turn 1. Franchitti maintained control and took the checkered flag for his third Indianapolis 500 win.
It was another dramatic chapter of triumph and heartbreak at the biggest race in the world, exemplifying the tremendous highs and lows of the Indianapolis 500.
“It was very tough and pretty tough after that,” Sato said. “But at the same time, there was satisfaction as a team for what we did. On Race Day, we gradually got stronger and by the middle of the race. In the last several laps, there were drivers that were very serious for the win, and we were part of that. On the last restart with six laps to go, one-by-one we overtook the guys in front of us and set us up to race with Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. With two laps to go, I went with Dario past Scott and that set us up to win the ‘500.’
“The car was sliding a bit, but I had good momentum toward Dario. In Turn 1, he had a good defensive line, and we both approached Turn 1 with an extremely tight line. We needed gentle braking, downshift to fifth gear and then open throttle. It was real close. He came down, and I had to go really close to the bottom. I touched the white line in the end, and that started the crash.
“That was frustrating, but I challenged for the Indianapolis 500 and almost won, and that was really big for me looking forward to this year’s race. That and the fans were really cheering me on.”
Sato believed that was the only move he had, and he couldn’t wait until the two cars got to Turn 3 because of the wind direction.
“Giving the same opportunity, I would go for it again but in a different way,” Sato said. “If I knew the white line was that slippery, I wouldn’t have touched it.
“It took me a week or two to get over that. Even today, I still dream about it and watch the race over and over again and wanted to win. But it was definitely an unforgettable day. My result was similar to JR Hildebrand the year before. He almost won, had a situation and so did I.”
In 2011, Hildebrand was on his way to becoming the first rookie to win the “500” since Helio Castroneves in 2001 when he simply had to make it through the final corner on the final lap of the 2011 Indianapolis 500 and he would be immortalized with his face etched onto the Borg-Warner Trophy along with the other great champions of a race that began in 1911.
But as Hildebrand came racing through the north chute between Turns 3 and 4, he approached fellow rookie Charlie Kimball’s car after it ran out of fuel. Rather than let off the accelerator, Hildebrand made the fateful decision to keep his foot on the throttle. He drifted high on the racetrack but got into the “marbles” – the area of the track surface where pellets of used rubber off the tires had drifted up the track making it slippery like running on marbles.
Hildebrand lost control of his National Guard/Panther Racing Dallara and slammed into the wall. Hildebrand skidded down the frontstraight and appeared that he could slide the crashed car across the finish line. But Dan Wheldon charged past for his second Indianapolis 500 victory with his only lap led of the day.
Hildebrand had suddenly become the modern day “Bill Buckner” – the first baseman for the Boston Red Sox who booted Mookie Wilson’s ground ball through his leg in the fateful Game 6 of the 1986 World Series allowing Ray Knight to score the winning run for the New York Mets. The Mets would go on to win Game 7 and the Series that year, and Buckner continues to live in infamy.
“Bill Buckner got hit that ground ball a million times in practice, and he just blew it because he was under pressure,” Hildebrand said. “I play baseball, so I feel for Bill Buckner every time I see that.
“To me it was on ESPN ‘First Take’ that Skip Bayless called what I did the biggest choke of all time. I said, ‘Shoot, put me on that show, and I’ll debate him all day long.’ Did he watch any of the race? The Indy 500 is the one race where people who don’t watch racing see what happens, so to be honest with you, when it all came down having played sports in baseball and when you are the closer and you blow it, then you blew it, and that is how it works in sports. It’s not something I don’t think about, but it isn’t something that keeps me awake at night. When I look back at what happened, I could have made a better decision. But knowing how quickly I had to make a decision, I don’t have any regret making the decision that I did.
“It’s not something that really bugs me.”
Sometimes a driver’s true measure of courage and character isn’t measured by the way they handle victory but the amount of class and dignity in which they handle defeat.
That is certainly the measure of Hildebrand’s courage, character, class and dignity. He showed incredible grace when dealing with the enormous turn of events that turned him from a sure winner of the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 to a crushing defeat in the blink of an eye and a crash into the fourth-turn SAFER Barrier.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Hildebrand admits his first love was baseball, and he was quite a prospect in high school. Ever the baseball fan, Hildebrand understands how he has become IndyCar’s version of “Bill Buckner” when it comes to infamy.
But Hildebrand will not let what happened in the 2011 Indianapolis 500 define him as a person.
Rather than sulk, Hildebrand handled the disappointment like a man.
“I showed to some degree after the race it doesn’t bother me to talk about this stuff,” Hildebrand said. “I’m not going to shy away from it. For me, personally, in my first time at going through the Indianapolis 500, we sort of showed that we could just about beat anybody. We are going to roll that into this season and be more aggressive.
“You end up getting asked about it. The question every time is the same, `So, tell us what happened in the last corner of the Indy 500.’ At this point, I have a standard answer I give to everybody about it. You expect that, so it is no big deal now. It’s like I said when it all went down. It sucks that is what ended up happening when we had a shot at winning the race, but from an optimistic point of view, it gave us the confidence that this is our first time doing this, and we were damn close. It does give us confidence we can be there in the future, and we’ve had some other runs this year. Look at Iowa and even our race at Loudon. At the end of that first tire stint, we were the fastest car on the track by a bunch. It’s things like that that continues to motivate us to be up there and knocking on the door.
“I’d be lying to you if I don’t think about that occasionally and think I was super-close, and we realistically might never have a chance of being that close again. I’m not scared to say that is the truth, but to me I know in that moment at the end of the race when I was two corners from the end what I was dealing with. I know along with a lot of other guys you don’t ever come up on a car going that slow in practice. For me, I feel better about it that I can rest my laurels that, `Shoot, man, I went for it, at least.’ I would hate to answer the question of what if I had slowed up and someone had gone by me that way?
“If you give me the same circumstance again, would I do the exact same thing? No, because that would be ridiculous. But I’m satisfied with how things went down and what happened because of that. In the end, it makes me feel like in our first go at it we had the right strategy call, and there we were with a shot to win the race.”
If anyone can relate to Hildebrand’s situation it’s Goodyear, a two-time runner-up at Indy. Coming close doesn’t ensure a deserving driver will make it to victory lane at Indy by the end of his career. Goodyear lost the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history, by .043 of a second to Al Unser Jr. in 1992.
“Foremost when you are active, it’s heartbreaking, but I looked at it in 1992 and thought, ‘I know how to do this; I can compete with these guys and I’ll go back there and win,’” Goodyear said. “It gave me more confidence, and I’m sure JR has more confidence to equal out the disappointment. That being said, it might be his only shot. You can go back and be close, but that doesn’t mean you will win. In 1993, I fell out early in the race after qualifying fourth. I always felt that we had an opportunity to compete.
“By 1998 when I got to Panther and I was older, I began to think, `Hell, I might not ever win this thing.’ At his age, he has to look at it like I did that it gives him 110 percent confidence, and he knows he can compete with these guys and is young and has more shots at it. But he might go back and not be close for five more years with motors blowing and crashes and things like that. Then he might wonder if that is his only shot.
“Now that I’ve retired, I look back at it as a bigger disappointment today than it did the day it happened because when you walk away from the sport you don’t have that opportunity anymore.”
Goodyear can also relate to what Paul Tracy went through in 2002 by what happened to Goodyear in 1995. Both drivers were the first to finish the 500 miles, but another driver was ruled the winner because of an officiating call.
“I would have rather crashed like JR Hildebrand than be black-flagged in 1995,” Goodyear said. “I would have felt better about it than in 1995. In 1995, I crossed the finish line first – they just didn’t give me the checkered flag.”
Goodyear ended his full-time IndyCar career driving for Panther Racing – the team that Hildebrand races for today.
“I don’t think anybody – even veterans – would have handled the disappointment any better than JR did after the 2011 race,” Goodyear said. “People talk to me about what happened to me in the Indy 500, and that doesn’t go away until you win the thing. That will be his life – I’m sure everywhere JR goes, it’s as fresh in his mind as he allows it to be.”
For some drivers, it’s a thought they can never shake.
While the winner of the Indianapolis 500 achieves fame and glory that lasts for history, those who have come close but never win endure an equal amount of infamy that can’t be shaken for the rest of their life.
Ted Horn was one of the all-time great drivers in the history of the Indianapolis 500, making 10 starts between 1935-48. His rookie season he finished 16th – the only time he would ever finish lower than fourth. Beginning in 1936 he finished second, was third in 1937, fourth in 1983, ’39 and ’40 and third in 1941. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was shut down from 1942-45 because of World War II, but Horn continued his remarkable streak by finishing third in 1946 and ’47 and fourth in 1948. But less than six months after the 1948 Indianapolis 500, Horn was killed Oct. 10, 1948 in a racing crash at DuQuoin, Ill.
Lloyd Ruby competed in the Indianapolis 500 from 1960-77. Unlike Horn, who was able to score some impressive finishes, Ruby was known for his hard luck that would take him out of the race while he was a leading contender. In 1965, it was a blown engine with 16 laps to go. In 1966, he looked like he would cruise to victory, leading 68 laps before a broken cam knocked him out after 166 of 200 laps. He led 42 laps in 1968 but finished fifth. In 1969, he was the leader when he pitted for fuel on lap 105 but left the pits with the fuel hose still attached, and it ruptured the fuel tank. In 1970, a drive gear failed and he had a gear issue in 1971 after the leading the race that put him out 26 laps from the finish.
Michael Andretti holds the record for most laps led by a non-winning driver in the Indianapolis 500 with 431 in a career that began in 1984 with his last Indy 500 in 2007. He had five top-five, nine top-10 finishes in 16 starts with no victories. He led 160 laps in the 1992 race before his Ford-Cosworth engine broke a belt just 11 laps from the finish. One year earlier, Andretti had scored the highest finish of his Indy 500 career when he lost to Rick Mears in one of the best two-car duels in the closing laps of the race. On a restart, Andretti passed Mears on the outside heading into the Turn 1 in a move that few had ever seen. But one lap later, Mears pulled the same move by passing Andretti on the outside in Turn 1 and went on to become just the third four-time winner of the Indy 500.
Goodyear lost the 1992 Indianapolis 500 to Unser by just .043-seconds – the closest margin of victory ever at Indy. He was the leader on the final restart of the 1995 race but passed the Pace Car and was black-flagged for that violation. Goodyear contended the Pace Car had not been up to proper speed and continued on the race course without coming into pit lane to serve his penalty. Race officials stopped scoring Goodyear after the 195th lap. Although he crossed the finish line first, Jacques Villeneuve of Canada was ruled as the winner of the race. Goodyear was officially credited with a 14th-place finish.
Two years later, Goodyear was involved in another controversy when the race was restarted with one lap remaining and Goodyear running second to teammate Arie Luyendyk. At that time, the race was sanctioned by the United States Auto Club (USAC) and the green and white flags waved at the flagstand but the yellow lights remained on the race course through Turns 2. Luyendyk won the race, but the confusion cost Goodyear a fair shot at a proper restart, and he finished second for the second time in his career.
Goodyear’s last Indianapolis 500 was in 2001 when he finished 32nd in the 33-car field.
And then there is Marco Andretti, who was within 100 yards of taking the checkered flag on the final lap before he was passed by Sam Hornish Jr. – the first time the race-winning pass came on the final lap. The second time was 2011 when Hildebrand crashed and Wheldon sped by his sliding race car heading down the frontstretch with the checkered flag waving.
Tony Kanaan has competed in 11 Indy 500s and is generally considered the best current driver who has never won the race. He was third in 2003, second in 2004, won the pole in 2005 but finished eighth, fifth in 2006, fourth in 2011 and third last year.
It was his daring drive in last year’s Indy 500 that may be remembered the most.
Kanaan’s favorite animal is a gorilla, and he pulled off a restart of King Kong proportions when he drove from seventh to first on Lap 185. The move was so spectacular it brought many of the fans in the grandstands to their feet.
Kanaan would go on to finish third in the thrilling race. After the race, the fans gave him as big an ovation as they gave three-time race winner Dario Franchitti. Kanaan drew the biggest cheers of any driver in pre-race introductions as a testament to the Brazilian’s popularity at the Indy 500.
“I shouldn’t say I’m surprised, but I’m really flattered I have the support that I have,” Kanaan said. “Although I haven’t won that race yet and God knows if I ever will, they make me feel like a winner there. I’m not trying to talk like a loser because I consider myself a winner, but to me they make me feel like one.
“It is humbling. Talking to Lauren (his wife), I don’t hear half of it sometimes, but when I made the pass I could watch on TV how wild that place went. If I never win this thing I feel like a winner there because of the way the fans treat me, and I love coming back because of that.
“Maybe my face will never go on that trophy and maybe my name won’t go to the museum (as a winner), but I feel like one, for sure.”