Race Weekend Central

Frontstretch Breakdown: 2011 Indianapolis 500

In a Nutshell: Leading laps is nice, but if you are only going to lead one, make it the right one. Dan Wheldon did. When rookie JR Hildebrand hit the wall in the fourth turn on the final lap while leading, Wheldon slipped by just a couple hundred yards before the finish line. It was the one that counted and he walks away with his second Indianapolis 500 win.

For the Highlight Reel

Ah, but not so fast. Wheldon was immediately declared the winner but Hildebrand’s Panther Racing team lodged a protest. The caution was thrown when Hildebrand hit the wall but Wheldon drove by. The team contended that Wheldon could not pass Hildebrand with the caution out. Series officials eventually determined that Wheldon went by before the yellow and the win stands.

In my opinion the win should stand even if Wheldon had gone by after the caution flew. After all, Hildebrand was the reason for the caution and his mangled car was wedged firmly in the wall at the time, even if he had continued forward motion. Since when does everyone have to stop and not pass the guy who has crashed? It’s not NASCAR, but wouldn’t that also fall under that bit about having to maintain a reasonable speed?

Running out of talent and smacking the wall stinks at Indy. Running out of talent and smacking the wall on the 800th turn of an 800-turn race at Indy sucks beyond words. But that’s the difference between a rookie, which Hildebrand is, and a veteran. A veteran encountering the lapped car of Charlie Kimball in turn 4 simply throttles back, follows Kimball around the turn and passes him on the straight. He had enough room.

Wheldon didn’t slip by until just before the finish line, so slowing that little bit wouldn’t have given the race away. Instead, Hildebrand tried to take the high line around the outside and ended up in no-man’s land in the marbles.

This was Wheldon’s only scheduled race for the season at this point. Maybe a Borg Warner on the shelf will make the phone ring, but then again, maybe not. There were 33 cars out there at Indy and a few that went home, but odds are it’s back to the usual 26 at Texas in a few weeks. Bryan Herta Autosport scrambled to get the car on track for this one race, so unless a sponsor shows up with a big check, the Indy 500 winner may be watching the next race on television.

Sam Schmidt‘s day didn‘t end like he hoped but you have to admire the man. Schmidt was once a promising IndyCar driver, but a crash during a test session in 2000 nearly cost him his life and left him a quadriplegic. Instead of turning away from the sport that took so much from him, Schmidt looked for a way to stay involved and decided to be a car owner. He’s not an owner in name only. Schmidt goes to the track. He’s in the garage, in the pits and makes appearances and meets with fans.

It’s been a long road, but Schmidt has been patient and worked hard. The result was a pole with Alex Tagliani for the Indy 500 11 years later. Both of Schmidt’s drivers ran well but unfortunately both had their days ended by contact. Tagliani hit the wall on lap 148 and Townsend Bell crashed with Ryan Briscoe on lap 158. Perhaps some silver lining, Schmidt has a technical alliance with Bryan Herta Autosport and owns the chassis Dan Wheldon took to victory lane.

At the age of 48, John Andretti was one of the oldest drivers in the field (Davey Hamilton was also 48). Andretti was driving a one-off effort for cousin Michael Andretti’s Andretti Autosport team and Richard Petty. Andretti says this is likely his last run in the 500.

Fitting that in its 100th anniversary year, the month of May at Indy has included some of the old-fashioned drama that had been missing in recent years, including bump day, on which actual bumping occurred. That hasn’t always been the case in the last few years, with barely enough cars for a full field showing up. This year, in the final moments, Marco Andretti got bumped out by Alex Lloyd. Andretti in turn had just enough time to get back out for a final attempt and ended up bumping his own teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, off the grid.

Hunter-Reay did run the race however. How? By working out a deal for another car that was in the field. Hunter-Reay and his sponsors cut a deal with AJ Foyt to put Hunter-Reay into the car that Bruno Junquiera had qualified. This is not the first time this has happened to Junquiera, who is not a full-time driver on the IndyCar circuit. Then again, this isn’t by far the first time it’s happened to anyone.

It’s always been the car that qualifies at Indy and on occasion a regular driver does not make this points-paying race, leading to wheeling and dealing for cars in the field driven by non-regulars. Given that nearly twice as many drivers show up for the 500, many not running a full season, and many of these drivers make the field, sometimes at the expense of the regulars, should the 500 be a points paying race toward the championship? You could make a good argument either way.

It seemed AJ Foyt barely got the pace car off the track before being inhaled by 33 IndyCars coming for the green flag.

Scott Dixon, who started in the middle of the front row, took the green flag well in front of polesitter Tagliani and yet series officials let the start stand. My guess is it’s nearly impossible to get them all lined up in 11 rows of three and while Tagliani should have clearly been first man across the line, they didn’t want to go through getting them all back in line for a second try. Series officials also apparently felt with 500 miles ahead, it wasn’t like it gave Dixon an advantage to really win the race.

Double-file restarts, new to IndyCar this season, have been a point of contention. Most of the drivers hate them. Only Tony Kanaan made positive comments about them, saying it makes it more exciting and lets drivers think they have a chance to get up front they might not otherwise feel they have restarting far back in a single line of cars. From where I sat it sure made for some slicing, dicing and anxious moments on restarts.

Did anyone else think Wheldon’s orange and white car looked a whole lot like the old red and white Penske cars? At least on the fly at 215 mph it did. It sure was a lot easier to spot than any of Penske’s entries.

Attendance, of late a big issue in the motorsports world, looked to be good I’m happy to say. There were a few patches here and there where some empty seats were visible, but for the most part the grandstands appeared to be well-filled. Those grandstands can hold over 250,000 people.

Worth Noting

  • Hildebrand held on for second place. Graham Rahal finished third, followed by Kanaan in fourth and Dixon rounding out the top five.
  • Tagliani, the pole winner, finished 28th after contact with the wall on lap 148 put him out of the race.
  • Panther Racing has finished second for four years in a row, including with today’s winner, Wheldon, in 2009 and 2010.
  • Hildebrand was the highest-finishing rookie in second.
  • Will Power, the championship points leader, finished 14th, the highest finisher for Team Penske on what was an unusually dismal day for the Captain.
  • Last year’s winner Dario Franchitti came out on the wrong end of fuel strategy this time. He finished 12th after having to stop for a splash and go in the closing laps.


“I was just trying to go as hard as I could. I knew it was the last lap and I knew some of those guys were struggling with fuel. I’ve been runner-up two years before this, but I never gave up. It’s an incredible feeling.” – Dan Wheldon, race winner

“I made a judgment call catching up on the No. 83 (Kimball) and I thought I don’t really want to slow down behind him and pull out on the straightaway and I’ve been able to make this move on the outside before and so I went to the high side and because it was at the end of the stint I got up in the marbles and that was it.” – JR Hildebrand, finished second

“It’s the Indy 500; you have to take a chance to win. I would much rather leave here finishing a little bit further down by taking a chance and having the option to win than coming away with a lower position and not having that chance. Overall it was a great day for the whole GoDaddy.com team. We have kept our heads up this month and came out ahead at the end.” – Danica Patrick, finished 10th, who led late before pitting with 10 laps remaining for fuel

Final Thoughts

It was the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500. It was fitting that there was a great crowd treated to the best 500 in years. It was good old fashioned Indy drama. There was a great field full of competitive teams and drivers. No one ran away with it at any point and it really was anyone’s race. Right down to the closing laps it wasn’t obvious who was going to win.

When it was over, there was heartbreak on one side as a young rookie found out just how cruel Indy can be and rejoicing on the other, as a former champion who’d found himself squeezed out of the series showed he can still get the job done. What more could you want? And just wait until next year when innovation comes back to Indy with different chassis and engine suppliers competing.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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