The silver-haired legends all were back again, reliving golden memories, driving race cars from long-ago wins around Indianapolis Motor Speedway two hours before the start of the 100th-anniversary Indy 500 on Sunday. As Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser and several other former 500 champions from the race's glory days of the 1960s, '70s and '80s crossed the finish line at 20 mph, the most interested observer of the 250,000 in attendance at the Brickyard stood nearby on pit road, his eyes wide as he gazed at the largest Indy crowd in more than a decade.
"We need to get the popularity of this series back to what it was when guys like Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford were winning," said Randy Bernard, the CEO of the IndyCar Series. "Ticket sales are up [10% from last year]. Fans are returning. You really can feel that the buzz is finally coming back."
Bernard was right. Thanks to some of the most riveting racing at the Brickyard in years, for one afternoon Indy was what it used to be: a heart-thumping, oooohhh-inducing event. With 21 laps to go, Danica Patrick, IndyCar's most popular driver, seized the lead, causing the crowd to rise and boil at a froth. Then, nine laps later, Bertrand Baguette—a 25-year-old Belgian who was such a long shot that he wasn't even listed in the series media guide—surged past Patrick, who had slowed to conserve fuel. When Baguette had to stop for gas with three laps left, rookie J.R. Hildebrand of Sausalito, Calif., inherited the lead. Suddenly, only five miles stood between Hildebrand, who in 2006 had turned down an acceptance offer from MIT, and the checkered flag.
Holding nearly a four-second lead over veteran Dan Wheldon, the 23-year-old rookie blazed into the final turn on the final lap at 220 mph. The most hallowed prize in American motor sports—the Borg-Warner trophy—was literally within sight as it sat near the finish line. But then Hildebrand committed a blunder that will live on in Indy lore, the motor sports equivalent of Van de Velde at Carnoustie, Pisarcik at the Meadowlands, Buckner at Shea: While passing the lapped car of Charlie Kimball, Hildebrand steered to the outside of the track. This is perilous ground late in races because as tires wear down, bits of rubber fly off and collect on the high side of Turn 4. Once Hildebrand rolled over the "marbles"—as these bits are called—he lost control, smashing into the wall along the frontstretch. Less than 300 yards from the finish line, Wheldon passed him to steal the victory and capture his second Indy 500.
"We should have won the race," said Hildebrand, whose damaged car slid across the finish line in second. "Is it a move I would do again? No."
If there was one person whom Wheldon especially wanted to beat at the Brickyard, it was Hildebrand, who replaced the 2005 series champion at Panther Racing after Wheldon was let go in January. Unable to find a full-time ride, Wheldon, a native of Emberton, England, sat out the first four IndyCar events this season. In late March, he signed a one-race contract for the Indy 500 with Bryan Herta Autosport, a part-time team. Will this victory resurrect the career of the 32-year-old Wheldon? One thing is certain: This won't be his last IndyCar race of 2011.
On Sunday, Wheldon and Hildebrand were able to do what several drivers couldn't: master the double-file restarts that were employed after cautions for the first time in Indy history. In the past cars lined up single file for each restart, but this fostered (yawn) parade-style racing, with cars simply following each other in a line around the track. In 2009 NASCAR adopted the double-file restart rule, and the result was exactly what fans wanted: more bumping and grinding as the cars charged three- and sometimes four-wide into the first turn after the green flag waved.
A week before last year's Indy 500, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi—the top two owners in IndyCar—took Bernard to dinner in Indianapolis. The two urged Bernard to institute double-file restarts in the open-wheel series, even though if two cars merely touch in IndyCar, it usually results in a high-speed wreck. "We need to improve our quality of racing," Ganassi told Bernard. "I assure you that the double-file restart is doable in our series."
When Bernard announced that he was green-lighting the double-file restart for the 500, driver reaction was swift and universal: They loathed the idea. "Now we have a bigger chance to hit the wall," said veteran Tony Kanaan a few days before the race. "Hopefully we have more than six cars finish the race."
Just as Kanaan predicted, the first double-file restart on Sunday triggered a wreck when, barreling three-wide into Turn 1 on Lap 28, E.J. Viso collided with James Hinchcliffe, causing Viso to slam into the wall. There were seven restarts, and each produced the kind of hold-your-breath racing that was once common at the Indy 500. "The double-file restarts were really, really successful," said Ryan Briscoe, who finished 27th. "You could jostle for positions. It was a little wild."
Patrick took advantage of the new restarts all afternoon, consistently passing cars. It was six years ago this week that she became a national sensation when she finished fourth in the 2005 Indy 500, which at the time was the best performance by a female driver in the race's history. (She topped that in 2009 when she came in third.) After leading 10 laps late on Sunday, Patrick wound up 10th.
Patrick's career path may soon wind in a new direction. Her contract with Andretti Autosport expires at season's end, and she's currently running a part-time schedule for JR Motorsports in NASCAR's Nationwide Series. Patrick says she hasn't made a decision about her future and will wait at least until late summer to announce anything, but no one in IndyCar strongly believes she'll stay in the open-wheel series in 2012. It's a potentially crippling defection for IndyCar, and the Danica Decision is an almost daily topic of conversation among the key players in the series. "It would be a serious loss to our sport if she leaves," Bernard says. "But she's got to do what's in her best interests."
So the sport is likely to lose its most recognizable driver—Patrick will probably compete in the Nationwide Series full time in 2012 before moving up to the Sprint Cup in '13—and it would raise a troubling question for IndyCar: Will Patrick's millions of fans walk away with her?
That answer will come eventually, but late on Sunday afternoon Patrick wasn't topic A at the Brickyard. After the race hundreds of Patrick supporters, outfitted in shirts bearing her likeness, cheered loudly as Hildebrand walked up pit road. The shock of losing the Indy 500 on the last turn of the last lap was just sinking in, and as he passed the winner's circle where Wheldon was celebrating, he kept his head bowed. Yes, he had lost in spectacular fashion, but in defeat he gave IndyCar the one thing it desperately needs more of: a moment that won't soon be forgotten.
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End of An Era
• For the first time since 1992, a car owned by Roger Penske failed to finish in the top 10 at the Indy 500. Penske has won the race a record 15 times, but on Sunday all three of his drivers—series points leader Will Power (he came in 14th), Helio Castroneves (17th) and Ryan Briscoe (27th)—either were in accidents or suffered time-draining mishaps on pit road.
• Dario Franchitti, the 2010 Indy 500 winner and series champion, closed the gap on Power in the series points race. By finishing 12th on Sunday, Franchitti, who is in second place, now trails Power by only 16 points. Oriol Servia, who came in sixth in the 500, is third, 42 points behind Power with 12 races left in the IndyCar season.
Photograph by TANNEN MAURY/EPA
WALL OUT OF FAVOR After losing control on a last-lap pass, Hildebrand (right) pondered the victory that was nearly his.
[See caption above]
FRED VUICH (WHELDON)
MILKING HIS CHANCE Wheldon hadn't competed this year, but his one-race contract paid off with his second Indianapolis 500 title.
KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/EPA (FRANCHITTI)