Indy 500: 9 years ago today – Heartbreak in Turn 4

Indy 500, IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
Indy 500, IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images) /

Nine years ago today, J.R. Hildebrand scored the most memorable and infamous second place Indy 500 finish of all-time as Dan Wheldon took the checkered flag for the final time.

On Sunday, May 29, 2011, IndyCar rookie J.R. Hildebrand was one of those drivers who managed to work his way to the front of the Indianapolis 500 field on pit strategy, but only for a few laps at a time.

He led from lap 100 to lap 103 of the centennial 200-lap race around the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in Speedway, Indiana, then he led again on lap 138.

He was one of those drivers who spent time at the front, but you’d never really imagine his strategy actually putting him back at the front when it mattered most.

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But that’s how it played out for the driver of the #4 Panther Racing Honda, who had started in 12th place in his first attempt at the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.

Danica Patrick found herself in the race lead with 22 laps to go. She relinquished the lead with 12 laps left, as there were no caution flags after lap 164 during which she could save fuel.

It was Bertrand Baguette who inherited the race lead, and his fuel situation was questionable. Looking back at his speeds now, it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility that he could have made it to the end with more fuel saving — and definitely with a yellow.

Alas, he came to the pits with three laps remaining, shortly after Hildebrand had passed Dario Franchitti for second place as Franchitti, who had 51 laps of the race in the lead, struggled to save fuel.

Now with three laps to go, Hildebrand was in the race lead, well ahead of the rest of the pack. His fuel situation was questionable, but it became clear that he had saved enough fuel at the beginning of the final stint to make it to the checkered flag.

He was slated to become the first rookie winner of the Indy 500 since now three-time winner Helio Castroneves won the 85th running in 2001.

200 laps around a four-turn oval comes out to 800 turns on Memorial Day Sunday afternoon at the Brickyard. The 23-year-old Sausalito, California native nailed the first 799 turns to put himself in the race lead on the final turn of the final lap of the race.

But to this day, he hasn’t won the Indy 500.

While passing the lapped #83 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda of Charlie Kimball on the outside, Hildebrand’s #4 Honda got into the turn four marbles and shot straight into the wall.

Fortunately for him, his car stayed straight, still in position to cross the finish line — eventually.

His lead over second place Dan Wheldon made it more interesting — because nobody even really knew who was running second at the time, given how many drivers were running out of fuel and needed to make pit stops.

It was all over the place. To put it in perspective, Baguette was back in seventh place and Franchitti ended up in 12th. Patrick was 10th. For those watching on television, ABC’s scoring monitor showed no such representation, as it was also out of sync due to the chaos.

Hildebrand literally still had a chance to win the greatest race in the world in a car that looked destined for a one-way trip to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s graveyard.

But as the #4 Honda inched closer to the yard of bricks, slower by the second, Wheldon, who had placed second in the #4 Honda in each of the last two years, wheeled his #98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda past the wreckage to take the checkered flag for the second time in seven years, winning by only a slim margin over the newest Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.

Despite the fact that the race officially finished under yellow flag conditions, the caution light came on after Wheldon had made the pass, eliminating that potential controversy — of course, aside of the fact that it took longer than usual for most of those watching to determine who had actually won.

In the race’s 95th running, Hildebrand became just the second driver to lose the lead on the final lap. Marco Andretti was passed by Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. Wheldon, meanwhile, became the first driver to win the race after leading only one lap.

Wheldon passed away later that year after suffering unsurvivable injuries in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

As for Hildebrand, he hasn’t missed the Indy 500 since his heartbreaking wreck, but he has not finished better than sixth place (2016).

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While not confirmed, J.R. Hildebrand is expected to drive for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in the 104th running of the Indy 500, which has been rescheduled to Sunday, August 23 due to the coronavirus pandemic. This race is set to be broadcast live from Indianapolis Motor Speedway on NBC beginning at 11:00 a.m. ET.

Hildebrand drove for the team in the 102nd and 103rd running of the race in 2018 and 2019.