Commentary

J.R. Hildebrand not alone in Indy misery

Updated: May 30, 2011, 1:54 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- J.R. Hildebrand was less than half a mile from duplicating Trevor Bayne's feat of a remarkable rookie win in one of America's iconic auto races.

Problem is, unlike Bayne's triumphant run to the flag in the Daytona 500, Hildebrand didn't finish the Indianapolis 500. The Sausalito, Calif., native crashed his Panther Racing/National Guard car in the last turn of the last lap, a $2.5 million mistake that instantly moved him into pole position for a century's worth of heartbreak at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"That's the first time I've seen the leader crash on the last corner and have somebody pass him on the way to the finish line," recalled Roger Penske, who has attended the Indianapolis 500 since 1951. "But that's what this place is all about."

[+] EnlargeJ.R. Hildebrand
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJ.R. Hildebrand collected his thoughts after crashing on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500.

The lead of the Indy 500 has changed hands in the last five laps on several occasions. But as Penske noted, never has the leader crashed on the very last lap.

To his credit, Hildebrand kept his composure when he met the media in pit lane a few minutes after his mangled Dallara-Honda somehow crossed the finish line in second place.

"I'm pretending well, I guess," he said.

He followed that up with a longer media session in IMS's Economaki Trackside Press Conference Room to explain that fateful final lap.

"I started catching some other cars coming out of the pits as I was cycling through [Turns] 3 and 4. I ended up catching the 83 [13th-place finisher Charlie Kimball] going into Turn 4, a fairly inopportune area.

"Knowing that the cars in second and third were coming pretty strong, and rather than downshifting a bunch and risking slowing the car way down coming onto the front-straight to stay behind him, I thought, 'I'll breathe it and go to the high side' because it was a move I used earlier in the race to get around some slower cars in a fairly similar situation.

"But in hindsight, I think with the tires being as used as they were at that stage after such a long run, it's obviously a learning experience for me. The marble buildup is quite severe. Once I got up there, there wasn't a lot I could do."

Dan Wheldon therefore became only the second driver in Indianapolis 500 history to take the lead on the final lap. The last time it happened was five years ago, when Marco Andretti simply drove a poor last lap some 6 mph off the pace and was passed on the sprint to the line by Sam Hornish Jr.

Here are some other famous late-race heartbreaks at Indianapolis:

• 1912: Ralph De Palma took the lead on the third lap and looked unstoppable -- until the engine in his Mercedes started smoking and rattling with about five laps remaining. Approaching Turn 4 on the 199th lap, a connecting rod punched through the block and De Palma's day was done, handing the win to Joe Dawson.

• 1961: Eddie Sachs and A.J. Foyt swapped the lead throughout the race and Sachs held the late lead. Knowing Sachs was nursing his tires, Foyt piled on the pressure, and sure enough, Sachs peeled into the pits on the 198th lap with his right rear worn to the cords. The decision to pit was heavily scrutinized, and many years later, Foyt said he would have stayed out had the roles been reversed.

• 1967: Parnelli Jones dominated the race in an unusual turbine-powered car. But the brand-new design didn't finish the job, breaking a $6 ball bearing on the 197th lap and opening the door for Foyt to score what was then a record-tying third Indianapolis win.

• 1986: "I'm kind of busy right now, Sam," snapped Kevin Cogan when ABC announcer Sam Posey called on his in-car radio just prior to a Lap 198 restart. Bobby Rahal got the jump on Cogan when the green flag flew and pulled away to win the race.

• 1989: Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi were disputing the lead of the 500 while weaving through late-race traffic. Entering Turn 3 on the 199th lap, neither man was willing to give and Fittipaldi's Penske slid up the track into Unser's Lola, sending Unser hard into the wall. Fittipaldi held on and won the race.

• 1995: Scott Goodyear appeared to be in control of the 1995 race, but on the final restart on Lap 190, he sped past the pace car, which appeared to make a slower than usual entry into the pits. Goodyear ignored a black flag and was not scored over the last five laps, handing the victory to Jacques Villeneuve.

• 2002: Helio Castroneves was saving fuel and Paul Tracy was rapidly catching him. A crash occurred at the other end of the track, and the yellow light went on. Did the yellow flash before or after Tracy passed Castroneves for the lead on the 199th lap? It didn't matter, because Indy Racing league officials declared Castroneves the winner after a protest from Tracy and Team Green.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.