INDIANAPOLIS — It’s hard to believe, but it’s almost been a decade since that famous final lap of the 100th anniversary race of the Indianapolis 500. No, I’m not talking about the 100th Running, I’m talking about the 100th year. The first Indy 500 was in 1911. There was a break for the two World Wars. So in 2011, it was the 100th year since the first Indy 500 took place.
And oh what a crazy finish we saw in that race too.
Rookie JR Hildebrand was in control of the race late and was one corner away from an Indy 500 triumph. You know the rest. “He’s sputtering to a stop and he hits the wall!” said an animated IMS Radio Network call.
Hildebrand, went high to pass a slow car in Turn 4 and his No. 4 Chevrolet for Panther Racing slid in the marbles and up into the outside SAFER barrier in the corner. He’d continue on down the front straightaway with a badly damaged race car, but his pace wasn’t fast enough as Dan Wheldon narrowly beat him to the win.
Nine years later, Hildebrand is still here, albeit on a part-time one-off Indy only entry as he’s been the last several years. It’s hard to believe that the moment of the 2011 race is nine years ago already.
“No, not at all,” Hildebrand said to me on if that moment still haunts him. “It’s kind of like it’s a thing that happened. There were definitely some learnings and insights of all kind of aspects of what went down in terms of in the car and out of the car, working with the team, to all kinds of things that I kind of like draw on still from what went on there.”
Hildebrand notes, it was the 2013 race that actually haunts him the most still. He went from nearly winning as a rookie in 2011, to crashing out on Lap 3 of the 2013 race and ending his full time career for a while after until being picked up by Ed Carpenter Racing in 2017 on a full time basis.
“To me, it’s kind of like, two years after that, I was the first car out of the race,” Hildebrand continued. “That to me stung 10 times as much as even though from the outside, that everyone kind of forgets about the first car out of the race, over the crazy stuff that happens at the end of the race where you’re leading and come in second and that seems like this whole thing.
“In the big scheme of things that was a super weird situation where I can kind of forgive myself for not doing anything different where as there has definitely been times since then that I should have known better to do some things that kind of caught me out or put me in a bad spot.
“At this point I feel fortunate that it was the last lap and not the lap before that and that we were running where we were and the car still had two wheels on it so I can get it to the finish line and that I wasn’t a total basket base when I got out. I’m still here doing this 10 years later.”
Hildebrand is back with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for another go of it. He starts 32nd for Sunday’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). He says that while this being a one-off, the experience of the past nine years and the third straight year with the team is beneficial this year.
“I think we’ve done some things differently this year that were the right things to do in terms of how we practice and what we sort of prioritized in focusing on the race car in race trim,” Hildebrand said of being back with DRR. “We’ve definitely been as not only a one-off entry myself but one off entries as a team, the condensed schedule threw us some curve balls and getting used to the Aeroscreen and how it was affecting the car the last few days. Where the continuity comes into play at this point is my confidence and trust in one another has kind of built up over the last few years to kind of dig us out of a hole to make the car better with a limited amount of time to do that. To get on the same page and do that.
“Those are the types of things that when you work with a new team together for the first time is a little trickier to do. I felt really good about making some substantial improvements of where we were from the practices prior to Saturday to Sunday’s race practice.”
He said though that by not being a full time team, he does feel like there’s a larger disadvantage this year compared to the past due to all the changes of racing during a pandemic.
“I think that in the big scheme of things for us, that it’s been a disadvantage,” said the California native. “It’s not by definition the case. I think in part because of the schedule so condensed, as a one-off team, that’s condensing the amount of time that we can do all of the things that everyone else is used to just to do all of the things to get yourselves together and kind of on the same page and firing on all cylinders.”
So, from 32nd place, is passing going to be difficult like everyone else is saying or does he have the pace to make his way up?
“I guess I think it’s going to be a lot like its been the last several years,” he said on the racing package. “I don’t feel like that sense of being one car back and being five cars back is much greater. That’s something that we didn’t really experience until 2018. It was a big change from ’17 to ’18 with the new Aerokit. I don’t think its been that drastic of a difference over the last couple of years since.
“We don’t have as many options from a downforce performance that are efficient. If it’s really hot, that will start to really spread the field out I think. The options that we have to make the cars good for those type of conditions are very limited. But, I do think this year there’s the potential especially since the race is in a later point of the day, especially in the second half of the race, that we get to 4:30 of 5 o’clock, that things begin to start cooling down and get back into a nice window.
“Starting back where we are, we’re prepared for a high degree of turbulence even if the car is really good, to start ripping through the field. I don’t expect that to be the case.”
What is the case is Hildebrand honoring this race to civil justice. He turned his helmet into that to bring awareness to the issue.
“I think to be here and completely ignore them and pretend they’re not happening isn’t a version of reality,” he said. “To me those are things that we should be talking about right now.”
Hopefully, Hildebrand can be in the mix to spread even more awareness on Sunday.