INDIANAPOLIS - The wheels were coming off the dream for J.R. Hildebrand. One second, he was entering the final turn in the 2011 Indianapolis 500 with the lead as a rookie and the checkered flag in sight. The next, he was into the wall, debris flying, 300,000 people screaming, the high-pitched whine of traffic around him, Dan Wheldon's car flashing past, his own No. 4 National Guard chassis sliding down the front straight across the red brick finish line and finally slamming into the wall again in Turn 1 before coming to rest.
Chaos all around, his mind still racing 220 miles per hour, Hildebrand's emotions suddenly caught up. It was over now, and he was pretty sure the big one had just gotten away.
"It's a combination of trying to come to grips with what actually just transpired,'' Hildebrand explained. "Where did we finish? What are the repercussions of this going to be? It's the biggest race of the year, one of the biggest races in the world. How am I going to play this out? Is my boss going to be pissed?''
Two years after one of the most shocking, heart-wrenching finishes in Indy 500 history, every detail has come into sharp focus for Hildebrand with the benefit of hindsight and the need to gain perspective. He got back in the saddle a year ago with an unsatisfying 14th-place finish, but the 25-year-old American put his Panther Racing car in the 10th spot in the starting grid (inside of Row 4) for today's 97th running at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"The only reason we are showing up here is to win the race,'' Hildebrand said before a recent practice session. "I am not going to be happy until we're standing in Victory Lane.''
It's not that Hildebrand is haunted by thoughts of what might have been. While getting checked in the infield care center after the crash that day, Hildebrand knew he wanted to be accountable to Panther Racing owner John Barnes, his support team and the media.
The presence of slower cars ahead of him in Turn 4 precipitated the crash, but as Hildebrand said, "I recognized that's racing, and I just crashed and came across the line second. I have to be willing to man up and say, 'Hey, I screwed this up.' That's not to say there weren't some nights I slept lousy because you have a chance to win and you don't close the deal no matter what makes that happen.''
Exactly how did it happen? Hildebrand, who has a strong background in math and science and was admitted to MIT and Cal-Berkeley (though he never attended because of his racing career), has analyzed it thoroughly.
He had run on the lead lap all day, even going to the front for five circuits midway through the 200-lap race. But Hildebrand and his team made a strategic gamble to pit for fuel under a caution period that ended with 35 laps left. Dario Franchitti, who became a three-time winner last year, did the same.
"If it went green the rest of the way and we were really conservative with our fuel saving and could still go fast enough, we thought we could make it to the end,'' Hildebrand said.
Monitoring his fuel number in the cockpit and drafting behind slower cars to save fuel, Hildebrand cycled forward as cars pitted under green. Franchitti hadn't managed his fuel situation as carefully, and when he slowed, Hildebrand easily passed with about three laps remaining. When Belgian driver Bertrand Baguette pitted, Hildebrand took the lead on lap 198.
"There was a moment of like, 'Okay, I think we're going to lead the Indy 500,' '' Hildebrand said. "But I realized I still needed to hit the fuel number and stay focused. We still might not make it even though there's two laps to go and then one to go.''
After taking the white flag signifying the final lap, the team spotter told Hildebrand he had comfortable gap over second-place Wheldon after Turn 2. "I knew that I was going fast enough and there was no way he was going to catch me,'' Hildebrand said. "Going down the back straight, I could see a couple of cars running slow. I just assumed they had just come out of the pits to get a splash or two.''
That was the case with one car, but Hildebrand later learned the No. 83 driven by rookie Charlie Kimball was almost out of gas and had slowed drastically to be running at the end.
"As I came out of Turn 3, I realized that car was going super slow,'' Hildebrand said. "I was catching him at an 80-mile-an-hour differential. It's funny looking back how cognitive the whole situation really is. It wasn't like, 'Oh, ----,' and you kind of freeze or hesitate. It was a fairly specific decision on my part.''
Hildebrand knew jamming the breaks in the middle of a corner was dangerous, and with his fuel situation, he worried about re-accelerating. Had he recognized sooner how slow Kimball was going, Hildebrand could have let off the throttle and eased by on the high side, but it was too late.
Having watched Marco Andretti get overtaken by Sam Hornish coming out of the final turn in 2006, Hildebrand told himself, "I am not going to be the guy that loses this race by pussyfooting it. That is not how this is going to go down. And so I went for the pass.''
His tires were worn slick after a long stretch without pitting, and there was a buildup of tire debris and pebbles in Turn 4 by the pit entrance. Hildebrand had handled it lap after lap, but suddenly, he was sliding toward the outer wall.
"It's a pretty helpless feeling,'' Hildebrand said. "You're doing everything with pedals and steering to try to get the car to not careen into the wall. As soon as that started to happen, my focus shifted immediately to, 'I'm going to hit the wall, but I've only got 500 yards to get to the finish line.'"
Both right-side tires bent at odd angles and were rendered useless by the impact. "I hit the wall, gathered things up and, with two wheels on it, floored it into the wall to get across the finish line,'' Hildebrand said. "I knew if the car came off the wall, there was a chance I was going to end up spinning. Because I gassed it to cross the line and had no brakes, I ended up hitting the wall in Turn 1 again after I hit the wall at Turn 4.''
As Hildebrand's car was sliding toward the finish, Wheldon passed him in the middle of the track for his second Indy victory before the caution lights came on. Had the pass come after the caution, Hildebrand would have won. But getting his car across the line preserved second place and $1.065 million in purse money.
Once out of the infirmary, Hildebrand rushed to apologize to Barnes. "He gave me a big hug,'' Hildebrand said of the owner. "That gave me the confidence to address the media and deal with everything else.''
Five months later, Hildebrand was caught up in another crash in Las Vegas, suffering an injured sternum. Wheldon was killed.
It's tempting to wonder if racing karma was in play at Indy, but Hildebrand said, "I don't ask, 'Is there some reason this chain of events happened?' I look back and say, 'No. We were here. We had a shot to win it.'
"I'm still upset we didn't win the race. But looking at it from a sentimental perspective, Dan was somebody that loved [Indy] arguably more than anybody. So, if it was going to happen anyway, he would be the guy I think you'd want to have won it.''