Postlude: Indy 500 from Marin County, California
Dateline: 2011 Indianapolis 500
Interview with runner-up J.R. Hildebrand of Sausalito:
“Obviously, we decided we were going to take an alternate fuel strategy. If we could save fuel at the beginning of the stint, we could make it with that sort of extended caution. We were looking good to be able to do that. You don’t have a lot of time to look up at the podium driving down the front straight at 230.
I was entirely aware of where we were at until five or six to go, when it started to shuffle out. I had just gotten by Dario and was informed that we were leading the race.
At that point, it was a fuel and kind of tire strategy game trying to get the car to the end. We were looking OK on fuel, but obviously having to run rather slow from a relative pace standpoint to keep the mileage where we needed it to be.
On the last lap, the cars that previously been cycling around in the lead that had pitted were all coming out of the pits and were up to speed. I was aware there were some cars coming with some heat towards the end of the race, like the 98 and the 9 were the two guys quickest toward the end.
Certainly, I was aware of the fact that I had some gap on them. But I then, on the last lap, started catching some other cars coming out of the pits as I was cycling through (Turns) 3 and 4. I guess as it happened, I ended up catching the 83, I think, going into Turn 4, a fairly inopportune area.
I quickly decided, knowing that the cars in second and third were coming pretty strong, that rather than downshifting a bunch, you know, sort of 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.
I guess just with the tires as worn as they were, the run being as long, that sort of stint of the race being as long as it was, there were a bunch of marbles on the outside. Once I got up there, there wasn’t a lot I could do.
Q: We can only imagine what sort of emotions you’re going through. How bad do you feel?
HILDEBRAND: I mean, this is not really about me at this point. You always show up to try to win. But for me, my disappointment is for the team and for National Guard as a sponsor. It’s one of the those things, as a driver, you never really know what you’re going to expect. We knew we had a fast race car. We knew if the race came to us, we may be in a position to sort of finish top three, top five, wherever that might be, depending on how it panned out.
But as a driver, I’m smart enough as a rookie to not expect, no matter what’s going to happen, I’m going to come to the Indianapolis 500 my first year and be in a position to win the race.
As it turned out, we most certainly were. We were in a position that we should have won the race. So for me, it’s not so much that I’m pissed off or disappointed that my face isn’t going to go on the Borg-Warner. Just with this team, Panther Racing has finished second three years in a row now with the National Guard sponsorship, I felt like we had an incredible opportunity to get on a big stage for those guys.
Q: As you made that move around the 83, suddenly you realized you were in the marbles, what was the thought?
HILDEBRAND: Is this over the public PA (smiling)?
HILDEBRAND: There were a few choice words going through my head at that moment, really fast and frequently until I hit the wall. They were still going through my head there, I guess.
I guess I was fortunate to have hit the wall far enough around that I could still — I mean, I was like Flat Chad after I hit the wall to try to get the thing across the start/finish line.
It’s a helpless feeling driving the race car when you get in a situation like that. It can happen on road courses, it can happen at other places. It’s most extreme at a place like this where it truly does turn into a one-groove track towards the end of the-race. That was certainly my mistake to have judged it otherwise.
Q: This is four straight second places for the Panther team. What were John’s words to you at the end?
HILDEBRAND: John was great. I mean, he’s just so proud of this group of guys for putting up such a tremendous effort throughout the day. That was certainly a welcomed face and emotion for me walking down the pit lane. Sometimes you never know what you’re going to get from a team when you’ve just lost the Indy 500 by a spot or whatever.
But he’s a real driver’s owner from that perspective. He’s ultracompetitive, but at the same time he can understand I think the emotions of what the driver goes through, as well.
Q: You kept the car going. Did you still think you might have a shot of getting there before Wheldon caught you?
HILDEBRAND: I did for a second. The mirrors on our cars really aren’t that great. It was tough to tell down the back straight. I took a glimpse to see where he was at. He wasn’t anywhere near the near vicinity around the car, where the mirrors are more suited to be able to see. There was certainly a split-second where I thought, “Oh, shoot, maybe I’ll pull a Terry Labonte at Martinsville or Bristol or whatever it was that year (smiling).” Obviously, no such luck.
Q: How close did you think Wheldon was to you on the back straight? You said you couldn’t see him. Never mind the finish, would you do the same move again? Would you do it differently?
HILDEBRAND: Well, I mean, to answer the first part of your question, I knew coming out of Turn 2 that he was in the short chute between 1 and 2. At that stage, I obviously knew that he was rather close.
In terms of distance on the track, that’s a little bit tough. Spotter could have said car lengths to give me maybe a little bit more information about where he was at. But I knew that he was close, relatively close, and I knew that he was going a lot quicker than we were, as well.
Then to the second part of your question. Is it a move that I would do again? No. I think the only reason I did it in the first place was that it had worked at different stages earlier in the race. But in hindsight, I think with the tires being as used as they were at that stage, that last run after the caution being for so long, it’s obviously a learning experience for me, that the marble buildup is quite severe.
Q: As you were sliding down the fence toward the finish line, was there anything you were able to do to hurry the car along?
HILDEBRAND: I was flat on the gas, man. What are you gonna do at that point?
HILDEBRAND: I mean, after I hit the wall, I was not slowing down to the start/finish line. Obviously, I got to the point that I couldn’t steer it anymore. I was making every effort at that point to try to lessen the blow.
Q: It’s been an odd month in that the Penskes haven’t performed. Ganassi was there. Panther has taken on the biggest teams, like Andretti. How do you feel about the little guy coming on? What was it about May that allowed the little guys this year to compete against the big guys
HILDEBRAND: I mean, I could give you a fairly complicated answer to that in terms of what I would really say. I think in a general sense, and this is just speculation on my part, it has nothing to do with anything.
But, you know, I think that with these cars, we’ve gotten to a point that, yeah, you can kind of rub on them and make changes all day long. But they’re effectively kind of the similar formula that we’ve been running for quite some time here.
I guess as I’ve experienced a little bit on the road-course side, it’s not difficult to overcomplicate what you’re doing. In the end, it’s still just another race car.
I can’t say that’s what’s made other teams do more poorly than you might expect, but I think that’s a part of what’s allowed us to continue staying up toward the top of the sheets all month. We had a fairly simple outlook on what we were going to do, and we stuck to a game plan.
I’d certainly give some credit to Buddy Rice coming along for this weekend, that he’s obviously quite a low-anxiety personality. Between the two of us, it’s kept the mood of the garage area sort of relaxed. I think that’s an environment that you make better decisions in, so…
That would be my two cents.
Q: You seem remarkably composed for someone who lost the Indy 500 by crashing on the last corner.
HILDEBRAND: I’m pretending well, I guess (smiling).
Q: It must be churning you up.
HILDEBRAND: Yes. If that’s a question, yeah.
You know, like I said, it’s not really like a personal thing right now. Maybe down the road it will turn into a personal thing that I’ll just be pissed off at myself for not doing whatever. In the end, it’s really more about the people, for me at least, this team has worked so hard, it’s such an integral part of being here at Indianapolis and being successful at Indianapolis, that’s really where the sort of heartbreak is for me right now.
I certainly wasn’t planning my victory speech. But being here on Memorial Day weekend, driving the National Guard car with so many servicemen and women out here for this weekend, it’s really a treat to be a part of that. It would have been an outstanding feat to be able to get up on the top step of the podium for them, as well.