What a finish! If you would have asked J.R. Hildebrand from Sausalito, CA before the race would he be happy to come in 2nd place in his first Indianapolis 500, he would have said of course, thrilled. But sports can change things. So fast forward a couple of hours and J.R. was coming around the final turn, of the final lap, of the 100th Indy 500, in the National Guard car, on Memorial Day weekend, in the lead and then it happened. He went high to get around a lapped car and also to ensure he could roll to the end if he ran out of gas. His car got into the marbles, the small pieces of rubber that come off the tires during the race and his car didn’t turn. It slid up right into the outside wall. J.R. managed to keep it straight and was able to limp across the finish line, but not before, Dan Wheldon, who was running second, was able to catch and pass J.R. for the win.
How unbelievably exciting would that have been to be coming around the final turn in 1st place in the Indianapolis 500? Then, how disappointing must that have been, knowing just how close you were to being an Indy 500 winner? Again, I was impressed with the amount of class demonstrated by a lot of race car drivers. J.R. genuinely seemed upset, not for himself, but for the team and especially for his sponsor, the National Guard. He said they had worked so hard for this, and he felt like he had let them down. Sports in general and racing in particular has a way of teaching you lessons and playing with your emotions. J.R. is only 23 and hopefully has a lot of Indy 500 races in his future but I bet he never forgets the lessons he learned in this one. Congratulations to J.R. Hildebrand for a thrilling race and especially for the classy way he handled himself after such a heartbreaking finish!
To read the entire transcript of J.R.’s post race press conference go to www.pantherracing.com.
The following was released by his team after the race:
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – (May 29, 2011) – National Guard Panther Racing rookie driver JR Hildebrand led the 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 on three different occasions and came within a few hundred yards of winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing before finishing in second position Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Hildebrand had taken the lead of the race for the third time on Lap 198 and appeared poised to capture Panther’s first ‘500’ victory until the No. 4 car got into the marbles while trying to pass the lapped car of Charlie Kimball on the outside of Turn Four and hit the wall. Despite the damage the car rolled past the Yard of Bricks in second position behind race winner, and former Panther driver, Dan Wheldon.
The result marks the fourth consecutive runner-up finish for Panther Racing in the Indianapolis 500 with three different drivers; Vitor Meira (2008), Wheldon (2009-2010) and now Hildebrand (2011). The finish helps Hildebrand escalate eight positions in the IZOD IndyCar Series points standings to eighth position overall and puts some separation in the Rookie of the Year battle with James Hinchcliffe, as Hildebrand now leads the rookie chase by 33 points.
While running 11th on Lap 165 Hildebrand followed then-leader Dario Franchitti into the pits in hopes of stretching their fuel mileage. It was reminiscent of the Indianapolis 500 from a season ago when both Franchitti and Wheldon (then the Panther driver) were both desperately saving fuel in the final laps in hopes of the race before Mike Conway’s frightening crash concluded the race as the No. 4 car was quickly catching Franchitti. This season, as cars quickly began to peel into pit late, Hildebrand was able to catch an overtake Franchitti on Lap 196 for second position. Two laps later then-leader Bertrand Baguette had to pit for fuel and Hildebrand was at the lead of the field for the third time Sunday and threelaps from a victory at Indianapolis.
But as Hildebrand entered the final turn of the final lap he caught Kimball, a lap down, at an inopportune time at the center of Turn Four. Hildebrand attempted to pass Kimball on the outside but when his right-side tires got into the marbles, the No. 4 National Guard car quicklyshot towards the outside retaining wall and the 23-year-old made significant contact with the wall. He was able to keep the car straight but Wheldon wasable to pass before Hildebrand’s damaged car reached the Yard of Bricks.
Hildebrand led the race three separate times for a total of seven laps. The last, and only, time Panther has led at Indianapolis was in 2008 with Meira led 13 laps before finishing runner-up that year.
Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka driver Buddy Rice finish 18th in his first start with Panther in the team’s No. 44 entry. Rice, the 2004 Indy winner who was making a return to the field after a two-year hiatus, started in the seventh position but fell a lap down mid-way through the race after an ill-timed caution. Rice had been running well inside the Top Ten for a majority of the race after leading the team from his seventh-place starting position. The Fuzzy’s Vodka team had a caution flag thrown on track nearly immediately after both their second (Lap 60) and third (Lap 99) pit stops. The No. 44 team fell a lap down after its fourth stop of the day on Lap 137 and with Rice fighting a loose racecar the Fuzzy’s Vodka team was unable to make up significant ground.
In addition to Panther finishing runner-up in four straight races here, the team has finished inside the Top Ten in seven consecutive Indianapolis 500 Mile Races dating back to 2005.
JR Hildebrand, driver of the No. 4 National Guard Dallara Honda said:
“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 the National Guard as our partner. It’s one of those things, as a driver, you never really know what you’re going to expect. We knew we had a fast racecar. 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 myfirst 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’tgoing 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. 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.”
Buddy Rice, No. 44 Panther Racing Dallara Honda had this to say:
“The Fuzzy’s Vodka car was sensitive and we hadn’t had that all month. We kept getting caught out on the yellows and then we got the car loose and that didn’t help us and we got ourselves backed into a corner. On that side of things it’s a bit disappointing for our guys, but for Panther to still finish second and have a car out front was good for the National Guard car. Our car just got overly sensitive and we’re all disappointed but hopefully we’ll get another opportunity to run together and be able to do some more races together.
“(On working with JR Hildebrand this month) JR’s great. Americans just don’t get top flight jobs and he’s gotten an opportunity to drive for a top team and he’s making the most of it. Obviously he hasn’t got all the results he wanted but that’s just going to come with time andexperience and just getting used to everything. He’ll continue to get used to the team and they’ll continue to get used to him. He’s got a bright future and he’s just got to stick it out and there are always some tough rides on the roller coaster. But working together’s been great. He’s receptive and wants to learn, and he’s definitely not afraid to stand on the gas – that’s for sure. You can see that at a place like this and he’s done a great job all month long.”
John Barnes, Panther Racing Managing Partner & CEO added:
“We have to hold our heads up high. JR put us in a position to win. He was told the fuel we needed to finish was almost impossible, and he did it. I couldn’t be prouder of him today. He did a helluva job today and I can tell you what – I’m so proud of that kid for the way he’s driven that racecar and how he represents the National Guard. He’s got nothing to be upset about or ashamed of. I know there are a lot of Soldiers around the world watching this race and I hope they enjoyed the show we put on today. We’re in the entertainment business, and the people that are over in Iraq or Afghanistan risking their lives for our freedom, that’s what we concentrate on.”
www.JRHildebrandRacing.com – www.pantherracing.com – www.NationalGuard.com