Dan Wheldon takes the traditional drink of milk in Victory Lane after winning the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. (John Sommers II / Reuters / May 29, 2011)
Reporting from Indianapolis—
Every driver in the Indianapolis 500 gives some nod to the race's famed history and tradition, but perhaps none treats the race and Indianapolis Motor Speedway with more reverence than Dan Wheldon.
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So it wasn't surprising that moments after the 100th anniversary race reached its chaotic, did-you-see-that climax Sunday, the British driver's voice cracked as he held back tears.
"I just kept pushing," said Wheldon, 32, who doesn't have a full-time ride in the Izod IndyCar Series this year but was hired just to drive in the sport's crown-jewel race.
And as a student of Indy's history, Wheldon knows that anything can happen at the Brickyard, and on this day the unexpected gave Wheldon his second Indianapolis 500 victory and left a 23-year-old Californian crushed with disappointment.
J.R. Hildebrand, a rookie from Sausalito, was leading the race on the final lap at the 2.5-mile track in front a crowd of more than 200,000, a dramatic turn of events in its own right. But Hildebrand drove too hard into the fourth turn and crashed the side of his car into the outside wall.
Graham Rahal, son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, finished third; Tony Kanaan was fourth and Scott Dixon was fifth.
Showing remarkable composure in his post-race interview, Hildebrand explained that he had driven into Turn 4 on the high side of the track earlier in the race without issue, and thought he could on the final lap as he approached a slower car.
But the outside lane always is treacherous because there are bits of rubber from the cars' tires, dubbed "marbles," that collect there and can cause trouble when a car drives through them at 200 mph. The danger is exacerbated when the car driving through has worn tires of its own, as Hildrebrand's did.
"There were a bunch of marbles on the outside," he said. "Once I got up there, there wasn't a lot I could do. Is it a move I would do again? No."
Coincidentally, Hildebrand drives for Panther Racing, the team for which Wheldon had driven in 2009 and 2010 when he finished second in the Indy 500 in both years.
Wheldon's first Indy 500 win came in 2005 when he also won the series championship for the old Andretti Green Racing team.
As he followed Hildebrand on the final lap, Wheldon said suddenly "out of the corner of my eye I saw him hit the fence."
"At that point I knew it was mine," Wheldon said, but added that "I was going to drive that thing like I stole it until I saw the checkered flag."
Wheldon announced his Indy 500 deal in April with a team led by veteran driver Bryan Herta with backers that included the legendary Agajanian racing family of Southern California. Wheldon's car number, in fact, was the "98" long used by the Agajanians.
"I think my contract expires at midnight tonight," Wheldon said. "I just knew when I started this race I wanted to do everything in my power to deliver a win."
Asked whether he would drive additional races this season, Wheldon said, "That's one for the owners."
For much of the race it appeared the Target Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Dixon and Dario Franchitti might decide the race.
Dixon, who won the Indy 500 in 2008, led a race-high 73 laps and Franchitti, the reigning 500 winner and series champion, led 51.
But in the closing stages, as various cars had to pit for fuel, other drivers such as Rahal, Kanaan and Danica Patrick came to the fore, as did Bertrand Baguette, a Belgian driver who led 11 laps. But they all eventually had to stop for fuel.
Patrick started 25th but climbed into the top 10 and, as others made pit stops, she led 10 laps, the first time she has led at Indy since 2005, when she nearly won the race in her rookie year. She finished 10th on Sunday.
"You're just hoping for that break" while in front, Patrick said.
Marco Andretti, her teammate at the Andretti Autosport team, finished ninth and can sympathize with Hildebrand.
As a rookie in 2006, Andretti lost the Indy 500 when he was passed in the last 100 yards by Sam Hornish Jr. Andretti and Hildebrand are the only two drivers to lose the lead of the storied race on the final lap.
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