INDIANAPOLIS — JR Hildebrand lost $1.5 million (all figures U.S.) in the last mile of the Indianapolis 500.
He was leading the race heading into the final turn on the final lap when he went high to pass a slower car and slammed into the safety wall, allowing Dan Wheldon to win the 100-year anniversary race.
Wheldon received $2,567,255 for the victory while Hildebrand earned $1,064,895 for his second-place finish. The total purse was $13,509,485.
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Hildebrand’s loss remained as much the story as Wheldon’s win when the checks were handed out Monday night at the Indianapolis 500 Victory Celebration. James Hinchcliffe, who finished 29th, perhaps had the best perspective for his fellow rookie.
“JR, never forget man, you’ve got to do 799 corners perfectly to put yourself in that position,” Hinchcliffe said. “I know that didn’t end the way you wanted, but that was a tremendous effort. That was the rookie drive of the decade right there.”
Even Bryan Herta, the owner of the team Wheldon drove for, complimented Hildebrand’s grace in defeat.
“You’re not going to be defined by the result, you’re going to be defined by the way you handled it.”
Hildebrand said he learned a hard lesson about the track, one that Al Unser, Jr., mentioned earlier in the night.
“It came down to a split-second decision,” Hildebrand said. “Am I going to go for it here and go around and try to make this work on the high side, or am I going to risk slowing down significantly in into a corner to stay behind the 83 (Charlie Kimball), who was trying to get out of the way as much as possible? But it is, as Mr. Unser so eloquently put it, a one-groove track.”
As for Wheldon, he entered the season without a ride or a team, and the Indy 500 was his first race of the season.
“This is certainly more than I made in the unemployment line,” he joked. “I think I’ll be the man when I go back there tomorrow.”
Wheldon, who started sixth, became just the 18th driver to win the race at least twice. He also triumphed in 2005 on his way to a series championship. Wheldon has six top-four finishes in nine career Indianapolis 500 starts, including second, second and first in the last three years, respectively.
He was emotional after the victory, something fourth-place finisher Tony Kanaan noticed.
“We always make fun of Helio (Castroneves) crying,” Kanaan said. “You were crying exactly like him.”
Wheldon made $1,537,805 when he won in 2005.
Herta spoke before Wheldon, and Kanaan and 2010 winner Dario Franchitti doused him with a bucket of water.
It was a race for small teams. Hildebrand drives for Panther Racing. The pole sitter, Alex Tagliani, drives for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. The bigger teams, Penske and Ganassi, struggled off and on throughout the month.
Tagliani was fast all month, but crashed and finished 28th.
“Sometimes, this race, you need a little luck,” he said. “The stars need to be aligned for you to go through 500 miles, and it was not our day.”
Danica Patrick finished 10th and seemed ready to return to Indy next year, despite rumours that she’s heading to NASCAR full time.
“I really hope that I get a chance to win this one year, because it’s a beautiful event, it’s such a special place,” she said.
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