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Hildebrand Loses On Final Lap Of Indianapolis 500

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Hildebrand Loses On Final Lap Of Indianapolis 500


Hildebrand Loses On Final Lap Of Indianapolis 500

Hildebrand Loses On Final Lap Of Indianapolis 500

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

On the final lap of the Indianapolis 500 Sunday, J.R. Hildebrand was in the lead until the final turn when he slammed into a wall. He steered his mangled car across the finish line on three wheels — but came in second to Dan Wheldon. Hildebrand tells NPR's Melissa Block about the race.


Yesterday, on the final lap of the Indianapolis 500, J.R. Hildebrand had it made. He had a four-second lead and nobody was going to catch him. It was a perfect story, a 23-year-old rookie driver winning the Indy 500 in a car sponsored by the National Guard on Memorial Day weekend. It was perfect until the final turn.

(Soundbite of Indy 500 Race)

Unidentified Man #1: J.R. Hildebrand hit more traffic. He's got to get around over that traffic. One hundred years...

Unidentified Man #2: No. No. He hit the wall. (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, my goodness.

BLOCK: Hildebrand slammed into the wall. He steered his mangled car across the finish line but came in second to Dan Wheldon.

And J.R. Hildebrand joins me now from Indianapolis. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Mr. J.R. HILDEBRAND (Race Car Driver, National Guard Panther Racing): Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me on.

BLOCK: And I'm sure you've been thinking about this over and over and over what happened on that final turn.

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Oh, I guess it's a little bit of conglomeration of different dynamics. I was trying to outrun Dan Wheldon, who was the next guy around, and unfortunately caught up some lap traffic. And this one car that was actually running out of gas but had stayed on the track was running significantly slower than the rest of the field, and so I ended up catching that car.

My two options at that point were either I'm going to have to slow down all the way to his pace and risk that I'm going to get caught and get passed down the front straight away or try to get around him. I made the split second decision, I suppose, to go for it and try to get around and just got caught up in that kind of a gray area where dirt and garbage and, you know, chunks of the tire and stuff that hold up to the race gets stuck.

And once the car gets up into that gray area, you effectively lose all grip. And so my front - I got my right front tire up into that gray stuff. And as soon as that happened, you know, I kept turning the wheel and the car just kept going straight.

BLOCK: You're describing this all so clearly. I mean, it must have just been a split second, and you have time to think about what's happening. What's going through your mind?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Yeah. I mean, you know, that's sort of what racing is all about, being able to - or having to make that split second decision, you know? And so at the time, there's probably a few choice words that I can't say over the radio that were going through my head as this all was going on. But, you know, in the end, you're trying to, you know, we're trying to go for the win.

BLOCK: How fast were you going when you crashed?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: We're, I mean, you know, certainly over 200 miles an hour.

BLOCK: What does the impact feel like when you crash like that?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: You know, the cars and the tracks these days are actually quite safe. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, some 10 or 15 years ago, developed a wall that has some, you know, sort of give to it. You know, certainly the initial hit was probably a bit of a shock. But at that point, you know, my mind certainly was on other things. And as soon as I hit the wall and got the car back straight, I immediately started thinking, OK. I got to get to the finish line. I was full throttle trying to drive the thing against the wall all the way down to the finish line to try to finish as high up as I possibly could at that stage.

BLOCK: You know, I saw images of you after the race. You were standing there with your hands on your hips shaking your head, just not believing, I guess, what had just happened. How do you get it out of your system now? How do you keep from replaying that little moment over and over and over again?

Mr. HILDEBRAND: You know, the thing for me, you know, particularly in this situation, you know, racing is much more of a team sport than, I think, you know, your average person might give it credit for. You know, you've got 30 or 40 people on an Indy car team, you know, just trying to work on one car to get it as fast as it possibly can be.

There's certainly some personal disappointment that, you know, I didn't win the race. But the real heartbreak for me is for the guys, for the crew, for the guys that worked so hard, got off on the right strategy and gave me a race car that, you know, I could be in a position to win the Indy 500.

And then on a higher level than that, you know, running for the National Guard on Memorial Day weekend, we have a tremendous number of, you know, servicemen and women out of the race track that we take care of every weekend that we're out at the track, we've got wounded warriors. And that really, for me, you know, I felt like they deserved it.

BLOCK: J.R. Hildebrand, I wonder if you've been getting phone calls from other drivers, offering advice, maybe saying, I've been there, I've made a rookie mistake, and it'll be fine. You'll do great.

Mr. HILDEBRAND: We all, you know, after the Indy 500 every year, all the drivers kind of get together and go out at night and all that kind of stuff. And I got a big group hug from a couple of the guys yesterday. And, you know, I've had a great - the great fortune of, you know, having some very well-respected drivers as friends that have kind of been around the block.

And they certainly haven't been in a position like this in the Indy 500, you'd think, but you know, have been in this kind of a position at some point in their careers. That's certainly been a little bit of a consolation, you know, in the end.

BLOCK: J.R. Hildebrand, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. HILDEBRAND: Thanks very much.

BLOCK: J.R. Hildebrand, the rookie driver who almost won the Indy 500 yesterday but crashed on the final turn.

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