Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Indy dishes up another dose of pain, ecstasy

Sacramento, California – For 50 years, I’ve heard it: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway can be so cruel, and at the same time, it can provide an Indy 500 driver with immeasurable joy.

Sunday’s centennial running of the Indianapolis 500 illustrated these extremes yet again.

The last corner mistake of rookie J.R. Hildebrand – hitting the Turn Four wall within coasting distance of winning the race -- will stay with the youngster for a lifetime. Anyone with a drop of compassion hopes that Hildebrand will someday claim an Indy 500 victory, but even that won’t erase the shocking scene served up by the cruel mistress known as IMS.

It’s hard to blame Hildebrand. Think of it: He’s within seconds of winning the 500 in storybook fashion. Like any 500 participant, his pulse is far north of 100 beats per minute, with added juice likely provided with the realization that he’s about to snare the win of all wins. There’s a slower car sitting right in the middle of the groove in Turn Four. He knows his fuel is very low, and his team has likely been telling him that eventual winner Dan Wheldon is lurking just behind him.

That’s a perfect-storm formula for a mistake. Even a hardened veteran could have made it.

Despite the pain one feels for Hildebrand, it’s no sin to feel so very good for Wheldon. He’s long professed his love of the Indy 500 and the Speedway. His sterling record at IMS alone is worthy of a full-time INDYCAR series ride, and yet he has none as of this writing.

A one-off win, you say? A win for the ages, I say.

Drivers who gambled on fuel and prayed for a late-race caution likewise felt Indy’s sting on Sunday. The Target Chip Ganassi Racing cars of 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon and two-time 500 champ Dario Franchitti were obviously the best, but being the best has never guaranteed a driver a first-place turn under the checkers at the 102-year-old racetrack.

Franchitti admitted after the race that he was “devastated” by falling a few gallons short of a third Indy win. I’m sure he did feel devastated, but he’s just one driver in a long, gray line of heartbreak. IMS has dealt some cruel cards almost from the beginning.

In the second Indy 500 in 1912, driver Ralph DePalma led 196 laps but his crippled engine failed him just two laps from the end. Joe Dawson went on to lead the last two laps and the race.

For 99 years, Dawson’s two laps at the front was the record low for a race winner. Wheldon broke that Sunday by leading one – the last – lap.

From 1912 on, an assortment of mechanical failures and pit stop gaffes snatched victory away from dozens of drivers over the decades.

Parnelli Jones had a $6 bearing failure less than 10 miles from the finish in 1967, killing the last act of a turbine car that had crushed the field from the start.

In 1992, Michael Andretti put in one of the most dominating performances in 500 history but suffered engine failure oh-so-close to the finish. Al Unser Jr. went on to win in a car that was earlier running speeds double digits lower than Andretti’s car.

A check of race history shows that about half of the 95 Indianapolis 500s run to date easily could have been won by a driver – with just one break, not a miracle.

The race is so, so hard to win. And that is as it should be.

The comedy-tragedy of Indy is constant, and the old track reminded us yet again on Sunday that it does drama like nowhere else. That’s why the Indianapolis 500 has been around for 100 years and counting.

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