By: Spencer Neff
November 27, 2019 | 1:12 PM
With 2019 drawing to a close, Open-Wheels is taking a look back at some of the memorable moments over the past decade. This week, we’ll take a look back at the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
Before the race began, much of the focus centered around the centennial of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” By the time the checkered flag flew, the finish would become one of the most iconic moments in the race’s history.
Wheldon takes second “500” after Hildebrand’s last-turn crash
In 2009, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began a three-year celebration of its “Centennial Era.” Meant to commemorate its 1909 founding, the time had been filled with a number of tributes to the Speedway’s gloried past.
On May 29, the celebration would culminate with the 95th running of the Indianapolis 500. With six races (1917-18 and 1942-45) canceled due to ongoing World Wars, the 2011 edition was recognized as the 100th anniversary running.
After running at or near the top of the charts during the early practices, Alex Tagliani backed up his effort on pole day. With a four-lap average of 227.472 mph, the popular veteran earned his first pole since the 2003 Champ Car event at the Milwaukee Mile.
Less than 24 hours later, Bump Day would provide even more excitement and drama.
With their four full-time drivers not locked, Andretti Autosport rallied as Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti made the field, with Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe also making his way in. A valiant effort also netted 2010 fourth-place driver Alex Lloyd and Dale Coyne Racing a spot among the 33.
As with all Bump Days, there were those on the short end of things when the final gun sounded at 6:00 PM.
A year after their massive accident on the last lap of the race, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway failed to qualify in their Andretti entries. Four days later, Andretti would strike a deal with A.J. Foyt Racing and Hunter-Reay took over Bruno Junqueira’s qualified car to start 33rd.
At the start of the race, middle front row starter Scott Dixon jumped out to an early lead. Looking for his second win in four years, the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver stayed out front for the opening five laps.
Afterward, Tagliani took over and led through the first caution on Lap 20. After KV Racing’s Takuma Sato crashed in Turn 2, the new double-file restarts were tested. A lap later, rookie James Hinchcliffe and Sato’s teammate EJ Viso crashed in Turn 1.
Following the two early incidents, 101 of the next 115 laps were run under green. As the race progressed, several veteran drivers made their way up front. On Lap 73, Dixon began a 26-lap stint as the leader. As he matched his earlier run that stretched from
Among those drivers taking their turn at the lead were outside front row starter Oriol Servia and two-time winner Dario Franchitti. After running out of fuel on his Pole Day run, Franchitti started ninth as he looked for his third win in five years.
With 53 laps to go, the dream month for Tagliani came to an abrupt end with a crash in Turn 4. Additionally, the caution ended a 41-lap green-flag run, the longest of the day.
Three laps after the ensuing restart on Lap 155, Briscoe and Townsend Bell collided in Turn 1. After just the second multi-car accident of the day, it would mark the final yellow flag of the afternoon. With a long green-flag run ending the 200-lap race, fuel strategy came into play.
Within the final 20 laps, Patrick and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Bertrand Baguette made their way to the lead.
On Lap 198, Rookie JR Hildebrand made his way to the front of the field. Driving for Panther Racing, Hildebrand was poised to make up for the team’s runner-up finishes the previous three years. Unfortunately, he would not do so. Entering Turn 4, Hildebrand went to the outside lane to avoid lapped traffic.
As he did so, his car drifted up the marbles and into the retaining wall. With several hundred yards left, Hildebrand limped his car across the front straightaway.
Seconds later, the No. 98 car of Dan Wheldon sped past. Driving a one-off entry for Bryan Herta, the 2005 winner would sneak by Hildebrand and earn his second Indianapolis 500 victory.
After finishing runner-up in 2009 and 2010, Wheldon finally won again in 2011 – and bested his former team in the process. Despite the gut-wrenching finish, Hildebrand earned Rookie of the Year after his runner-up finish while leading seven laps.
In third, Graham Rahal earned his career-best finish in the race 25 years after his father Bobby won the race. In fourth, Tony Kanaan made a valiant charge from 22nd on the grid but was still left seeking his first “500.” After leading a race-high 73 laps, Dixon finished fifth.
It would also mark the final “500” for John Andretti, Davey Hamilton and Paul Tracy. Following a six-year hiatus, Danica Patrick would later end her motorsports career at the 2018 race.
Following his improbable win, Wheldon was without a ride for much of 2011. Instead, he spent much of the remainder of the year in broadcasting and developing the new Indy Car set for a 2012 release.
Tragically, Wheldon lost his life in an accident during the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16. For 2012, IndyCar renamed the new Dallara chassis the “DW12” in his honor.
Five years to the day after Wheldon’s triumph, car owner Bryan Herta used a similar strategy to net Alexander Rossi the 2016 win. Like 2011, the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was won by No. 98.
Note: Thank you as always to everyone who participated in our poll on Twitter to select this week’s IndyCar Flashback. Look for more IndyCar Flashbacks and Fan Votes throughout the offseason and in 2020.
Header Image By Ron McQueeney/INDYCAR