The 2011 Indianapolis 500 was a special event in motor racing with a highly anticipated build-up and a finish that somehow topped the pre-race hype. A few months later, the race took on greater meaning when its victor passed away at a racetrack just over 1,800 miles from his final triumph.
Dan Wheldon won the 95th Indianapolis 500 driving for Brian Herta Autosport following consecutive runner-up finishes for Panther Racing in 2009 and 2010. By taking a chance with Herta and BHA co-owner Steve Newey, Wheldon avoided missing the centennial edition of the race he so dearly loved.
Dubbed the 100th anniversary Indy 500, 2011’s edition of the 500 Mile Race would only be topped in pomp and circumstance by 2016’s 100th running.
The month itself featured a slew of interesting moments that included future series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay being bumped from the field, as well as Danica Patrick leading the race later than any female driver ever has.
The grand finale, though, came in the race’s closing laps as Patrick, Bertrand Baguette, J.R. Hildebrand, and eventually Wheldon, all found their way to the front.
“On the radio with 20 to go, they said: ‘Listen, this is the deal. Some people are going to try to make it on fuel. You’re one of the guys that can make it to the end. But you’ve got to go and you have to make sure you get everything out of the car that you possibly can,'” said Wheldon on May 30, the day following the race.
“So I said to myself at that point, I’m going to move the weight jacker every lap to optimize every single corner, adjust the roll bars to be able to just maximize everything.
“I was able to catch traffic perfectly without having to lift. They said that there was one person that potentially could make it, I believe. So that made me even more hungry. I started pressing the overtake that Honda brought to the series.”
The driver Wheldon had to worry about was (at that time) two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti. The Scottish driver was running a similar fuel strategy to Wheldon and company for most of the day, and once Franchitti blinked on the fuel gamble, Herta knew the team had an opening.
“We were on the same strategy of Dario, (who) had been going longer than us on the pits all day long,” Herta recalls. “When we saw him coming in, it kind of made up our mind to stay out because we knew we couldn’t beat him on fuel mileage. We had to try something different.”
In the race’s retrospect, many forget how close the fuel mileage would be for Wheldon considering the dramatic finish that would ensue. Newey was standing in the middle of high stress and emotion during those final stages and the gamble wasn’t lost on him.
“There was a lot of pressure in the pit area. A lot of double-checking and rechecking, recalculating our fuel figures. The guys were under a lot of pressure, made some great decisions,” said Newey.
“There (were) a few minutes there where I thought it might not have been the right decision, but thankfully it was. The guys did a great job… great pit stops all day. For a one-off team to pull off the pit stops that we did is a real testament to their dedication and their hard work.”
Once the decision was made, the fate of the team’s result rested solely in Wheldon’s hands. As Patrick peeled from the lead on lap 188, Baguette ran at the point though lap 197. When he made a dash for the pits on lap 198, it was once again a Panther Racing car making a bid for the checkers.
Battling a conservative fuel strategy in his own right, Hildebrand had his hands full as the race leader with two to go.
“I was entirely aware of where we were at until five or six to go, when it started to shuffle out,” Hildebrand states. “I had just gotten by Dario and was informed that we were leading the race. At that point, it was a fuel and kind of tire strategy game trying to get the car to the end. We were looking OK on fuel, but obviously having to run rather slow from a relative pace standpoint to keep the mileage where we needed it to be.
“On the last lap, the cars that previously been cycling around in the lead that had pitted were all coming out of the pits and were up to speed. I was aware there were some cars coming with some heat towards the end of the race, like the 98 and the 9 were the two guys quickest toward the end.”
Indeed, Wheldon was climbing quickly with Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon not far behind should either of them make a mistake. Hildebrand successfully navigated lap 198, and then lap 199.
Taking the white flag on lap 200, ESPN commentators Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear try to summarize the weight of a would-be victory for the rookie Hildebrand, Panther Racing and their sponsor, the National Guard.
“The 23-year-old from Sausalito, California… listen to the crowd cheer him on!” says Reid. “And how fitting for the National Guard car to win, if he can indeed do that,” Goodyear adds.
As that final lap unfolds, Hildebrand screams down the backstretch while Wheldon seems poised for an unprecedented third straight runner-up finish. The duo enter Turns 3 and 4, Hildebrand first and then Wheldon second.
“On that last lap I was trying to deal with bears between Turns 3 and 4,” Wheldon recounted in the post-race press conference. “And in the corner of
my eye, I saw him hit the fence. I just carried on by.
Hildebrand encounters the lapped car of Charlie Kimball on the entry to Turn 4. An experienced driver at Indianapolis would have lifted and gotten in line behind the slower Kimball, but certainly that was a tall ask for a rookie leading the Indianapolis 500 on the final corner of the final lap.
Hildebrand goes high to avoid Kimball, eventually washing up through the debris-laced second lane and into the wall.
“I quickly decided, knowing that the cars in second and third were coming pretty strong, that rather than downshifting a bunch, you know, sort of risking slowing the car way down coming onto the front straight to stay behind him, I thought I’ll breathe it and go to the high side because it was a move I used earlier in the race to get around some slower cars in a fairly similar situation,” Hildebrand recalled.
“I guess just with the tires as worn as they were, the run being as long, that sort of stint of the race being as long as it was, there were a bunch of marbles on the outside. Once I got up there, there wasn’t a lot I could do.”
Wheldon’s perseverance even in the face of what was going to be another heartbreaking second-place finish won him the race. “As Bryan says, you have to make it to the bricks with a car that can go forward with all four wheels. At that point, I knew it was mine.”
Wheldon had won his second career Indianapolis 500 in the most unpredictable, jaw-dropping finish of the race’s history. Herta and Newey celebrated on pit lane as if they had hit the lottery.
Considering their stature in the racing world, they had in fact won against mighty odds.
“On paper, based on our previous effort, anything, on paper we really had no business believing we could win it,” said Herta, now 48. “But Dan believed in us so strongly he made us believe it, too. I really think over the course of (those) last two weeks, he made the crew guys believe it, he made a lot of people on the outside believe it, because so many people were coming up to us the week of the race saying, ‘We think you’re going to win.’ It was so uplifting.”
Once the milk had been poured, thousands of pictures had been taken and the Victory Banquet came and went, the series would move onto Texas Motor Speedway without Wheldon.
The veteran driver had a contract only for the Indianapolis 500, and even a win in the world’s greatest race didn’t solidify any more than one more race at the season’s end.
“You know, it was emotional for me, as well, to win for my wife and my family. I think my contract expires at midnight tonight,” Wheldon joked with a half smile.
The next time we saw Dan Wheldon driving an Indy car would be the last time. He lost his life on this day seven years ago at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A champion, father, husband, and a friend of many, gone far too soon.
Dan took great pride in winning the Indianapolis 500’s centennial race, and how could any of us forget the finish that day that, looking back at it now, seems to have been touched by some higher power? He was a worthy victor, the most graceful champion, and a personality that will not be replicated in the future.
We are lucky to have enjoyed Wheldon’s presence in IndyCar racing for ten years, just as he felt lucky to taste victory once again at his favorite place in the world.
“So now when I’m on the beach with my wife and two kids, we can honestly be proud of what we’ve achieved together,” Wheldon said on Memorial Day 2011. “This is obviously a special race because it is the 100th anniversary… I’m honored to be the winner of this particular race.”
And we are honored that you won, Dan. Rest in peace, Lionheart.
Header image from LAT Images USA.