ou cannot let this place get into your
head,” mused Tony Kanaan on a chilly
morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
last year. “If you do, it will ruin you.”
Kanaan knew of which he spoke: he
had led the race for eight years in a row,
headed the field for a combined total of
more than 200 laps, started from pole
(2005), and finished second, third (twice),
fourth and fifth before finally earning a
portrait on the Borg-Warner Trophy at his
12th try in a 2013 thriller.
The Brazilian ultimately squared his
ledger with the Brickyard, but others who
experienced similar disappointments are
still waiting for broken hearts to fully
heal. Or are they? Marco Andretti came
within yards of winning at Indy as a
rookie in 2006, and was instead left
crossing the line choking on Sam Hornish
Jr.’s exhaust fumes. Even for someone
not carrying the most famous surname in
racing, that sounds like the recipe for a
tiny streak of entitlement.
“I look at the flipside of that coin,” says
Andretti. “I look at how fortunate I am to
be unscathed. I look at four or five
podiums there. I look at stuff like that.
“And I also look at the fact that, in a
perfect world, I’ve got another 10 shots
at winning there. So I’m not panicking.
Year in, year out, no matter what team
I’m driving for, I know we can make some
amazing stuff happen there. And once we
win there…Indianapolis is already a big
place for me, but that will be huge.”
JR Hildebrand can relate. Driving for
the small Panther Racing team as a
rookie in 2011, the Californian flew
beneath the white flags waving from the
Speedway’s flag stand with a comfortable
lead over Dan Wheldon. As he crossed
the north chute and entered the final
turn, he came across the slower car of
Charlie Kimball running on the inside line.
Hildebrand moved to the outside as he
came onto the final stretch, wandered
onto the marbles, and pancaked the wall.
Wheldon shot past for the win; Hildebrand
– right-side flattened, and with sparks
flying from the car’s underside – skidded
across the bricks in second place.
“I’ve had so many people tell me that
Indy owes me something that it’s really
made me realize that, actually, it doesn’t
owe you s**t,” he says.
“When you think about it on your own,
you can convince yourself that ‘I’m going
to go back there and everything is going
to go my way because that’s how things
balance out,’ but you listen to other
people say that to you enough times and
it really starts to sound crazy...”
Hildebrand alludes to another aspect
to life as a member of the Indy 500’s
“almost” club. Coming to terms with the
personal disappointment associated with
a near-miss is one thing, but through the
eyes of some on the outside, a crash like
the one Hildebrand experienced in 2011
can define him for years. Instead of “JR
Hildebrand, IndyCar Series driver”, he
becomes “JR Hildebrand, last-lap crash
guy.” Six years after the fact, fans
continue to ask him about it.
The quest for redemption is a classic Indy 500 storyline,
but what does it look like for the drivers at the heart of it?
(MAIN) After 500
miles, the difference
between and glory and
heartache for rookie
Marco Andretti was
just a few feet at the
end of the 2006
edition of the race.
(RIGHT) Now a veteran
of 11 Indy 500 starts,
Andretti isn’t stressed
about it, saying that
time and opportunity
are still on his side.
WORDS Mark Glendenning MAIN IMAGE IMS photo