The silver-haired legends all were back again, reliving golden memories, driving race cars from long-ago wins around Indianapolis Motor Speedway two hours before the start of the 100th-anniversary Indy 500 on Sunday. As Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser and several other former 500 champions from the race's glory days of the 1960s, '70s and '80s crossed the finish line at 20 mph, the most interested observer of the 250,000 in attendance at the Brickyard stood nearby on pit road, his eyes wide as he gazed at the largest Indy crowd in more than a decade.
"We need to get the popularity of this series back to what it was when guys like Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford were winning," said Randy Bernard, the CEO of the IndyCar Series. "Ticket sales are up [10% from last year]. Fans are returning. You really can feel that the buzz is finally coming back."
Bernard was right. Thanks to some of the most riveting racing at the Brickyard in years, for one afternoon Indy was what it used to be: a heart-thumping, oooohhh-inducing event. With 21 laps to go, Danica Patrick, IndyCar's most popular driver, seized the lead, causing the crowd to rise and boil at a froth. Then, nine laps later, Bertrand Baguette—a 25-year-old Belgian who was such a long shot that he wasn't even listed in the series media guide—surged past Patrick, who had slowed to conserve fuel. When Baguette had to stop for gas with three laps left, rookie J.R. Hildebrand of Sausalito, Calif., inherited the lead. Suddenly, only five miles stood between Hildebrand, who in 2006 had turned down an acceptance offer from MIT, and the checkered flag.
Holding nearly a four-second lead over veteran Dan Wheldon, the 23-year-old rookie blazed into the final turn on the final lap at 220 mph. The most hallowed prize in American motor sports—the Borg-Warner trophy—was literally within sight as it sat near the finish line. But then Hildebrand committed a blunder that will live on in Indy lore, the motor sports equivalent of Van de Velde at Carnoustie, Pisarcik at the Meadowlands, Buckner at Shea: While passing the lapped car of Charlie Kimball, Hildebrand steered to the outside of the track. This is perilous ground late in races because as tires wear down, bits of rubber fly off and collect on the high side of Turn 4. Once Hildebrand rolled over the "marbles"—as these bits are called—he lost control, smashing into the wall along the frontstretch. Less than 300 yards from the finish line, Wheldon passed him to steal the victory and capture his second Indy 500.
"We should have won the race," said Hildebrand, whose damaged car slid across the finish line in second. "Is it a move I would do again? No."
If there was one person whom Wheldon especially wanted to beat at the Brickyard, it was Hildebrand, who replaced the 2005 series champion at Panther Racing after Wheldon was let go in January. Unable to find a full-time ride, Wheldon, a native of Emberton, England, sat out the first four IndyCar events this season. In late March, he signed a one-race contract for the Indy 500 with Bryan Herta Autosport, a part-time team. Will this victory resurrect the career of the 32-year-old Wheldon? One thing is certain: This won't be his last IndyCar race of 2011.
On Sunday, Wheldon and Hildebrand were able to do what several drivers couldn't: master the double-file restarts that were employed after cautions for the first time in Indy history. In the past cars lined up single file for each restart, but this fostered (yawn) parade-style racing, with cars simply following each other in a line around the track. In 2009 NASCAR adopted the double-file restart rule, and the result was exactly what fans wanted: more bumping and grinding as the cars charged three- and sometimes four-wide into the first turn after the green flag waved.
A week before last year's Indy 500, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi—the top two owners in IndyCar—took Bernard to dinner in Indianapolis. The two urged Bernard to institute double-file restarts in the open-wheel series, even though if two cars merely touch in IndyCar, it usually results in a high-speed wreck. "We need to improve our quality of racing," Ganassi told Bernard. "I assure you that the double-file restart is doable in our series."
When Bernard announced that he was green-lighting the double-file restart for the 500, driver reaction was swift and universal: They loathed the idea. "Now we have a bigger chance to hit the wall," said veteran Tony Kanaan a few days before the race. "Hopefully we have more than six cars finish the race."
Just as Kanaan predicted, the first double-file restart on Sunday triggered a wreck when, barreling three-wide into Turn 1 on Lap 28, E.J. Viso collided with James Hinchcliffe, causing Viso to slam into the wall. There were seven restarts, and each produced the kind of hold-your-breath racing that was once common at the Indy 500. "The double-file restarts were really, really successful," said Ryan Briscoe, who finished 27th. "You could jostle for positions. It was a little wild."