JR Hildebrand and Graham Rahal emerged from Sunday's Indianapolis 500 pleased, yet disappointed after seeing opportunities for victory slip away – in Hildebrand's case, at the last corner of the last lap. They offered their thoughts to the media afterward.
Q: JR, I don't even know where to start.
JR HILDEBRAND: I don't, either.
Obviously, we decided we were going to take an alternate fuel strategy. If we could save fuel at the beginning of the stint, we could make it with that sort of extended caution. We were looking good to be able to do that. You don't have a lot of time to look up at the podium driving down the front straight at 230.
I was entirely aware of where we were at until five or six [laps] to go, when it started to shuffle out. 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 [Dan Wheldon] and the 9 [Scott Dixon] were the two guys quickest toward the end.
Certainly, I was aware of the fact that I had some gap on them. But I then, on the last lap, started catching some other cars coming out of the pits as I was cycling through (Turns) 3 and 4. I guess as it happened, I ended up catching the 83 [Charlie Kimball] , I think, going into Turn 4, a fairly inopportune area.
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.
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.
Q: We can only imagine what sort of emotions you're going through. How bad do you feel?
HILDEBRAND: I mean, this is not really about me at this point. You always show up to try to win. But for me, my disappointment is for the team and for National Guard as a sponsor. It's one of the those things, as a driver, you never really know what you're going to expect. We knew we had a fast race car. We knew if the race came to us, we may be in a position to sort of finish top three, top five, wherever that might be, depending on how it panned out. But as a driver, I'm smart enough as a rookie to not expect, no matter what's going to happen, I'm going to come to the Indianapolis 500 my first year and be in a position to win the race.
As it turned out, we most certainly were. We were in a position that we should have won the race. So for me, it's not so much that I'm pissed off or disappointed that my face isn't going to go on the Borg-Warner. Just with this team, Panther Racing has finished second three years in a row now with the National Guard sponsorship, I felt like we had an incredible opportunity to get on a big stage for those guys.
Q: As you made that move around Kimball, suddenly you realized you were in the marbles, what was the thought?
HILDEBRAND: There were a few choice words going through my head at that moment, really fast and frequently until I hit the wall. They were still going through my head there, I guess.
I guess I was fortunate to have hit the wall far enough around that I could still -- I mean, I was like flat-out after I hit the wall to try to get the thing across the start/finish line.
It's a helpless feeling driving the racecar when you get in a situation like that. It can happen on road courses, it can happen at other places. It's most extreme at a place like this where it truly does turn into a one-groove track towards the end of the-race. That was certainly my mistake to have judged it otherwise.
Q: This is four straight second places for the Panther team. What were John's words to you at the end?
HILDEBRAND: John was great. I mean, he's just so proud of this group of guys for putting up such a tremendous effort throughout the day. That was certainly a welcomed face and emotion for me walking down the pit lane. Sometimes you never know what you're going to get from a team when you've just lost the Indy 500 by a spot or whatever. But he's a real driver's owner from that perspective. He's ultracompetitive, but at the same time he can understand I think the emotions of what the driver goes through, as well.
Q: You kept the car going. Did you still think you might have a shot of getting there before Wheldon caught you?
HILDEBRAND: I did for a second. The mirrors on our cars really aren't that great. It was tough to tell down the back straight. I took a glimpse to see where he was at. He wasn't anywhere near the near vicinity around the car, where the mirrors are more suited to be able to see. There was certainly a split-second where I thought, "Oh, shoot, maybe I'll pull a Terry Labonte at Martinsville or Bristol or whatever it was that year (smiling)." Obviously, no such luck.