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JR Hildebrand doesn't hide from crash that cost him 2011 Indianapolis 500

JR Hildebrand had made the turn at least 393 times that month and 199 times that day.

None was like the one he faced last May leading the last lap of the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie.

With his fuel tank draining and his tires fraying, a previous champion charging from behind and slower traffic dragging ahead, Hildebrand's No. 4 Panther Racing machine sped into Turn 4, one corner from racing immortality.

Then Hildebrand smashed into the wall, letting St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon slide by for his second Indy 500 victory and last IndyCar victory before his fatal crash in October.

But what happened after that crash surprised Hildebrand, who starts 18th in Sunday's Indy 500.

"I was expecting to have the full-on reprimand for blowing it," the 24-year-old Californian said earlier this year.

Instead, he got an outpouring of support for handling heartbreak with class.

The biggest disappointment of Hildebrand's young career happened because he didn't want to slow down in case his fuel ran out or Wheldon caught up. He rocketed outside around crawling Charlie Kimball, but his worn-down tires slipped on the bits of rubber that had built up on the track over the previous 199 laps.

"There's just nothing he could have done," said Sebastien Bourdais, a St. Petersburg resident and driver for the Dragon Racing team.

Hildebrand wasn't the first rookie to make that mistake at the Brickyard. In 2008 Graham Rahal steered wide in Turn 4 to pass a slower car headed to the pits. He hit the wall, too.

Hildebrand's first stop after the medical center was to apologize to his owner and team for a mangled car and dashed dreams. His crew wasn't mad — it eventually rewarded him with his dream car, a 1966 Chevy Chevelle SS — which gave Hildebrand the confidence to face what followed.

Bloggers called him one of the biggest chokers ever and put his name alongside Scott Norwood (missed winning field-goal attempt for the Bills against the Giants in Super Bowl XXV) and Jean van de Velde (triple bogey at No. 18 in the final round of the 1999 British Open to lose the lead and fall into a playoff, which he lost). ESPN compared him to 1986 World Series goat Bill Buckner of the Red Sox.

"I feel superbad for Bill Buckner every time I see that," said Hildebrand, a varsity first baseman in high school. "I don't sit there and go, 'Man, that guy totally screwed up.' "

Hildebrand didn't mope. He didn't blame Kimball for hugging the low line with a slow car. He said he was disappointed not because he lost, but because he let his team down. He answered every question from every camera after the race and at preseason media day in St. Petersburg in March.

Compliments began to replace the criticism. NASCAR's Michael Waltrip emailed Hildebrand to praise how he handled the disappointment. Teachers wrote to say they used him to teach their students about sportsmanship.

"I don't think anybody could have handled that any better," Rahal said.

Months later, Hildebrand's competitors seem more upset about the crash than he does. Bourdais said he was angry when he watched the race because a spotter should have warned Hildebrand of the slower traffic.

Rookie Josef Newgarden called the crash "the most disappointing thing I've ever seen."

"I wasn't even in the car," Newgarden said, "and I thought it was gut-wrenching."

Newgarden knows the feeling. He was leading the Indy Lights race in April 2011 at Long Beach before he rammed his car into a tire barrier with three laps to go. But that was in one of the series' junior circuits in a smaller race, not on the sport's biggest stage.

"Mine was nothing compared to his," Newgarden said. "I can only imagine how difficult it was for him to get over."

Hildebrand has moved on, for the most part. He said he occasionally thinks about how close he came to victory, and he knows he might never get another chance to win the Indy 500. But if he had to lose, Hildebrand is glad his run ended with his foot on the gas.

"I can at least rest my laurels on the fact that, man, I went for it," Hildebrand said. "I'd be sitting here (angry) having to answer the questions about what happened at the end of the race if I had just slowed up and let somebody go by."

JR Hildebrand doesn't hide from crash that cost him 2011 Indianapolis 500 05/24/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 24, 2012 10:14pm]
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