MONTEITH COLUMN: A stunning Indy 500 finish with my dad
Editor’s note: The Pioneer sports staff has decided to share our memories of the most memorable sporting events we have attended as fans. It just so happens that we shared those moments with our fathers, so we thought it’d be fitting to share our stories on Father’s Day weekend.
Attending the Indianapolis 500 is a rite of passage for anyone in Indiana.
My father, Mark, is a native Hoosier and has attended multiple races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, even accidentally spilling beer on 1985 winner Danny Sullivan during practice on one occasion. My grandpa was a fan of the May time trials, and his father witnessed some of the speedway’s earliest races back when mechanics rode along with the drivers.
Though I grew up a couple of hours west in central Illinois, I went to college in Indiana -- like my dad, a Ball State alum -- at Butler University, only a few miles from the speedway. Sometimes during quiet May days on campus, after classes had let out for the semester, you could hear the cars zipping around the track.
In May 2011, I graduated from high school and was about to move to Indianapolis. The Indy 500 was celebrating its 100th anniversary that year, so it seemed like an opportune time for my first 500 experience.
With more than 250,000 people regularly filling the grandstands and infield, you can understand why the Indy 500 is considered to be the largest single-day sporting event in the world. The track was even more packed than usual for the race’s centennial.
Sitting near the exit of turn four, my dad and I were rooting for hometown driver Ed Carpenter, a Butler graduate and crowd favorite. He led three laps that day and finished 11th.
The race was entertaining throughout, featuring 23 lead changes between 10 drivers with Belgian racer Bertrand Baguette leading down the stretch. Low on fuel, he peeled off for pit road with three laps to go, handing the lead to rookie J.R. Hildebrand.
The 23-year-old driver seemed all but guaranteed to become the first rookie to win the 500 in a decade as he rounded the speedway over the final laps.
The crowd rose to its feet for the last lap. Hildebrand just needed to navigate around one more turn and the Borg-Warner Trophy would be all his.
It was not meant to be.
Hildebrand caromed into the wall in turn four, directly in front of where my dad and I were standing. On TV, the ABC announcers shouted “No!” at the same moment as just about everyone else in the grandstand.
At that moment, I’m not sure how many fans actually knew who won the race. I didn’t know for sure until I heard the track PA announcer utter Dan Wheldon’s name.
Wheldon led one lap. Really he led maybe the last 1,000 feet. The Englishman weaved through lap traffic and past Hildebrand to the checkered flag for his second Indy 500 win.
The joy fans felt for Wheldon likely matched the sorrow they felt for Hildebrand. It was a remarkable finish, and one of the most stunning in the race’s storied history.
I remember waving my cap at an ecstatic Wheldon as he saluted fans from the back of a pickup truck during the victory lap, shortly after he enjoyed his celebratory bottle of milk in victory lane.
It was an unforgettable experience.
Tragically, Wheldon died five months later in a crash at the season-ending race in Las Vegas. A grieving Indianapolis mourned his death, making the memory of that day in May all the more indelible.
I wish I could find a less somber way to end this column.
I guess all I can say is I’m glad to have shared that moment with my dad, becoming the fourth generation of my family to take part in the Hoosier tradition that is the Indianapolis 500.