Gordon Kirby

THE WEATHER WAS GLORIOUSLY HOT FOR THIS YEAR’S 100TH anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500. After days of rain and uncommonly cool, overcast skies, the sun and humidity burst forth on race day and what a race we had! Furiously fought all the way, it turned into a game of fuel strategy at the end. Scoff Dixon and Dario Franchiffi in Chip Ganassi’s pair of first-team cars controlled most of the race, collectively leading 134 laps. But in the closing laps they were forced to drastically conserve fuel, falling to firth and 12th as an epic drama unfolded around them.

There in the lead with three laps to go was rookie J RHildebrand, the 2009 Indy Lights champion, in John Barnes’ Panther DallaraHonda. Trying hard to chase him down was the man he replaced Dan Wheldon, 2005 Indy winner with Michael Andreffi’s team, making a one-off appearance this year in Bryan Herta’s car.

Going into the last lap it looked like Hildebrand had the race in his pocket and he maintained a clear cushion over Wheldon down the backstretch into turns three and four. The crowd began to stir, cheering on this talented young American driving a car sponsored by the National Guard. But disaster struck in Turn 4 as Hildebrand tried to lap Charlie Kimball. He ran wide, got onto the marbles at the top of the groove, and in a flash he was in the wall.

Hildebrand’s car skated along the wall, and with his foot hard in the throffle JR drove the wreckage down to the chequered flag. But halfway there, before the yellow light blinked, Wheldon (above) was by and across the line first, a highly emotional winner. It was a great day for Wheldon and Herta’s young team. After finishing second at Indy in the last two years, and then losing his ride, Wheldon was delighted to show himself at his best at the Speedway and Herta hopes to put a full programme together for the 33-year-old Briton in 2012. Herta’s team has been contracted by IndyCar to run the initial testing programme for next year’s much-anticipated new Dallara-Honda. After showing his stuff

at Indy, Wheldon surely will be the test driver, so Dan has a tremendous opportunity to rejuvenate his flagging career.

Beyond a great race, the Hoosier heartland spring day also brought many rounds of nostalgia celebrating the race’s 100th anniversary. One of these events was a lap of the track by a line of the Speedway museum’s Indy-winning cars, led by 1963 winner Parnelli Jones aboard Ray Harroun’s 1911 Marmon Wasp. Parnelli waved as I walked up. He was very moved and honoured by the experience of driving the Marmon, and I left him to concentrate on his job and walked over to the next man and car.

It was my old friend Bobby Unser aboard Joe Dawson’s 1912 National. We chaffed briefly, smiles all round. Next was another familiar face, Mario Andreffi siffing proudly in Wilbur Shaw’s Boyle Maserati, the 1939-40 winner. Then came Tom Sneva aboard one of the Blue Crown Specials, winners in 1947-49.

Kenny Brack was in Sam Hanks’ superb Belond Exhaust Special laydown’ Salih-Offy roadster. Beside him was Al Unser Sr in a gleaming green and yellow Lotus-Ford 38, the twin to Jim Clark’s 1965 winner. Then came Gil de Ferran aboard Mark Donohue’s Sunoco McLaren M16C-turbo Offy, a real monster and Penske’s first of 15 Indy winners. The line was completed by three-time winner Johnny Rutherford aboard his 1980-winning Chaparral 2K-turbo Cosworth, and Arie Luyendyk in his ’91 winner, the Domino’s Pizza Lola-Cosworth T91/00 he drove for Doug Shierson.

The Speedway’s mechanics pushed Parnelli’s Marmon into life. PJ took off onto the track to a resounding roar from the crowd. Unser followed him in the big black National, chased by the rest.

It was the most wonderful morning I’ve had at the Speedway. Making my way back through the packed grid I encountered many old friends and we reminisced, everyone in grand spirits. There followed an excellent race with a remarkable ending. It was a fiffing close to a memorable 100th anniversary Indy 500.