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Close calls force Indy 500 drivers to learn lessons, coping skills

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Takuma Sato learned a tough, painful lesson from his spectacular final lap crash at the 2012 Indianapolis 500.

Eventually, it paid dividends.

The Japanese driver believes he might not be the defending Indy winner heading into Sunday’s race had it not been for the ill-fated passing attempt that sent him spinning hard into the first-turn wall and gave Dario Franchitti his third and final race win six years ago.

“It helped me a lot mentally, physically and technically,” Sato said. “You don’t understand the challenge of winning unless you are there. Last year, I attacked it (passing Helio Castroneves) in a very different way from how I tried to pass Dario.”

Not all drivers are as fortunate as Sato, and for them the continual stories, constant questions and countless replays never seem to go away.

Michael Andretti has held the distinction of leading more laps at Indianapolis than any non-winner of the race for years. His father, Mario, kept coming close after his 1969 win but never got a second 500 win. Michael’s son, Marco, was actually in position to end the Andretti curse in 2006 – until Sam Hornish Jr. passed him in the front straightaway and won in the third-closest finish in race history.

Scott Goodyear had three chances in the 1990s and all ended in frustration.

In 1992, he started last and finished second to Al Unser Jr. in the race’s closest finish (0.043 seconds). In 1995, he had the lead with 10 laps to go when officials ruled Goodyear passed the pace car on a restart and assessed a penalty. When he refused to stop, he was black-flagged and finished 14th. Two years later, Goodyear was passed by teammate Arie Luyendyk with six laps to go and missed again on an even later restart because the flagman waved the green while the yellow lights remained on.

Perhaps nobody has reflected more on his close call than JR Hildebrand, who crashed on the final turn of the 2011 race while trying to avoid a slower car and skidded across the finish line in second place. He was named the race’s rookie of the year, not much of a consolation prize.

Since then, the 29-year-old from California has started six more 500s, led just six laps and never finished higher than sixth. Each year he returns and the reminders are all around. Hildebrand has learned how to cope.

He doesn’t watch the replays much. He clears his head, and when the questions begin, he answers every one honestly, as does Marco Andretti .

“I think the next year, I was so bound and determined because I was focused on winning this thing as soon as possible,” Hildebrand said before qualifying 27th for Dreyer & Reinbold. “That’s still probably the wrong attitude to have but what I’ve learned is that you really have to focus on all the little things.”

Even for winners, like Sato, the thought of the one that got away tends to linger longer than a victory celebration.

Just ask Castroneves, who won his first two races on Indy’s 2.5-mile oval in 2001 and 2002 before finishing second to teammate Gil de Ferran in 2003.

Over his next 14 starts here, the Brazilian for Team Penske has five top-five finishes – one win and three seconds, including last year to Sato. He is starting eighth Sunday as he again tries to become the fourth member of the four-time winners club.

“It sucks, that’s the feeling because so few people are able to win the race,” Castroneves said, referring to second place. “When you’re that close for 500 miles and when you’re so close to winning it, it just sucks.”

Somehow Sato managed to parlay the agony and frustration of losing such a big race on such a grand stage into becoming a better driver.

And on Sunday, Castroneves, Hildebrand and Marco Andretti will be among the many trying to duplicate what Sato managed to do last year while the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver tries to become the first back-to-back winner since Castroneves.

“Looking back on it, at least you know what you really needed to do to win the Indy 500,” Sato said. “You just have to believe that you can make it back again and that’s why you come back with hopes and dreams.”

Dean Wilson’s life as a privateer reconnects the rider to his roots

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One of the added benefits of subscribing to NBC Sports Gold is the in-depth interviews from each Saturday’s action. Last week between the first and second rounds of qualification for the Glendale Supercross race, a relaxed and confident Dean Wilson joined Race Day Live’s Daniel Blair and Jim Holley to review his fourth-place finish in the season opener and his mindset moving forward.

Losing factory support from Rockstar / Husqvarna at the end of 2018 was not exactly what Wilson had in mind, but after getting off to a great start in the first two races this season, it may well have been a blessing in disguise.

The life of a privateer is not exactly relaxed, but it affords a rider the opportunity to call his own shots. For Wilson, it is also a way to reconnect with the grassroots feel that attracted him to Supercross in the first place.

“I think that’s what I like,” Wilson said on Race Day Live. “I think that’s the environment and atmosphere I like – it’s just more low key. At Anaheim I, you would think I was local racing at Glen Helen. I had a Sprinter and I had another trailer just to chill in, do my spins. It was so cold I had a little propane heater to warm me up. But I like that. That’s what works for me.”

MORE: Dean Wilson’s Cinderella story at Anaheim 

The program Wilson was able to put together during the offseason produced back-to back top 10s – a much better start to the 2019 season than he experienced last year.

In 2018, Wilson did not score a top 10 until his fourth feature at San Diego. His first top five would not come until late March in Indianapolis.

This year Wilson got the hole shot and led 14 laps at Anaheim in the opener before finishing fourth. Last week in Glendale, he finished eighth.

“What was going through my head was ‘it’s about time; it’s about five years too late to lead some laps here,’ ” Wilson described his emotion as he led at Anaheim. “It was nice because I did a lot of work in the off-season and my starts were really good. The thing is I haven’t over-analyzed my starts and practice.”

At Anaheim I, Wilson struggled with visibility as his goggles began to get fouled by mud. A once comfortable lead was eroded by Justin Barcia. With pressure from behind, Wilson made a minor mistake that was then compounded by lapped traffic.

“I was leading my laps; I was just trying to hit my marks. I was doing really well until I made a couple of mistakes. I couldn’t hit that middle double, double … the rut was getting real chewed out, but I was already on the right side where you couldn’t double the middle part so you had to go roll, roll, roll – and Barcia was already on me.”

Wilson’s pair of top 10s was enough to keep him fifth in the standings, three points behind Glendale’s winner Blake Baggett.

For more, watch the video above.

Next Race: Anaheim II Jan. 19, 11 p.m., NBCSN

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