Have you ever been in the right place at the right time? And you didn’t know it until later?
I watched Dan Wheldon’s stunning victory in last May’s Indianapolis 500. At the time, I knew I witnessed something pretty special. After the loss of Wheldon there isn’t a price tag that can be placed on experiencing that Memorial Day weekend at The Brickyard.
Each year, if the 500 turns out to be a stinker, one is already better off having simply attending the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The Indy 500 is an American sports event paralleling in stature the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, or a World Series game. The contest is a happening. The experience makes the day, regardless of the outcome.
But when Indy turns out to be a thrilling classic, you take note of the time, day, and soak in the surroundings. Then file it in a memory bank for future retelling.
Last May’s race isn’t very old. But now is certainly time to reminisce.
My viewpoint from the media center overlooked pit road. Stationed on the building’s top floor the glass panes were above the infield grandstands and towards the turn four side of the Pagoda. The start finish line was to my left and the fourth corner was to my right.
Did I lead with being in the right place at the right time?
Most of the media center journalists stood along the windows and watched the original green flag wave. The sight of eleven rows of three accelerating and navigating turn one is a sight to behold.
The large crowd of reporters viewed the race’s middle stages in a mixed style. Looking over the track, watching the television feed through dozens
of the media center’s monitors, and running back and forth to the garage area to cover retirees, gets each writer multiple stories.
The late suspense-filled laps were once again mostly viewed in person through the glass. Most anticipated rookie J.R. Hildebrand to win the 500 with his large lead earned through a strong car and smart pit strategy.
The media center crowd stared to our right toward turn four on the final lap, awaiting Hildebrand to emerge with a Cinderella triumph.
The young rookie’s glass slipper broke when he pounded the wall with the checkered flag literally in sight. A gasp came over the crowd of 300,000 fans and the packed media room.
In a very quick time frame I wondered if Hildebrand would still limp across the finish line first. Who was in second? How far back was he? Who will win?
The Hildebrand machine disintegrated as it ground towards the checkered flag. Could he still cross the yard of bricks first?
Cars and shrapnel moved down the frontstretch.
To my left a voice yelled out one word. “Wheldon!”
The confusion quickly cleared as thousands absorbed the drama, excitement, and thrill we all experienced. The massive auto racing audience looked like they were watching a tennis match as their heads shook back and forth, in disbelief of the finish that just unfolded.
Dan Wheldon edged the crippled Hildebrand car and won his second Indianapolis 500 championship.
I am grateful to have witnessed the classic ending in person. I was in the right place at the right time.
And on this day, so was Dan Wheldon.
My prayers go out to his wife Susie, and young children Sebastian and Oliver.
Godspeed, Dan. Thanks for the memories.