Valencia’s Bryan Herta took an unlikely gulp of milk after winning the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday as Dan Wheldon took the lead from JR Hildebrand on the final lap of the race.
Wheldon, driving for Bryan Herta Autosport, led the race for only a few hundred yards, but it was the most important few hundred yards. He took the checkered flag at the famed Brickyard for the second time in his career and the first since 2005.
It was an unlikely win because the Indianapolis 500, celebrating its centennial anniversary, was the only Izod IndyCar Series race of the season for Bryan Herta Autosport and Wheldon. Both the team and the driver put all of their resources and efforts into this one race.
Herta and Wheldon, once teammates as drivers for Andretti Green Racing, beat the powerhouses of the IndyCar Series, Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti, and took advantage of the misfortunes of a rookie driver who had the finish line in his sight when he crashed into the turn 4 wall.
Hildebrand had a nearly 3-second lead when he tried to pass a lapped car on the final turn and slid into the wall. Wheldon was in second place at the time and passed Hildebrand to take the lead for the first time in the 500-mile race.
Wheldon said after the race he had faith in Herta that he would provide the best opportunity to win the Indy 500.
“Bryan went and made a couple of calls,” Wheldon said. “I said to him that it’s obviously very important for me to feature very strongly. I’m not just saying this because Bryan is sitting next to me. I think anybody that knows Bryan will say this. He’s a rarity in IndyCar racing. He’s a man of his word. He’s provided me an opportunity.”
Herta, a Hart High graduate, and Wheldon developed a strong friendship when they were teammates with Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti at Andretti Green Racing. Wheldon won the Indy 500 in 2005 as a driver for Andretti Green.
“When Dan came to Andretti, or actually when I came to Andretti, Dan was already there. But he was the kid, the rook. I actually came in, kind of the old guy, the experienced guy,” Herta said. “Then we had T.K., obviously, Dario came back after he’d been hurt. It became kind of the Four Musketeers.
“We had a lot of fun together on and off the track. We had an opportunity, the four of us got together for dinner about a week ago. Literally we laughed till our sides hurt just reminiscing about those times.”
While Wheldon and Herta are friends, it wasn’t the reason the two teamed up for the Indy 500. Herta wanted the best driver he could find for the race. He entered the Indy 500 last year with Sebastian Saavedra and they had the last car to qualify in the 33-car field. This year, Herta wanted to do better than just make the field. He wanted a chance to win the race.
“So there was a bond that formed between the four of us during those years that will never change,” Herta said. “It wasn’t the reason that I brought Dan to the team or asked him to drive for us, not because he’s my buddy. It’s because he’s, flat out, the best guy there is around this place. That is the reason we hired Dan Wheldon.”
In addition to winning two Indy 500s, Wheldon has finished second two times. His previous two trips to Indianapolis Motor Speedway ended with runner-up finishes for Panther Racing, the team Hildebrand was racing for this year. Wheldon has finished in the top five six times in nine starts.
“Our friendship is our friendship, and that will never change. But, obviously, this has been another bonding experience. It serves to bring us closer,” Herta said. “Someday when we’re old guys laying on the beach, we can still talk about this.”