WHAT WE LEARNED: The Greatest Spectacle

INDIANAPOLIS - MAY 29: J.R. Hildebrand, driver of the #4 National Guard Panther Racing, finishes second after crashing during the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

I am freshly home from the airport and only a few hours removed from the Mugseum & Bunapalooza tweetup, so you'll pardon me if this summary of the 2011 Indianapolis 500 seems to ramble.

But I want this said at the outset. It's the height of irony that a mainstream press corps would mention the words "choke job" when they can boast alumni like Marv Albert and Jay Mariotti.

More than that, it is a misnomer to say that J.R. Hildebrand "choked away" the Indianapolis 500. That presupposes that Hildebrand made a mistake on the last lap, and I'm still not entirely sure he did... even though he wrecked.

I am sure that he wouldn't have been in that position in the first place if he hadn't driven a race that belied both his rookie status and his 22 years. And he outperformed and outstrategized five of the greatest race teams in Indianapolis 500 history to do it. So when John Barnes says he's thrilled with Hildebrand even though he didn't win the race, he means it for good reason.

More thoughts after the jump...

  • I was so busy screaming my head off for Hildebrand to KEEP YOUR FOOT IN IT, SON!!! that I totally missed Dan Wheldon coming through the spraying carbon fiber and traffic to take the twin checkers at the finish. I did not, however, miss his Victory Lane celebration - which made me teary-eyed more than "Back Home Again in Indiana" did, a rather impressive feat.
  • What you saw on the replay when Bryan Herta jumped down from the pit wall was pure joy. That's something I haven't seen for a while at the end of an Indianapolis 500. I've seen happiness, I've seen excitement, I've seen pride, I've seen professional pleasure. But the totally unbridled joy that Herta, the Bryan Herta Autosport team, and Dan Wheldon showed for winning the 500 hasn't been around the Speedway for far longer than I have been comfortable with. We need more of that around the Grand Dame of Motor Speedways. Because in the end, an Indianapolis 500 win is not just all in a day's work like the domination by the "superteams" has led us to believe.
  • Speaking of purity, I don't think there's a more pure race driver out there than Tony Kanaan. He passed the entire field at least three times on his way to a top five finish. In a KV Racing car, no less. Those of you who think that IndyCar won't thrive without American drivers and that Brazilians aren't as popular - you weren't at Indianapolis on Sunday. When Tony Kanaan was making his march to the front, he got the biggest cheers of anyone all day. He is past due to have his face engraved on the Borg-Warner (and I'm fairly sure they'll be able to find enough metal to do the nose).
  • You Penske and Ganassi folks will pardon me for being THRILLED that the best you could do was 5th place. It's nothing personal - just about damn time that some other folks got to share the glory you have so jealously kept to yourselves for so many years.
  • I seriously don't know what to say about E.J. Viso, other than I don't know the exchange rate on Venezuelan currency that would be the equivalent of five cents - the apparent value of Viso's head this year. His mixture of recklessness, poor judgment, and total and utter lack of recognition that he needs to improve more than his speed is worrying. It's certainly expensive for KV Racing, but lately it's been expensive for other IndyCar teams as well. It's telling that most of the restart issues have involved Viso in one way or another. I think maybe if I had to drive double-file restarts with Viso lurking behind (or even ahead of) me, I might want single-file too.
  • After all of that angst over Ryan Hunter-Reay starting the race, his actual performance was an anti-climax. I think Sun Drop and DHL got more exposure for the controversy than they ever would have in the race. The DHL guys that flew from Germany to see RHR race spent a lot of time looking at the tail end of the field.
  • That Hot Wheels jump thing? Actually quite thrilling in person. Certainly far more exciting than the "IZOD attitude" infomercial they wedged the footage into that I subsequently saw at the hotel. That was embarrassing to watch. But I guess they figure that kind of flagrantly dumb "Xtreme" stuff appeals to someone... if only the ad folks in the pitch meeting.
  • IMS was flooded with people. More than I've seen during the entire post-Split era. It was a huge party with all the good and bad that that implies. A few fewer fights, stabbings, and violence would be nice, but other than that it was plain to see that, at least for this year, Indy was all the way back.
  • I was greeted at the Indy airport by a flash mob. I appreciate the effort, folks, but I had a rental Mustang to pick up. Sorry I didn't stick around for the end.
  • I like tweetups. Wish I could have stayed longer at the Mugseum & Bunapalooza. Kudos to the winner of the Tooth Fairy Media shirt. The correct answer to my trivia question of who substituted for Ray Harroun for 30 laps in the 1911 Indy 500? Cyrus Patschke.
  • I can't wait for next year. But then, I never can after an Indy 500.

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