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Hollywood Wouldn't Script This

Tuesday, May 31, 2011
J.R. Hildebrand's wreck left questions of what would have been. Photo: LAT Photo USA

One race expert in the Twitter-verse commented that on Sunday that Hollywood couldn't have scripted the ending to this year's Indianapolis 500.

Buzzzzzzt!  Wrong!!!  Poor use of that metaphor.

Hollywood wouldn't have scripted it.

In almost every one of Hollywood's epic sports movies, the underdog or otherwise adverse protagonist pulls out a memorable win against all odds.

Even in the very occasional movie where victory is not achieved, à la Friday Night Lights, there's a sense of accomplishment or at least resolve.

The Indianapolis 500 was none of the above.  The Indianapolis 500 was the unscripted reality of life.

In reality, the underdog doesn't always win and the hearwarming story's not always told.

Sure, Trevor Bayne might win a Daytona 500.  But, for every out-of-nowhere winner, there's a slue of Jimmie Johnson-engraved Cups or Carl Edwards victory back flips keeping the world spinning on its axis.

This was the harsh reality for Indy 500 rookie JR Hildebrand on Sunday.  Hildebrand took the lead late after leaders Danica Patrick and Bertrand Baguette were forced to pit for a splash of fuel and Dario Franchitti fell off the pace while dealing with fuel mileage of his own.

When the white flag dropped for the final lap, Hildebrand seemed to be destined for immortality.  The 23-year-old from Sausalito, Calif., was poised to take home the historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Exiting turn 3, Hildebrand caught up to fellow American Charlie Kimball.  In most estimations, Hildebrand led be enough that he probably could have slowed up to safely follow Kimball low through turn 4 and sped down the front stretch for the history-writing checkered flag.

He didn't.

Naturally, as a race car driver, it's against his nature to voluntarily slow up.  So, to no surprise, Hildebrand went for the pass.

He seemed to clear Kimball cleanly, but ripping through the warn down track at over 200 mph, Hildebrand got out of control and slid up the track.  His car blasted into the wall exiting turn 4, destroying the right side.  While the momentum carried him across the finish line, it wasn't before Dan Wheldon sped by for an unexpected victory of his own.

Hours later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would run out gas on the last lap of 600-plus mile Sprint Cup race to send extend his winless streak for another painful week. However, Junior has won before, and despite the despair in Junior Nation, I can guarantee he will win again!  Not to mention, with all due respect, the Coca-Cola 600 does not stack up to the prestige of the Indianapolis 500.

At face value, Wheldon winning the Indy 500 was a great story, as he runs on a part-time schedule.  In that aspect, he isn't far removed from Bayne's win in Daytona.  However, Wheldon's story gets lost in the shuffle of trying to figure out what could have or should have been for a driver much similar in stature to Bayne as one of America's bright young racers: JR Hildebrand.

Watching the Victory Lane presentation was a bittersweet moment.  I felt bad not being happy for the part-timer from England, but I felt worse for Hildebrand.

I just couldn't help but think of the stories lost.  Never again would Hildebrand get the chance to join the elite crowd of rookie Indy 500 champions; never again would he (nor anyone else, obviously) have the chance to win the 100th anniversary of the race; combining those two, we lost the historic claim that the 100th running was won by a driver who had competed just once.

Forever, Hildebrand will be remembered as the rookie that wrecked on the final turn in one of the biggest milestone races in the history of auto racing.

At the age of just 23, perhaps, he'll pick up the figurative (and literal) pieces and go on to be one of the greater INDYCAR drivers of all-time.  Perhaps, he'll look back at this moment as a turning point that inspired a great career.  Perhaps, he'll win a half dozen Indianapolis 500s!

Perhaps, he won't.

All that exists right now is an empty feeling of what could have been.  A moment notably void of any sort of Hollywood resolution.  So, as far as the misused comment that Hollywood couldn't write this kind of ending, that has some truth.  Because, truth be told, Hollywood wouldn't write this kind of an ending.

Keep your head up, JR.  You still have a bright future in this sport!

-JS