INDIANAPOLIS — The 33 drivers in the Indianapolis 500 are seeking racing immortality. One, J.R. Hildebrand, also wants vindication for being a mere mortal.
Six years ago the Californian was only one corner away from winning the iconic race as a rookie when he lost control of his car and crashed into the wall. That enabled Dan Wheldon to shoot past him for the victory.
It was a shocking mistake that might have sent another young driver into racing oblivion. But Hildebrand has used it as motivation to keep trying to win the Memorial Day weekend classic.
He’s a strong contender again this year, having qualified sixth with an average speed of 230.889 mph, so he starts Sunday’s 101st running of the race in the second row under the Indy 500’s unique starting format of 11 rows of three cars each. It’s Hildebrand’s highest starting spot in his seven career Indy 500s.
“I’m really looking forward to the race,” he said. “You always prefer to be in the top couple of rows.”
Hildebrand was 25th fastest in Friday’s final practice in a car prepared by the team of Ed Carpenter, the driver-owner who himself qualified second behind pole-sitter Scott Dixon.
Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves turned the fastest lap of 227.377 mph Friday at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway on “Carb Day,” a throwback to the days when mechanics made final adjustments to the cars’ carburetors.
Hildebrand also has bounced back from an injury early this season. He broke a bone in his left hand April 9 when his car collided with another during the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the second race on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.
That forced Hildebrand, a 29-year-old native of Sausalito, Calif., to miss the next race at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. He returned for the following race, in Phoenix, and finished third.
Hildebrand graduated from high school in Corte Madera, Calif., with a 4.12 grade-point average, was a National Merit Scholar and was accepted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology but chose a racing career instead.
James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 car experienced engine failure during final practice that forced his Schmidt Petersen Motorsports team to replace the Honda engine for Sunday’s race.
“Obviously less than ideal,” Hinchcliffe said after he pulled his smoking car off the track in Turn 3. But the Canadian driver said he wasn’t concerned and that, with the new engine, “it should all be good” for the 200-lap race Sunday.
“If we’re going to have a problem like this, I’d rather it happened now, have a nice fresh (engine) in for the start of the race and hopefully be strong for 500 miles,” said Hinchcliffe, who won this year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Fernando Alonso, the two-time Formula One champion who’s entering the Indy 500 for the first time, also has a Honda engine but said he remained confident in its durability.
“As long as it’s in practice, it’s OK,” Alonso said of Hinchcliffe’s problem. “No concerns.”
Sebastien Bourdais has started physical therapy one week after he suffered multiple pelvic fractures and a broken right hip in a crash during qualifying for the Indy 500.
The French driver tweeted Friday that he was up at 6:30 a.m. for his first therapy session after leaving IU Health Methodist Hospital, where he underwent surgery after the May 20 crash. Bourdais, 38, slammed into the Turn 2 wall at more than 200 mph.
After thanking the hospital and IndyCar safety team that treated him at the track, Bourdais tweeted that he was “looking forward to getting back in the car!”
Bourdais won this year’s IndyCar series opener at St. Petersburg, Fla.