Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How Bryan Herta, Sam Schmidt and Charlie Kimball helped Dan Wheldon win the Indy 500

Dan Wheldon won his second Indianapolis 500, but if not for a trio of Southern Californians, he might have never made it to the finish line at the Brickyard on Sunday.
The owner of the Wheldon’s car is Valencia’s Bryan Herta.
The team that provided the car for Wheldon to drive is owned by Sam Schmidt, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, graduated from Pepperdine and went to Village Christian in Sun Valley.
The driver of the car who played a role in the last-lap crash that took out leader JR Hildebrand was Camarillo’s Charlie Kimball.
Without those three people, Wheldon probably doesn’t have a car to drive nor is he in position to win the Indy 500.
Wheldon, driving for Bryan Herta Autosport, took the lead for the first time in the race on the last lap when the rookie Hildebrand crashed into turn 4 wall.
Hildebrand was leading the race, but tried to pass Kimball on the outside. Hildebrand slid into the turn 4 wall allowing Wheldon a chance to take the lead and win the race. Hildebrand skidded across the finish line in second place.
It led to a surprising finish, with Wheldon leading only the last few hundred yards of the race. He became the first driver in the history of the Indy 500, which was celebrating its centennial anniversary, to win the race leading only the last lap of the race.
“When I saw him crash, I mean, I knew it wasn’t serious. As soon as I knew it was not serious, there was a little smile on my face, I will say,” Wheldon said. “From that point, it was just making sure that I didn’t do anything silly. Then I think I got on the radio and started crying.”
Bryan Herta Autosport is a part-time player in the Izod IndyCar Series. Herta has a team that runs the entire Firestone Indy Lights series, but only one IndyCar Series race. He entered the Indy 500 last year with Sebastian Saavedra as his driver and had the last car to qualify in the 33-car field.
In the second start for Bryan Herta Autosport at the Indy 500, Wheldon put Herta’s car on the second row, qualifying sixth, and in a much better position to contend for a win. Herta knew his chances of winning were slim, but with Wheldon as his driver, he had confidence.
“Dan has done such a great job. One of the things he did for us is bring an attitude and a belief we could win this race,” said Herta, who graduated from Hart High School in Newhall. “On paper, based on our previous effort, anything, on paper we really had no business believing we could win it. But Dan believed in us so strongly he made us believe it, too. I really think over the course of this last two weeks, he made the crew guys believe it, he made a lot of people on the outside believe it, because so many people were coming up to us the week of the race saying, ‘We think you’re going to win.’ It was so uplifting.”
Schmidt had his own two-car effort in the Indy 500. One of his drivers, Alex Tagliani, won the pole. Schmidt had good cars, but they were still considered inferior to the ones put together by Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti. Wheldon said he didn’t see a Penske car in front of him the entire race. Ganassi’s drivers, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, led the Indy 500 at various points, but fell out of contention when their fuel strategies failed. Danica Patrick, driving for Andretti Autosport, led late in the race, but had to pit for fuel.
Schmidt’s cars meanwhile were strong and fast.
“They dug all month. The 77 (Tagliani) and 99 (Townsend Bell) worked really well together and had fast cars,” Schmidt said. “Unfortunately, they both got a little out of sequence. We probably should’ve finished at least second or third when all was said and done. You can’t second-guess what happens in the race, and that is what this place is all about. At least we got a little piece of that car rolling up on victory circle right there. It was Bryan’s, and that's cool.”
Kimball turned out to be the unfortunate X factor in Wheldon’s win. Hildebrand came up on Kimble, the last car on the lead lap, on the final turn of the race. Instead of letting up on the throttle and coasting to the finish line, Hildebrand tried to pass Kimball. Kimball did nothing wrong, but Hildebrand made the mistake of trying to pass Kimball on the outside. Hildebrand crashed and Wheldon was the surprise and teary-eyed winner of the Indy 500.
“I’m not normally that emotional,” Wheldon said. “But having been through what we’ve been through, being able to deliver this for everybody is certainly very gratifying. Proud of everybody. In terms of what it will do for the future, it will make me a happier person on the beach. In terms of more races, you'll have to ask these guys.”

Photo: Dan Wheldon won his second career Indianapolis 500 driving for Bryan Hertra Autosport. (Photo by LAT)

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