The 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500 was one of the most incredible finishes to a race that you will ever see. After some late race pit stops and fuel mileage gambles, rookie JR Hildebrand assumed the lead when Belgian driver Bertrand Baguette (seriously, that’s his name) pitted with only a few laps left. Hildebrand had passed one of the race favorites, Dario Franchitti, who had pitted on the same lap as Hildebrand, but could not keep pace with the rookie. Hildebrand looked set to make history and win the Indy 500 as he took the white flag. But, he could only manage 799 of the 800 turns successfully. It was one of the most heartbreaking and unbelievable finishes to a sporting event I’ve ever seen…
And just like that, Dan Wheldon won his 2nd Indy 500. It just so happened that the crash happened right when Marty Reid was preparing the customary “taking the checkered flag” remarks that every race announcer does including the 100th anniversary of the 500. The crew of Reid, Eddie Cheever, and Scott Goodyear did well to paint the picture of the shock, surprise, agony, and ecstasy of the moment. Marty Reid was shouting, “just like Tomas Scheckter” because he crashed in the same spot on the racetrack leading as a rookie in 2002, but on the 173rd lap, not the 200th (I happened to sit right in front of Sheckter that day when it happened, it’s still one of my most vivd memories as a sports fan).
Down the stretch, it was clear that fuel mileage would tell the story, but ESPN/ABC/ESPN-on-ABC wasn’t up to the pace…
Danica Patrick had network faces and fans alike smiling as she took the lead in that timespan, but she was ultimately passed on the track by Baguette. Not surprisingly, most all of the attention was placed on Danica as she took the lead in the 500 for the first time since 2005. Every action has a reaction though, and this meant that viewers were left wondering about the rest of the field and how they were shaking out after pit stops. When it was clear that Danica was out of contention and Baguette also had to pit, the majority of the attention should have turned to Franchitti and Hildebrand, as well as their chasers, Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon. Even as Patrick pitted, the ESPN cameras still predominantly followed Baguette and missed Hildebrand’s pass of Franchitti (it was shown later on replay).
Viewers finally picked up on Hildebrand after he assumed the lead in the final few laps. At that point, it was Franchitti’s teammate Scott Dixon that was chasing. Dan Wheldon wasn’t mentioned in the final two laps until he crossed the finish line first! It’s a tricky situation in those final laps and the safe play is to follow the leader, but viewers missed plenty of important action in the field and were left asking a lot of questions at the end.
In addition, viewers were given little information about folks like Wheldon and Hildebrand until the race was over. Only after the race did we hear that it was the Panther racing team’s 4th 2nd place finish in a row, something only few fans would know. We weren’t told Wheldon’s story from the top of the sport and driving for Chip Ganassi to the back of the pack and driving for Bryan Herta. We were given no backstory to Hildebrand – unlike Fox’s coverage of the Daytona 500, when the story of rookie Trevor Bayne became a focal point as he neared the front and ultimately won.
In racing, fans and viewers need to get to know the drivers and invest in their stories to have a caring interest… yes, even beyond Danica Patrick. Unfortunately, with none of that emphasis on Hildebrand as an unbelievable story, the drama of a rookie leading the Indy 500 and crashing out at the final turn was largely lost. It was still an incredible finish, but ESPN’s coverage could have delivered much more. Nevertheless, even in an era where ratings and interest for IndyCar racing are low and even the behemoth that is NASCAR is slipping in popularity, the 2011 Indy 500 is a reminder of what kind of drama the sport is capable of.