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Close calls force Indy 500 to learn lessons, coping skills

In this May 27, 2012, file photo, Takuma Sato, right, of Japan, spins in the first turn under Dario Franchitti, of Scotland, on the final lap of IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis. Coming close in a potentially life-changing race doesn’t really matter. It’s how these drivers handle the situation when they return to Indy. (Bill Friel / Associated Press)
In this May 27, 2012, file photo, Takuma Sato, right, of Japan, spins in the first turn under Dario Franchitti, of Scotland, on the final lap of IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis. Coming close in a potentially life-changing race doesn’t really matter. It’s how these drivers handle the situation when they return to Indy. (Bill Friel / Associated Press)

INDIANAPOLIS – Takuma Sato learned a tough, painful lesson from his spectacular final lap crash at the 2012 Indianapolis 500.

Eventually, it paid dividends.

The Japanese driver believes he might not be the defending Indy winner heading into Sunday’s race had it not been for the ill-fated passing attempt that sent him spinning hard into the first-turn wall and gave Dario Franchitti his third and final race win six years ago.

“It helped me a lot mentally, physically and technically,” Sato said. “You don’t understand the challenge of winning unless you are there. Last year, I attacked it (passing Helio Castroneves) in a very different way from how I tried to pass Dario.”

Not all drivers are as fortunate as Sato, and for them the continual stories, constant questions and countless replays never seem to go away.

Michael Andretti has held the distinction of leading more laps at Indianapolis than any non-winner of the race for years. His father, Mario, kept coming close after his 1969 win but never got a second 500 win. Michael’s son, Marco, was actually in position to end the Andretti curse in 2006 – until Sam Hornish Jr. passed him in the front straightaway and won in the third-closest finish in race history.

Scott Goodyear had three chances in the 1990s and all ended in frustration.

In 1992, he started last and finished second to Al Unser Jr. in the race’s closest finish (0.043 seconds). In 1995, he had the lead with 10 laps to go when officials ruled Goodyear passed the pace car on a restart and assessed a penalty. When he refused to stop, he was black-flagged and finished 14th. Two years later, Goodyear was passed by teammate Arie Luyendyk with six laps to go and missed again on an even later restart because the flagman waved the green while the yellow lights remained on.

Perhaps nobody has reflected more on his close call than JR Hildebrand, who crashed on the final turn of the 2011 race while trying to avoid a slower car and skidded across the finish line in second place. He was named the race’s rookie of the year, not much of a consolation prize.

Since then, the 29-year-old from California has started six more 500s, led just six laps and never finished higher than sixth. Each year he returns and the reminders are all around. Hildebrand has learned how to cope.

He doesn’t watch the replays much. He clears his head, and when the questions begin, he answers every one honestly, as does Marco Andretti .

“I think the next year, I was so bound and determined because I was focused on winning this thing as soon as possible,” Hildebrand said before qualifying 27th for Dreyer & Reinbold. “That’s still probably the wrong attitude to have but what I’ve learned is that you really have to focus on all the little things.”

Even for winners, like Sato, the thought of the one that got away tends to linger longer than a victory celebration.

Just ask Castroneves, ,who won his first two races on Indy’s 2.5-mile oval in 2001 and 2002 before finishing second to teammate Gil de Ferran in 2003.

Over his next 14 starts here, the Brazilian for Team Penske has five top-five finishes – one win and three seconds, including last year to Sato. He is starting eighth Sunday as he again tries to become the fourth member of the four-time winners club.

“It sucks, that’s the feeling because so few people are able to win the race,” Castroneves said, referring to second place. “When you’re that close for 500 miles and when you’re so close to winning it, it just sucks.”

Somehow Sato managed to parlay the agony and frustration of losing such a big race on such a grand stage into becoming a better driver.

And on Sunday, Castroneves, Hildebrand and Marco Andretti will be among the many trying to duplicate what Sato managed to do last year while the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver tries to become the first back-to-back winner since Castroneves.

“Looking back on it, at least you know what you really needed to do to win the Indy 500,” Sato said. “You just have to believe that you can make it back again and that’s why you come back with hopes and dreams.”


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