Hildebrand's character praised
The checkered flag was going to wave the instant Panther Racing National Guard IndyCar driver J.R. Hildebrand soared over the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This rookie driver was heading toward an exhilarating, unbelievable, breathtaking finish.
I was fortunate to be watching from the inside the main straightaway. The blur while it was racing would not have allowed you to notice the camouflage paint scheme of the car. I remember telling my wife, Rowana, that I could not believe that we were going to win the Indianapolis 500 -- on its 100th anniversary.
Coming out of turn three, J.R. was a sprint away from racing immortality. Then it happened. Panther Racing representatives, National Guardsmen and women watching and listening around the world and racing fans inside the track were jubilant, worried, shocked, confused.
A split-second decision sent the car into the wall, tore off a tire and dragged J.R. and the National Guard car into second place.
What I witnessed afterward is remarkable. Panther Racing owner John Barnes never lost his temper, leveled blame or reached for his racing rulebook. J.R. displayed maturity well beyond his years. Here was a rookie who came within seconds of crossing the finish line first at this venerated track displaying sportsmanlike conduct that is noteworthy because it is so rare.
I witnessed this young driver and his boss show us that even though life sometimes sends us into the wall, courage and resilience define how we recover with our character intact.
When I saw J.R. later, he hugged me. He wanted to apologize for letting down the men and women of the National Guard.
You did not let us down, J.R. You provided a perfect example of how one defeat does not diminish a person's character. You showed us that winning has a much broader definition than most of us realize. To some, you placed second. To many of us, you won.
Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger
Adjutant General, Indiana National Guard