Illinois Public Media News
Dan Wheldon was zipping toward the final corner of Sunday's Indianapolis 500, surely figuring the best he could do was another runner-up finish.
Then he came upon JR Hildebrand's crumpled car, all smashed up and sliding along the wall.
The rookie had made the ultimate mistake with his very last turn of the wheel, and Wheldon, not Hildebrand, made an improbable turn into Victory Lane.
"It's obviously unfortunate, but that's Indianapolis," said Wheldon, who won Indy in 2005 and finished second the last two years. "That's why it's the greatest spectacle in racing. You never now what's going to happen."
This might have been the whackiest one ever.
In his first event of the year, Wheldon captured the ultimate IndyCar prize. But the 100th anniversary of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" will be remembered more for the guy who let it slip away with the checkered flag in sight.
Leading by almost 4 seconds and needing to make it around the 2 1/2-mile track just one more time, Hildebrand cruised through the first three turns with no problem.
The fourth one got him. He went too high, lost control and slammed into the outside wall. Wheldon sped past, while Hildebrand's battered machine skidded across the line 2.1 seconds behind, still hugging the concrete barrier.
"It's a helpless feeling," Hildebrand said.
The 23-year-old Californian got into trouble when he came up on another rookie, Charlie Kimball, going much slower as they approached the last corner. Instead of backing off, the leader moved to the outside to make the pass - a decision that sent him slamming into the wall to a collective gasp from the crowd of 250,000.
"I caught him in the wrong piece of track," Hildebrand said. "I got up in the marbles and that was it."
While Wheldon celebrated his second Indy 500 win, series officials reviewed the video to see if Wheldon passed the wrecked machine before the caution lights went on. He clearly did, and Hildebrand's team said it wouldn't protest the result.
That gave the Brit another spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Not bad, considering he doesn't even have a full-time job.
"I just felt a lot of relief. It's an incredible feeling," Wheldon said. "I never gave up."
He took the traditional swig of milk and headed off on a triumphant lap around the speedway - a lap that Hildebrand should have been taking.
Instead, the youngster stopped by the garage to get a look at his mangled car, which was hauled through Gasoline Alley instead of being wheeled into Victory Lane. He's now in the company of athletes such as Jean Van de Velde, who squandered a three-shot lead on the last hole of the 1999 British Open, and Lindsey Jacobellis, whose hotdogging wipeout at the 2006 Winter Olympics cost her a certain gold medal.
They had it in the bag - and threw it all away.
"I'm just frustrated. It's not because we came in here with the expectation of winning and we didn't," Hildebrand said. "I felt like I just made a mistake and it cost our boys. I guess that's why rookies don't win the Indianapolis 500 a whole lot, and we'll be back next year, I guess."
After losing his ride from last season - with Hildebrand's team, no less - Wheldon had plenty of time to hang out with his wife and two young children, while also dealing with the burden of his mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He longed to get back behind the wheel, and when May rolled around he had a one-off deal with retired driver Bryan Herta's fledgling team.
They came up with a winning combination, which may well lead to a bigger gig.
For now, though, there are no guarantees - even for the Indy 500 champion.
"I think my contract expires at midnight," Wheldon said, managing a smile.
The 200-lap race was dominated much of the day by Chip Ganassi's top two drivers, defending champ Dario Franchitti and 2008 winner Scott Dixon.
But after a series of late pit stops, things really got interesting. Second-generation racer Graham Rahal spent some time up front. Danica Patrick claimed the lead but had to stop for fuel with nine laps to go. Belgium driver Bertrand Baguette had already gotten past Patrick, but he didn't have enough fuel, either.
When Baguette went to the pits with three laps to go, the lead belonged to Hildebrand. All he had to do was make it to the end.
He came up one turn short.
"My disappointment is for the team," Hildebrand said. "We should've won the race."
Not that Wheldon isn't a deserving champ. He has 16 career wins and finished in the top 10 of the series standings seven years in a row, capturing the title in 2005.
But in the peculiar world of auto racing, which runs on sponsorship dollars and not necessarily credentials, Wheldon was squeezed out of his ride at Panther.
He sat out the first four races of the year, but no way was he going without a ride at Indy. He's had too much success around this place.
"Dan Wheldon, he's a great winner," Patrick said. "And what a great story. He hasn't run this year. ... That's really cool."
Still, it was a bitter disappointment for Patrick, who ended up 10th.
"It's more and more depressing when I don't win the race," said Indy's leading lady, who might be heading to NASCAR next year.
Patrick knows about misfortune leading to victory for Wheldon. His first victory came when she led late in the race, only to have to back off the throttle to save enough fuel to make it to the finish.
This time, Wheldon never led a lap until the last one, the first time that's happened since Joe Dawson won the second Indy 500 in 1912.
It was the second time a driver lost the lead on the last lap - it happened to another rookie, Marco Andretti, in 2006 - and it's something Hildebrand will always remember.
"Is it a move I would do again?" he said. "No."
Rahal finished third, followed by hard-charging Tony Kanaan, who came all the way from the 22nd starting spot to contend for his first 500 win, just a year after leaving Michael Andretti's team. Dixon was fifth, followed by Oriol Servia, while Franchitti lost speed in the closing laps and slipped all the way to 12th.
Right from the start, the Ganassi cars showed just how strong they would be on a sweltering day at the Brickyard, where the temperature climbed into the upper 80s and the heat on the track was well over 100 degrees.
From the middle of the front row, Dixon blew by pole-sitter Alex Tagliani before they even got to the start-finish line, diving into the first turn with the lead.
Tagliani ran strong through the first half of the race but began having problems with his handling. Finally, on lap 147, he lost it coming out of the fourth turn and banged into the wall for a disappointing end to an amazing month for his car owner, Sam Schmidt, who watched the race from a wheelchair in the pits.
Schmidt has been a quadriplegic since a racing crash 11 years ago, but he's turned his efforts to building an IndyCar team. He had another car in the race, one-off driver Townsend Bell, who started from the inside of the second row and ran in the top 10 much of the day until he was collided with Ryan Briscoe on lap 158.
Briscoe's crash summed up the day for IndyCar's other elite team.
Roger Penske's trio of drivers capped a disappointing month with a grim performance on race day.
On the very first stop, Will Power drove out of the pits with a loose left rear wheel, which flew off before he got back on the track. While it bounced down pit road, Power set off around the 2 1/2-mile oval on three wheels, sparks flying out from under his machine as it limped back for another tire. He finished 14th - the best showing for Penske Racing.
Helio Castroneves, hoping for a record-tying fourth Indy win, started back in 16th spot after struggling in qualifying and did his best just to stay on the lead lap, much less challenge for the lead. That effort ended when Briscoe and Bell got together - and Castroneves ran off a piece of debris, shredding a tire. He wound up one lap down in 17th.
Briscoe's crash left him 27th.
"It was a tough day," Penske said. "But you've got execute."
There was only one wreck on the much-debated double-file restarts but plenty of thrilling moves - just what IndyCar officials were hoping for when they imposed the NASCAR-style procedure after each caution period.
At one point after taking green, Castroneves had to dive onto the lane that cars normally take coming out of the pits just to get through the second turn. The crowd erupted in cheers, clearly enjoying the show.
For Hildebrand, the cheers turned to groans on the final turn.
"It's just a bummer," he said.
A search committee will begin seeking out a new athletic director at the University of Illinois.
Ron Guenther is retiring after 19 years on the Urbana campus. The 65-year old and one-time Illini football standout says age wasn't really a factor in his decision. Guenther says was still an emotional decision for him, one that he confirmed just a few days ago.
"It's actually bittersweet, as the way I looked at it," Guenther said in a noon hour conference call with reporters on Monday. "I think there is a point where emotionally, I was very convinced I was ready. I am going to do something else, I just don't know what it's going to be."
Guenther said he had been thinking about retirement since the start of the calendar year. He says the option for a two-year extension was there, but decided the middle of last week that leaving the position was the right option. But Guenther said it's still been an emotional time.
"Even my wife Meagan said two weeks ago 'are you sure this is what you want?' And the answer was 'I'm not sure," said Guenther. "But I know in my gut that institutions are much bigger than any one person, and that this was the time in my opinion to move to new leadership."
Athletic teams under Guenther made an Illini men's basketball Final Four appearance, and Illinois football teams made six bowl appearances. But he said achievements in those programs shouldn't overshadow others.
"The run we had in tennis... and the current run that we have going in men's golf," Guenther said. "I don't think there's any one particular thing that I look at. I drive around here (the Urbana campus) early in the morning before anybody gets in and I look at the buildings, and that's a piece of it as well."
Guenther said everything is place for the Illini football team to have success, coming off a Bowl win and retaining most of the staff. And he said there's good reason to be optimistic about the basketball team with 3 solid classes, and another coming in.
Guenther helped oversee the $121-million renovation to Memorial Stadium, and he says plans to upgrade Assembly Hall are also on the right track. Guenther said he admits U of I President Michael Hogan has a lot on his plate, and that opting for the two-year extension would have been one less thing for him to think about. But Guenther said Hogan's reaction was 'what's best for you?' as the two of them discussed his decision.
U of I Business Dean Larry DeBrock will chair the committee to replace Guenther, whose last day is June 30th. Guenther is a native of Elmurst who played Illinois football in the 60's, earning MVP honors in 1966.
University of Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther says he will retire after his contract runs out June 30th.
Guenther said in a news release Monday that he's been working with the university on a succession plan and a search committee has started looking for his replacement. Guenther had talked recently about possibly staying on after June to begin work on a planned renovation of the Assembly Hall.
Guenther's 19 years on the job have been marked by a number of sports-related construction projects. They include the recent $121 million renovation of Memorial Stadium. Interim Vice President and Chancellor Bob Easter praised Guenther for his integrity and high athlete graduation rates.
Guenther is a University of Illinois graduate and played on the football team in the early 1960s.
For Frank Shorter and Lorraine Moller, victory in a marathon was beating the other runners. But the two Olympic medalists note with approval the increase in people who run marathons to achieve their "personal best".
Shorter and Moller are guests at this weekend's Illinois Marathon in Champaign-Urbana. Shorter said that when he started competing, the marathon was a sport mostly for competitive runners --- but he said that's changed.
"The race has become de-mystified in a good way," Shorter explained. "It's the idea that if you just put in the time, and you just put in the effort and put in the training, you can actually run a marathon. So we're actually at the point where everybody benefits from that."
Moller said she came to understand those benefits as her competitive running career came to a close. While she could no compete against the world's top runners, Moller said she discovered intrinsic rewards from running that didn't require being among the top performers.
"And gradually those intrinsic rewards, such as just the joy of moving, and running and feeling good --- and having that communion with nature and with my higher self while I was out running --- were rewards in themselves," Moller said. "And those are the things that, when I retired, that still get me out the door to go out for a run."
Frank Shorter took the gold and the silver medals in the marathon at the 1972 and '76 Olympics respectively --- while Moller earned a Bronze medal at age 37, in the 1992 women's marathon in Barcelona. Both were speakers Friday at the Illinois Marathon's Health and Fitness Expo on the University of Illinois Urbana campus. In addition, Shorter will be running in the 10K race Saturday morning.
About 19,000 people have registered for this year's Illinois Marathon events. That includes the marathon itself on Saturday morning, a Half Marathon, a Wheelchair Half-Marathon, a Marathon Relay, a Youth Run, the 10K Run and Walk, and a 5K run on Friday evening.
Elite athletes in this 3rd annual Illinois Marathon include Kipkurul Geofry, Siyoum Debele Lemma and Jeffrey McClellan among the men, and Habtamnesh Gashaw, Holly Fearing and Lucie Mays-Sulewski among the women.
The Illinois High School Association board revised a policy this week regarding high school athletes who sustain head injuries during a game.
IHSA executive Kurt Gibson said students in Illinois have traditionally not been required to seek medical care the day after a head injury. He said according to the new policy, athletes must get care in the days after an incident happens, and they can only take part in a game if given clearance to do so by a licensed health care provider.
"We know so much more about concussions now than we did even a decade ago," Gibson said. "We realize and can see the need to have clear return to play policies in place in order to protect the safety of student athletes."
The policy change follows months of reports about long-term injuries sustained by athletes. The Center for Injury Research and Policy reports that about 20 percent of injuries during high school athletic competitions last year were diagnosed as concussions.
Scott Hamilton, the athletic director at Unity High School in Tolono, said he hopes the guidelines bring to the light the seriousness of sports-related injuries.
"There are so many different degrees of a kid getting hit or a kid falling or a kid bumping his head or two kids running into each other," Tolono said. "I think the important thing that's happening with all this is just awareness.
A native of England is bringing his vision of year round soccer to Urbana.
The city council has accepted Developer Graham Berry's plans for a 24,000 square foot facility on North Willow Road, west of O'Brien Auto Park.
Berry says he expects to break ground on 'Soccer Planet' next month. He says the visibility from the interstate was a big bonus for the location, as well as the Tax Increment Financing incentives tied to that location. Berry has played in adult soccer leagues that require him to drive to Decatur. Other kids in the area play soccer in cities like Bloomington and Springfield.
But Berry says a local indoor facility built specifically for the sport will open new opportunities for many ages, "...Whether it be a recreational player, a 4-year old who wants to be in a developmental program, learning the game but it's more a social thing between him and his parent or guardian.." he said. "So the competitive player who wants to play year round, this facility is going to provide that."
Berry says the site in Urbana will be state of the art, with a playing surface less susceptible to injuries. "It's not astro turf," he said. "It's field turf. So it's actually a synthetic grass that actually has blades and either rubber infill or matting to protect players when they fall because there's some cushion there."
Berry says the surface will also produce a better bounce for soccer balls. Soccer Planet should be finished by the end of September.
The University of Illinois has taken preliminary steps toward renovating the Assembly Hall and says it hopes to start construction in 2013.
The university has asked for bids from construction managers looking to take on the project and design work. The requests tentatively list the start date as January 2012 with a completion date of June 2015. They indicate the school would like to have the work done in phases so men's and women's teams could continue to play basketball in the arena.
Illinois spokesman Kent Brown said Monday that the school doesn't yet have a good cost estimate. The project still needs the approval of university trustees.
Brown said Illinois is talking with Midwest-based companies about naming rights for the 48-year-old arena but he wouldn't identify them.
The University of Illinois will permanently remove about 2,200 seats from Memorial Stadium because the bleacher seats are getting too old to use.
Illinois spokesman Kent Brown said Tuesday the move will drop the stadium's capacity from 62,870 to about 60,600.
Brown said the aluminum bleacher seats in the stadium's south end zone were installed in 1982 and intended to be temporary.
Engineers who have examined the seats say they should be removed. Brown said the seats aren't unsafe yet, but might be in a few years.
He added that the next phase of stadium renovation could include work in the south end zone so there's no point in replacing the seats yet.
University of Illinois freshman guard/forward Jereme Richmond will enter the 2011 NBA draft, and he says he doesn't plan on returning to school
Richmond earned Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors after averaging 7.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in 31 games for the Illini during the 2010-11 season. Richmond is working out in Chicago and will weigh his options regarding signing with an agent.
"I enjoyed my time at the University of Illinois and would like to thank the coaching staff and my teammates for everything they've done for me," Richmond said. "At this time, I'm ready to follow my dreams and achieve my life-long goal of playing in the NBA."
Richmond earned Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors after averaging 7.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in 31 games for the Illini during the 2010-11 season. He shot 52.8 percent from the field and ranked third in the Big Ten in field goal shooting during conference play at 60.4 percent. Richmond scored in double figures 10 times, led by a career-high 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting against Ohio State on Jan. 22. The team's third-leading rebounder on the season, Richmond led the Illini in rebounding in six games, highlighted by a career-best 12 boards versus UIC on Dec. 18.
"Jereme is an extremely talented player who helped us at nearly every position," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "His versatility and ability to impact the game in a number of different areas are skills that will help him greatly as he pursues his dream of playing professional basketball."
The only thing that could stop Kemba Walker and Connecticut's amazing run was the final buzzer.
On a night when the massive arena felt like a dusty old gym, UConn made Butler look like the underdog it really was, winning the national championship Monday night with an old-fashioned, grinding 53-41 beatdown of the Bulldogs.
Walker finished with 16 points for the Huskies (32-9), who won their 11th straight game since closing the regular season with a 9-9 Big East record that foreshadowed none of this.
They closed it out with a defensive showing for the ages, holding Butler to a 12-for-64 shooting. That's 18.8 percent, the worst ever in a title game.
It was one of the ugliest games anyone can remember on the sport's biggest stage. But definitely the kind of game a grizzled old coach like Jim Calhoun could love.
At age 68, he became the oldest coach to win the NCAA championship and joined John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as only the fifth coach to win three NCAA titles.
"It may be the happiest moment of my life," Calhoun said.
Calhoun coaxed this win out of his team by accepting the reality that the rim looked about as wide as a pancake on a cold-shooting, defensive-minded night in Houston. He did it by making his players pound the ball inside and insisting on the kind of defense that UConn played during this remarkable run, but which often got overshadowed by Walker's theatrics.
UConn trailed 22-19 after a first half that came straight out of the '40s.
"The halftime speech was rather interesting," Calhoun said. "The adjustment was, we were going to out-will them and outwork them." And so they did.
Connecticut outscored Butler by an unthinkable 26-2 in the paint. The Bulldogs (28-10), in their second straight title game and hoping to put the closing chapter on the ultimate "Hoosiers" story, went a mind-numbing 13 minutes, 26 seconds in the second half making only one field goal.
During that time, a 25-19 lead turned into a 41-28 deficit. This for a team that never trailed Duke by more than six during last year's epic final.
That time, Gordon Hayward's desperation halfcourt heave bounced off the backboard and rim, barely missing. This time, UConn was celebrating before the buzzer sounded, Calhoun pumping his fists and hugging an assistant while the Huskies ran to the sideline and soaked in the confetti.
The version of "Hoosiers" with the happy ending is still available on DVD.
UConn, meanwhile, gets the real celebration.
"You see the tears on my face," Walker said. "I have so much joy in me, it's unreal. It's surreal. I'm so happy right now."
Joining Walker, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, in double figures were Jeremy Lamb with 12 points, including six during UConn's pullaway run, and Alex Oriakhi with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Just as impressive were the stats UConn piled up on defense. Four steals and 10 blocks, including four each by Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith, and a total clampdown of Butler's biggest stars, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack. Howard went 1 for 13 and Mack went 4 for 15.
"You just hope the shots go in," Butler guard Zach Hahn said. "That's how it's been all tournament. Whenever we needed a big shot, somebody came up with it. I guess we just ran out of steam. Nobody could make 'em."
Butler's 41 points were 10 points fewer than the worst showing in the shot-clock era in a championship game. (Michigan scored 51 in a loss to Duke in 1992), and the 18.8 percent shooting broke a record that had stood since 1941.
"Without question, 41 points and 12 of 64 is not good enough to win any game, let alone the national championship," Butler coach Brad Stevens said.
While Stevens made history by doing it "The Butler Way" and bringing this school with 4,500 students within a win of the championship for two straight years, UConn played big-boy basketball in a big-boy league and suffered through some big-time problems.
Aside from the .500 Big East record, it was a rough year off the court for the Huskies and their coaching lifer, whose season was tarnished by an NCAA investigation that found Calhoun failed to create an atmosphere of compliance in the program. He admitted he wasn't perfect and has begrudgingly accepted the three-game suspension he'll have to serve when the conference season starts next year.
Then again, given this performance, it's clear UConn does its best work when it's all-or-nothing, one-and-done.
Counting three wins at the Maui Invitational, Connecticut finished 14-0 in tournament games this year - including an unprecedented five-wins-in-five-nights success at the Big East tournament, then six games - two each week - in the one that really counts, one of the most unpredictable versions of March Madness ever.
It closed with 11th-seeded VCU in the Final Four and with eighth-seeded Butler joining the 1985 Villanova team as the highest seed to play in a championship game.
Villanova won that game by taking the air out of the ball and upsetting Georgetown.
Butler tried to do it in a most un-Butler way - by running a little and jacking up 3s.
Didn't work, and when the Bulldogs tried later to make baskets in the paint, it really looked like there was a lid there. During their dry spell, Howard, Garrett Butcher and Andrew Smith all missed open shots from under the bucket. It just wasn't their day.
Wasn't perfect for Connecticut, either.
The Huskies only made 19 of 55 shots, and Walker's 16 points came on 5-for-19 shooting. But through the ups and downs of the junior's college career, he has shown there are lots of way to lead - with words in the locker room, by example in the weight room and by doing the little things like playing defense and grabbing rebounds. He had nine on this night and finished with 15 in two games, including the 56-55 win over Kentucky in the semifinals.
His biggest offensive highlight: Probably the twisting, scooping layup he made with 10:15 left that put UConn ahead 39-28 - a double-digit lead that was essentially insurmountable in this kind of contest.
"It was tough shooting in the first half, but in the second half, we stuck with each other," Walker said. "We told each other we were going to make shots, and that's what we did."
It was the final, successful chapter in a season defined by believing even when things weren't going so great. This team lost its last two regular-season games and looked like it would spend a short time in the March Madness bracket. Instead, the Huskies were the team cutting down the last set of nets.
"We've been down that road before throughout the whole tournament," Oriakhi said. "We just keep playing basketball and we stick together, and I think that's what's most important."
(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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