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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.
Illinois lawmakers were scheduled to be back at work Sunday afternoon, as they continue a rare holiday weekend session.
The Illinois House was scheduled to return to the floor at 4 p.m. Sunday. The Senate was set to be back at 5 p.m.
On Saturday, the Senate approved a plan to overhaul workers' compensation to cut business costs and curb corruption.
The measure now heads to the House. It would slash payments to doctors and hospitals that care for injured workers. It would tighten reviews that determine an injury's severity and cost, as well as cap awards for the increasingly common claim of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Those changes are meant to cut the $3 billion workers' comp system by up to $700 million a year, or more than 20 percent.
The legislation passed 46-8, with 2 voting present.
Among east-central Illinois lawmakers, Senators Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign), Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) and Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) voted in favor of the measure. Senator Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) voted against it. Senator Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon) did not vote.
High winds in the Champaign area this week were apparently were strong enough to topple and shatter a 6-ton granite veterans' memorial in the village of Savoy.
Village board member Bill Smith says village staff noticed the 8-foot tall, black granite block had been knocked over early Wednesday morning. He says the wind bent steel bars that held up the memorial "like wet noodles.''
The village expects insurance to help cover the cost of repairing or replacing the memorial. Smith says the memorial cost $30,000 when it was built in 2008. He says the real holdup involves getting a hold of black granite to be shipped from overseas. Area residents and businesses contributed the money for the original structure, but Smith says more donations have already come in to rebuild the memorial.
"This memorial was put up with the intent of not using public dollars to maintain and take care of it, so we're always in need of funding," said Smith. "So if there's a little extra that's collected after the deductable is paid, then we'll use that for ongoing maintenance."
A Memorial Day ceremony planned for the site Monday is cancelled.
Democratic lawmakers have approved new legislative districts that are likely to complicate life for Illinois Republicans for the next 10 years.
The new legislative map now goes to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.
Legislative districts are redrawn every decade to reflect population changes.
Democrats control the Legislature so they were able to draw new districts that would make elections tougher for Republicans.
The Senate approved the new districts 35-22 Friday. The House approved them earlier in the day.
Impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich switched his focus Friday during his second day on the witnesses stand from describing himself as an everyday man to seemingly pointing the fingers at others.
A less-animated Blagojevich offered nitty-gritty, often laborious detail to jurors about the legislative process and the hardscrabble world of political fundraising. Gone were the hand gestures, emotion and long monologue about himself from the day before.
Blagojevich still did not get to most explosive allegations against him, that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job.
His testimony Friday centered on allegations that he tried to shake down racetrack executive John Johnston for a $100,000 campaign contribution by withholding his signature on a bill that benefited the horse-racing industry.
The twice-elected governor conceded that he was eager to get a contribution from Johnston, but when his attorney asked if he was refusing to sign the bill as a way to squeeze Johnston for money, Blagojevich denied it.
"No, I was not," he said in a firm voice. "My intention was to follow the law ... and be careful not to cross any lines."
Blagojevich also told jurors that advance commitments from would-be donors - and urging would-be donors to follow through - was critical to enabling politicians to plan ahead for hard election fights.
"This is the system we have in America," he said. "I think it is an imperfect and flawed system."
The former government appeared to suggest that two of his close friends turned top advisers, Lon Monk and Chris Kelly, may have been at least partly to blame for the perception that Blagojevich seemed to be shaking down the executive.
His attorney asked Blagojevich to explain excerpts of an FBI wiretap recording, in which Monk tells Blagojevich about having just met Johnston, pressing him for money. Blagojevich several times noted that it was Monk, not him, who went to Johnston.
Later, he talked about his late friend Chris Kelly, offering suspicions that Kelly might have been "meddling" in the racetrack legislation himself as an explanation for why Blagojevich was so slow to sign the bill.
Kelly committed suicide in 2009, days before he was to report to prison to begin a term on tax and mail fraud convictions.
Though he didn't explain in detail, Blagojevich claimed that he believed Kelly might be trying to manipulate the racetrack bill somehow in an effort to curry favor with people with supposed connections to then-President George W. Bush. Kelly's aim, Blagojevich told jurors: To get someone to ask Bush to grant Kelly a pardon and keep him out of prison.
Blagojevich said that, and not any shakedown, was his reason for delay in signing the race-track bill.
"I don't want anyone to say I am signing the bill because I am part of some scheme with Chris," Blagojevich told jurors. "I was afraid if I sign the bill, this is what they might say."
As he did on Thursday in his first day of testimony, Blagojevich frequently veered off-topic. Judge James Zagel frequently intervened.
"See if you can answer a question yes or no," he told Blagojevich at one point.
Zagel sent jurors home for the Memorial Day holiday at around noon on Friday. Defense attorneys told Zagel that Blagojevich will be called to the stand again on Tuesday and that he could remain on the stand for the defense until Thursday.
(AP Photo/Tom Gianni)
A huge expansion of legalized gambling in Illinois is headed to the House floor.
The proposal would create licenses for five new riverboat gambling casinos. It would include a gambling boat or land-based casino in Chicago. It also would expand horse racing and add slot machines at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie was approved 8-3 Friday by the Executive Committee. It failed in the same committee Wednesday with only five votes.
Gov. Pat Quinn said earlier Friday he opposes "top-heavy'' gambling expansion and frowned on gambling at the fairgrounds.
Lobbyists for existing riverboat casinos oppose the measure because they say the market is saturated and state revenues would drop at current boats.
A measure that would scrap the new, controversial group health insurance plans for state employees, and restart the process under a different state agency --- with more legislative oversight - passed the Illinois Senate Friday evening by a 37-12 vote.
State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) is sponsoring an amendment to Senate Bill #178, with downstate Republicans Dale Righter, Shane Cultra, Larry Bomke and Bill Brady signed up as co-sponsors. The measure cleared the Senate Local Government and Veterans' Affairs Committee on Thursday. Co-sponsor Righter said one problem with the new health insurance plans, is that they require many state employees now using HMO plans from Health Alliance and Humana to switch to Open Access Plans --- plans which the state self-insures.
"So the state's potential liability is going to go way up," Righter said. "Now again, that can save you money over the long term, as long as you run a tight, efficient program. That's really the question, I think, out there for lawmakers is --- is this administration in the habit of doing that, or is this administration even capable of doing that?"
The bill would go back to the present mix of group insurance plans, current set to expire at the end of June. The procurement process for new plans would start over --- but under the Department of Central Management Services --- not the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, which is presently in charge.
And Frerichs, the bill's lead sponsor, said the measure would give the General Assembly more oversight of the process for selecting insurance plans, through its Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
"I think it's a good idea to have more eyes overseeing the process", said Frerichs, whose Senate District includes thousands of University of Illinois employees, many of whom receive healthcare through Urbana-based Health Alliance. "No one is perfect. People make mistakes. And that's why I've also focused on making sure that the General Assembly is involved in this as well."
Currently, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services is ignoring a vote by the Forecasting and Accountability Commission to block the new insurance plans.
The bill must now pass the House to beat the legislature's May 31st adjournment deadline.
Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has taken the witness stand for a second day at his corruption retrial.
The presiding judge has said there will only be a half day of testimony on Friday before he lets jurors head home for the Memorial Day holiday.
Blagojevich's testimony is likely to spill into next week.
As he stepped onto the witness stand Friday, he still hadn't addressed many of the allegations against him, including the charge that he attempted to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat President Barack Obama vacated after winning the 2008 election.
An often animated and emotional Blagojevich spent much of his time on the stand Thursday reciting his life story to jurors.
Prosecutors will get their chance to ask Blagojevich questions after his own lawyers finish.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
Illinois Democrats have released a much-anticipated map of new congressional districts.
The new map shows the state with 18 U.S. House districts after it lost one of its seats because of slowing population growth in the latest census.
The congressional map is a chance for Democrats to try to neutralize Republicans who captured a number of U.S. House seats in the last election.
The proposed map squeezes districts into new shapes and some Republicans will find themselves drawn into districts with other incumbents. A political science professor at the University of Illinois said the map could force Republican incumbents to face off in a primary or campaign elsewhere.
Brian Gaines said it appears as if Democrats deliberately chose new districts that could make life hard for some GOP incumbents. The map places much of Champaign-Urbana in a new 13th congressional district that also includes parts of Madison County, home to Republican John Shimkus. Meanwhile, Urbana Republican Tim Johnson's 15th district would draw all or parts of 33 counties in Southeast Illinois. Gaines said some changes had to be made because Illinois lost a Congressional seat due to population shifts, but he said some could have been intentional.
"It does look very much like they picked their shapes given where there were population losses, where you had to draw the line," Gaines said. "They went out of their way to make sure Republican incumbents would be paired up and would have this difficult choice of running against each other in the primary, or trying to relocate and run in a district that doesn't have very many voters who have ever voted for them before."
In a statement, Congressman Johnson called the map 'a slap in the face' to the notion of representative government, dividing communities for blatant partisan gain.' The one portion of Champaign-Urbana that remains in Johnson's district is his home in the Beringer Commons subdivision.
The Congressman said he will embrace new territories with all his energy, but spokesman Phil Bloomer said there will likely be a legal challenge to the new map since it only contains one Hispanic district in the Chicago area. But he says the map should be rejected on principle alone for splitting up communities like Champaign-Urbana, and adding all the counties to the south.
"That's a long way from tom to bottom," said Bloomer. "And a lot of new territory, and a lot of new people to get to know. It hurts because you build up these relationships with people and institutions in all these areas in the last 10 years Tim has been in office. And it's hard to give all that up."
Gaines said 11th District Republican Adam Kinzinger may have worst position of all incumbents in the new map, because his district has been stretched out to a suburban Chicago area served by Democrat Jesse Jackson Jr.
The proposed congressional map was the last piece of the redistricting puzzle for Illinois Democrats. They have already released proposed new state House and Senate districts. Democrats are in charge of the process because they control the state Legislature and the governor's office.
Here's a look at some of the key changes:
+Judy Biggert, 13th CD: Placed at the suburban end of a new 5th district that stretches to Chicago and the territory of Democrat Mike Quigley.
+Robert Dold, 10th CD: Would share a new 9th district with popular Democratic incumbent Jan Schakowsky.
+Randy Hultgren, 14th CD: House lies just yards inside the boundaries of new 14th, which would also be home to Joe Walsh
+Adam Kinzinger, 11th CD: Put into the rural, less-populated end of a new 2nd with long-time incumbent Jesse Jackson Jr.
+Bobby Schilling, 17th CD: New 17th loses rural, Republican territory and picks up Democratic-leaning areas, including Peoria.
+Joe Walsh, 8th CD: Lumped with Hultgren into the new 14th.
A state agency's plans to proceed with new health insurance contracts means a number of calls have come in to the University of Illinois' Payroll and Benefits office.
On Wednesday, Illinois' Department of Healthcare and Family Services opted to proceed with a contract that leaves out Health Alliance and Humana HMO's.
Executive Director of U of I Payroll and Benefits Jim Davito says his office is taking questions from state workers in areas with no HMO coverage now asked to choose between Personal Care and HealthLink Open Access Plans, and the state's own Quality Care Health Plan. DaVito says concerns have ranged from higher cost to changing doctors.
He encourages state employees and retirees to thoroughly research their plans, and not have one chosen for them if they miss the June 17th deadline.
"We would much rather see each of our employees choose the new plan that they're going to have starting July 1, rather than having a default option defined by CMS (the State Department of Central Management Services) determine what coverage you're going to have for the next year," said Davito, who says the pending changes for state workers should prompt them to thoroughly review their benefits package. He says the same for some who have been on HealthLink the past few years.
"Many people have chosen it, but a lot of people have never looked at it," said Davito. "And so it's a new concept, and I would encourage people to look at the literature, and call HealthLink, and call Personal Care OAP, and talk about the questions that you have."
Davito says the Open Access Plans are unusual in that they're composed of three tiers, with the lowest tier being similar to an HMO. The state agency is moving forward with the state insurance contract despite a vote against it Wednesday by the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
The U of I plans to hold more Benefits Choice informational sessions on campus soon.
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