When ABC television’s Wide World of Sports first coined the phrase, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” some 40 years ago. You could almost hear the voice of the late Jim McKay, bellowing out that saying when two of motorsports biggest races of the year were lost because of driver error.
Think back to the last time in the history of motorsports when two young winless drivers in the same year have come so close to victory in the season’s biggest spectacles, but yet were unable to close the deal while millions of fans watched in amazement.
On one side of the spectrum you have a driver who is in his seventh season racing in NASCAR’s premiere series who has never won a Sprint Cup race, and on the other side a rookie driver who was making only his eighth start in the IZOD IndyCar Series, his fifth this season.
[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]Roush-Fenway driver David Ragan, could feel the electricity running through his body as he waited patiently for the green flag to drop on the first of what would be two green-white-checkered finishes.
Ragan who led the 52nd running of the Daytona 500 twice for seven laps, would not be around for the last and final green-white-checkered restart. Instead fate would deal him a different hand, and ultimately take away any chances of him winning his first ever Sprint cup race in 147 career starts.
In the blink of an eye Ragan threw away his best opportunity at winning not only NASCAR’s biggest race of the season, but also the chance to become Roush-Fenway Racing’s second driver to ever win the 500 behind Matt Kenseth who went to victory in 2009.
Ragan, who was leading the race at the time took the green flag after a late race caution outside of eventual winner Trevor Bayne, and changed lanes before he reached the start/finish line. Unfortunately for Ragan, he violated section 10-2 of the Sprint Cup Series rule book with the move and was black-flagged.
Ragan would restart the race in the 15th position after serving his pass through penalty, and would eventually finish a disappointing 14th. “It was tough to swallow,” Ragan said after the race.
Ragan also added that, “Who knows what would have happened in that next lap? We had a top-five car and we didn’t finish in the top five, so that’s a bummer. We had a car that could’ve won the Daytona 500. We were sitting in position and just didn’t do it.”
Three months later and the racing gods would strike again, but this time it would involve a driver who was trying to make history as the second rookie to ever win the Indianapolis 500. In 2002 it was Helio Castroneves who became the first Indianapolis 500 rookie driver to win both rookie of the year honors, along with the race.
On the day of the centennial running of the Great American Race, rookie driver JR Hildebrand was only one corner away from matching Castroneves historical feat, and putting his name in the record books next to one of the series greatest drivers ever.
Hildebrand just like Ragan could almost feel the thrill of victory, and in a quick instant the agony of defeat slapped him with a dose of reality. Instead Hildebrand’s second place finish would go down as one of the sport’s most heartbreaking finishes, when he crashed on the last corner while leading the race.
Hildebrand was coming out of turn three and headed into four, when he came behind a slower car and decided to go around it and lost control when hit the marbles and crashed hard into the wall.
In that split second gone was the Borg-Warner trophy along with the customary drink of milk that every driver dreams of when the month of May comes around, and the only thing left were the remnants of what could have been the biggest motorsports story of the year.
“I caught him [Charlie Kimball] at just the wrong time,” said Hildebrand when talking about the crash after the race. Hildebrand also added that, “I went to the high side because I didn’t want to slow down too much, I got up in the marbles and that was it.”
Emotions play a huge role when a victory is on the line, but even more when it includes the biggest and most important race of the season. Along with the victory comes the respect from your fellow competitors, as well as the endorsements and the praise from the fans knowing that on that one special day you had what it took to be victorious.
Unfortunately for Ragan and Hildebrand, that special day turned into a day of disaster and disappointment. Ragan knew it all too well when he said, “I feel like I know the rules and understand ’em as good as anyone, but I just kind of let my emotions take over and I just didn’t make the right moves when it counted.”
40 years later and the phrase will be instilled in the minds of Ragan and Hildebrand, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,”