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INDIANAPOLIS – Jim Harbaugh is finally going to get to see a yellow flag.
The coach of the San Francisco 49ers will drive the pace car for the start of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, and while he won't be behind the wheel during in-race cautions — when the yellow flag comes out — you can be sure he'll have a wry smile on his face when it flutters in the breeze.
It was just a few months ago, during the Super Bowl in New Orleans, that Harbaugh's 49ers had a chance to take the lead in the waning minutes. But despite contact in the end zone on fourth down, the officials didn't call a penalty, and the Baltimore Ravens held on for a 34-31 victory.
"You brought up a very bitter feeling that I have about that," Harbaugh said with a smile on Saturday. "I probably always will."
Harbaugh has a much more cheerful disposition when it comes to the Indianapolis 500.
He's been getting coaching all weekend from three-time winner Johnny Rutherford, who will slide behind the wheel of the pace car once the race begins. He's also been getting a few tips from folks in the garage area, including his own Panther Racing drivers J.R. Hildebrand and Townsend Bell.
"I count this as one of the great memories of my life, as long as I don't screw it up," Harbaugh said. "My first time around, I knew I had more work to do, and Johnny has been coaching me up, and my confidence went up a lot when I got more practice. I'm looking forward to going out there."
Harbaugh got interested in IndyCars when he played for the Colts during the mid-90s.
He was walking through Gasoline Alley during the month of May and struck up a conversation with some of the people in the garages. One thing led to another, and Harbaugh eventually partnered up with five other businessmen to form Panther Racing, now one of the oldest teams in the series.
They've had some memorable moments, too, and some unbearable heartache.
Sam Hornish Jr. delivered series championships in 2001 and '02, and the team has won more than a dozen races with drivers who have included Scott Goodyear and Tomas Scheckter. But the team also had a long relationship with Dan Wheldon, though he was driving for another team when he was killed at Las Vegas in 2011. Wheldon twice finished second in the Indy 500 for Panther Racing, and Vitor Meira (2008) and Hildebrand (2011) gave the team four straight runner-ups.
Hildebrand's may have been the most disheartening. He was leading on the final lap when he slid out of the racing line to avoid slower traffic and hit the outside wall, allowing Wheldon to snatch the win while Hildebrand's beat-up car coasted across the finish line on three wheels to finish second once again.
"It's one of life's real memories, great achievements, to be competing in this race, the Super Bowl of racing, just like it is to get to that big game in football," Harbaugh said. "The best of the best competing against each other, everybody wants to see that."
Harbaugh said he relishes his annual pilgrimage back to Indianapolis — for one thing, he can eat at Cracker Barrel and load up on his favorite khaki pants at the same Wal-Mart he shopped at while he was playing for the Colts. But he also appreciates the history of the place, where those great gray grandstands fill up with festive fans on the final weekend of May.
"So many things in terms of tradition, the people, the sport itself, the fact that they drink milk afterward — the trophy is the best trophy in sports. Just so many things," he said. "Every year you think you've seen it all, but this has already started out being the greatest 500 weekend ever."