Insider: Without Team Penske, Helio Castroneves lands 'greatest achievement' in 4th Indy 500
INDIANAPOLIS – Helio Castroneves’ celebration Sunday afternoon near the Yard of Bricks had everything we’ve grown to expect from the 46-year-old Spider-Man, along with a surprise.
The fence-scaling he made famous in 2001. He parked the car mid-front stretch, hoisted his boyish frame out the cockpit and bee-lined for the catchfence like an 8-year-old at a neighborhood jungle gym.
He broke down in 2002; perched atop the SAFER barrier and ever-so-slowly curled into an emotional mess as he digested the history of becoming the Indianapolis 500’s first back-to-back winner since the ‘70s.
Those closest to him couldn’t wait until the formal ceremony atop Roger Penske’s recently refurbished Victory Podium to mob the beloved Castroneves. In 2009, it was sister, mom and dad; Sunday they were replaced by Will, Simon and Mario.
But if you stuck around a few moments more, you saw something for the very first time. Helio Castroneves – IndyCar’s first four-time Indy 500 winner crowned in three decades, the fourth-oldest winner of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and the first one-off 500 winner since 2011 – spent a few moments more with those who love him most, who never left him, never told him it was time to move on.
As throngs of boisterous race fans stayed pinned in their seats long after the checkered flag had flown Sunday, Castroneves took hold of an imaginary baton and directed a song all his own.
“HE-LI-O, HE-LI-O, HE-LI-O”, they chanted, perfectly in unison with the flicks of his wrists that mimicked keeping tempo. In reality, the quality of the sound mattered very little. They were chanting for him, and him alone.
Not a driver wielding a fighter jet of a Team Penske machine, or one who had race strategist wunderkind Tim Cindric standing on his pit box for 200 laps, or even one backed by the might and money of the American open-wheel racing mastermind Roger Penske.
Sunday’s historic Indy 500 victory was made possible because of the belief of two men, Mike Shank and Jim Meyer. But Helio Castroneves fine-tuned the ride, then banned his brand-new team from touching it all week. He then methodically steered it past competitors with better odds or more hype than the Brazilian who had won this famous race three times, but not in more than a decade.
During Thursday’s media day, Castroneves shunned the notion of being this race’s “dark horse.” But Monday morning, with a few short hours to sleep on what he called “the greatest achievement of his career,” Castroneves said the lack of attention and pressure he felt entering the 105th Indy 500 played into his team’s success Sunday afternoon.
“I felt that people were not paying attention to us, and I think that was great,” Castroneves told IndyStar during a one-on-one interview Monday at IMS. “I felt comfortable and confident, and there was this sort of element of surprise. By half the race, the other guys were like, ‘Whoops, this guy has something here.'
“Nobody had us on the radar. And it’s picture-perfect when you can use the element of surprise.”
How can a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner catch some of the best open-wheel drivers in the world by surprise?
Because when the team who employed you for 21 seasons – winning 18 Indy 500s and 16 season championships, and whose namesake owner now also owns the series and the Racing Capital of the World – says that you have reached the end of your road together, people tend to believe the 84-year-old racing mogul.
No one in the IndyCar paddock would have said publicly ahead of Sunday’s race that Castroneves didn’t have a chance – because every one of the 33 drivers had some chance. You might have said the 46-year-old veteran, who in the last seven months clinched his first series title (in IMSA with Acura Team Penske) and won the 24 Hours of Daytona but had driven just five IndyCar races over the past 44 months had odds similar to a rookie like Scott McLaughlin, starting 17th.
Maybe you would have even said the next wave of Team Penske, despite starting much farther back than the Brazilian’s No. 8 starting spot, had a better chance.
More in-depth Indy 500 coverage:
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- Foyt on Castroneves: 'I haven’t heard these fans scream like that in (a long time)'
- 'Nerve center' of the Indy 500: A look at every floor of Pagoda during the 500
- Álex Palou proud but hurt on finishing second in the Indy 500
The talk all week had been about “Scott Dixon vs. the young guns.” There had been some more about “the old guys,” but as Pato O’Ward so succinctly explained in the race lead-up, there were the “old guys” (40-year-olds like Dixon, Ed Carpenter, Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay) and then your “older guys” (the 45-and-older club of Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Kanaan). That distinction was purposeful.
Castroneves loved winning in spite of all that. Because never, even when it turned out he had a run-of-the-mill car during his Team Penske days, did he not have a target on his back. His first win in 2001, he said he didn’t expect much. To defend his title a year later, he and Cindric took a massive strategy gamble that paid off. In 2009, he drove “a bullet” all month and took it the distance.
But then, there are years like 2003 and 2017 when, as Castroneves described, he could “drive with my left arm on the side of the cockpit, (the car) was so awesome,” and he couldn’t pull off a victory.
He finished second in both races. And they were the only ones Sunday’s winner could compare his Meyer Shank Racing machine to, in terms of drivability, swiftness, speed and fuel economy. Of the three cars he’d deem most close to “perfect,” this black and pink Honda was the only one he parked in Victory Lane.
“This was calculated. The other ones, I wanted to be ‘first, first, first, first,’ and in the race I’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, why am I not first?’” he said. “I’d just keep driving it through whatever problem I had to try and make it happen. With this car, I could do whatever I wanted, and when you have that, you can plan. You can be tactical.
“We took all the stuff I learned from Penske and tried some things with the info I had, but it wouldn’t work. It’s a whole different background, but when you put the right package together, that’s what happened. We made a statement (Sunday).”
This year was also the first time in a while, Castroneves said, he felt supremely in a position to succeed – largely because of level and passion of the support behind him. In 2018, his first shortened IndyCar effort with Team Penske, he still didn’t have a great handle on the post-aero-kit Dallara chassis and spun himself into a wreck.
A year later, he said his team “bailed out on strategy” after his mistake in pitlane, despite still having 120 laps to go. And in 2020, his only race of the year, he started a dismal 28th and worked his way up to 11th – second-best among his teammates.
But Shank and Meyer had given Castroneves their word last fall that they’d throw the kitchen sink at his car if the then-three-time-winner embarked on this six-race journey – their first foray into a second car alongside Jack Harvey. From his car to the graphics pasted to the walls of his garage in Gasoline Alley that Castroneves marveled at all month, no stone was left unturned to prep a chassis previously owned by Dragonspeed, which qualified last in the 2020 Indy 500 with Ben Hanley behind the wheel.
Together, Shank, Meyer and Castroneves took what was seen publicly as a dismal car and a partial-season effort on one of the series’ smallest teams and turned it into the fastest one when it counted most. Previously, none of the 13 drivers who won an Indy 500 with Team Penske had ever left and managed to hoist the Borg-Warner again. On Sunday, Castroneves proved there can be life, and more importantly the greatest of successes, after Team Penske.
That’s not to say they aren’t still family. Castroneves said Monday that, of the estimated 400 text messages he’d received over the past 20 hours, half were from those working for his former home. Former teammates Will Power and Simon Pagenaud were two of his first colleagues to greet him near the Yard of Bricks. Cindric wasn’t far behind, all while Penske was waiting atop the Victory Podium for the pair’s special hug.
There’s a reverence there, a gratitude and an appreciation that transcends pit box barriers. That will never die. But, as Castroneves said, until he reached the pinnacle of motorsports while blazing his own trail, he’d never truly know what he alone was capable of. It was a message his mother Sandra, shared with him not long ago: ‘Go for it. If you don’t like it, at least you’ll know.’
“(Team Penske) raised me like a teenager and molded and guided me in the right direction, but this was the first time flying by myself,” he said. “It was so great to have a team that believed in me, and I in them, to find out what we could do together.
“This isn’t for anybody. This is for me. I can do it, and I don’t need 400 people behind me to make it happen. I can do it with 30, with passion and dedication from both sides. I love what I do, and I didn’t want to make a decision (to retire) on tradition, or just because I’ve been somewhere for so long.
“I still have a lot of fire and fuel to burn, and hopefully good things are going to come out of this.”