INDIANAPOLIS, IN. (AP) – The Indianapolis 500 was meant to mark the return of some sort of normalcy, at least for the landmark sporting events Americans find so significant.
For Helio Castroneves, Indy provided a professional rebirth that pushed him into an elite club that last welcomed a new member 30 years ago. He only became the fourth quadruple winner of the Indy 500 on Sunday in front of 135,000 fans at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, by far the biggest and loudest sporting event since the start of the pandemic.
The race was postponed to August a year ago and took place without spectators for the only time in its 105-year history. With permission to open 40% of the stands this year, the exuberant crowd came in droves and went wild for Castroneves’ historic victory for the old folks.
Biding his time until the time was right, the veteran passed 24-year-old Alex Palou with two laps to go and the frenzied crowd roared their approval. When the Brazilian took the checkered flag, he rushed to the fence for his traditional “Spiderman” climb that belied his 46 years.
Castroneves had been trying since 2009 to join AJ Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears, his former mentor at Team Penske, as the only four-time winners of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”. Mears was the last driver to join the club in 1991.
Castroneves became the fourth oldest winner in Indianapolis 500 history, behind Al Unser (47, 1987), Bobby Unser (47, 1981) and Emerson Fittipaldi (46, 1993).
After descending the fence, Castroneves ran nearly a mile on the front stretch for a victory lap on foot. He threw his arms in the air and waved at the ecstatic crowd, his burst of emotional energy stopped every few yards by a flood of rivals rushing down the track to congratulate him.
“I was drawn to each other’s positive energy. For a long time, these people want to see a quadruple winner, ”he said. “I say this because they tell me. Every time we sign the autographs, they’re like, “I’ve never seen a four-time winner. I want to see him.’ This is probably what made me thank everyone because they made this place special.
Almost everyone on Team Penske rushed to meet Castroneves, including former teammate Will Power, who saw the final pylon and had no idea how longtime friend would win.
“I was looking up and down” Who is 06? “Power said to Castroneves in a winning embrace.” You are a legend. “
Castroneves spent more than two decades driving for the Penske team and won three Indy 500s with the team. But he was eventually transferred to the sports car program, where he won the IMSA Championship last season before Roger Penske shut down the team and made the business decision to let Castroneves loose.
Penske, now owner of the speedway, embraced Castroneves on the way to victory. Foyt welcomed the new member to the four-time winner’s club.
“He deserved it, he worked hard to get it and he finally got it,” said Foyt, who was celebrating the 60th anniversary of his first Indy 500 win. “It wasn’t given to him and when someone works as hard as him, I’m glad it happened for him.
After Castroneves, still the last driver to win back-to-back Indianapolis 500s in 2001 and 2002, was released by Penske, he insisted he was not done racing yet.
Michael Shank agreed.
Shank hired Castroneves for the Indy 500 to complete the Meyer Shank Racing car team. Castroneves might have a chance to win, but he would also strengthen a team that needed seasoned leadership on one of the toughest tracks in the world.
Castroneves was also part of the winning Rolex 24 Daytona sports car team in January, taking on the prestigious sports car event for the first time.
“I’ve run two races this year and won two races, I’d say it’s pretty good,” said Castroneves, who noted it could be the year for aging veterans.
“I don’t know if it’s a good comparison, but Tom Brady won the Super Bowl and Phil Mickelson won golf, so let’s go. The older guys are still kicking the buttocks of the younger ones.
Seven-time Super Bowl champion Brady capped his first season with Tampa Bay by leading the Bucs to their first championship in 18 at 43. Mickelson at 50 became the oldest big winner last week.
Castroneves’ victory was a stark contrast to the recent theme of young drivers taking control of IndyCar, which now has six different winners across six races this season. Three of them were first-time winners and four are drivers aged 24 or under.
Castroneves found himself in a closing duel with one of the young stars, but he passed Palou for good with two laps to go and beat him 0.4928 seconds for the win.
When he finally reached the true victory lane – after a kiss from Mario Andretti, a hug from Johnny Rutherford, good wishes from almost every great Indy 500 – Castroneves sipped his bottle of 2% milk and then emptied the rest over its lead.
When he rode in the back of a convertible for his true victory lap on the 2.5 mile speed track, most of the fans were still in the stands applauding Castroneves. The tour lasted more than 20 minutes and the fans who remained in the stands climbed the fence to cheer him on as he passed.
“I thought the coolest thing about that Camaro convertible with him was that all the fans had stayed, nobody was left. The place was packed, ”Shank said. “I was able to physically see the kind of story in the making. I saw a thousand people climb the fence all around the trail. It was so cool to be a part of it. I think Helio deserves a fifth win in Indianapolis. We’re going to do whatever we can to make this happen for him.
Former Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, winner of the 2019 Indy, was third, followed by 21-year-old budding IndyCar star Pato O’Ward.