Hélio Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500 yesterday, his fourth win at the Brickyard and quite possibly his most surprising win since Dancing With The Stars. Castroneves, at 46 considered well past his prime, won the only INDYCAR race in which he has participated all year. With a part-time deal. For a team (Meyer Shank Racing) that had never won an INDYCAR race. Translation: the impossible just drank the victory milk at Indy.
Castroneves’ picture is in the dictionary next to the word ebullient, his overflowing personality having long made him a fan favorite. However, he has been away from driving in INDYCAR full-time since 2017, instead focusing on the IMSA series that is loved by hardcore auto racing fans and and greeted with wild indifference by everyone else. Out of sight, and mostly out of mind, Castroneves seem destined for the “oh, they’re still driving?” file.
Then something funny happened on the way to wondering what ol’ Hélio was up to these days. Castroneves and teammate Ricky Taylor won the 2020 IMSA championship, and were rewarded for their efforts by seeing their team owners Team Penske shut their IMSA operation down. Castroneves moved to Meyer Shank Racing’s IMSA effort, which given how it had won the IMSA owners championship the past two years was anything but a bad idea. Somewhere along the line, someone said something to someone resembling “I’ve got an idea — let’s boost our one-car INDYCAR presence by having Hélio run in the Indy 500!” So, phone calls were made, a one-and-done sponsorship agreement with SiriusXM was reached, and everyone involved figured if nothing else the crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will get a kick out of seeing Castroneves out there even though there’s no way he’ll be competitive with such an arrangement for this team against all the young guns with their megateams and megabucks backing, right? Er … right?
Things started getting interesting when Castroneves rolled in and started rolling out some impressive practice laps. Then he qualified eighth. Then the race started, and Castroneves made good things happen, keeping up with the leaders and eventually becoming one himself. This being INDYCAR, passes for the lead between assorted drivers came so fast and furious about the only driver who didn’t lead a lap was Vin Diesel. The pace was rapid; only two caution flags waved the entire race, and there was only one accident on the track (the other occurred on pit lane). In short, this was auto racing at its most exciting for all the right reasons.
The laps wore down. Castroneves was still in the hunt. The young and talented Alex Palou was up front. Castroneves, never one to let a chance for extreme drama to go unexploited, waited until lap 199 of 200 to overtake Palou with an are-you-kidding-me brass ones pass in the first turn, this move more commonly referred to as the Checkers or Wreckers Special. He then hung on for the victory, the 135,000 in attendance roaring their approval so loudly the Indianapolis International Airport thirteen miles away called to complain they couldn’t hear the planes taking off and landing.
Castroneves has long celebrated victories by climbing the catchfence and saluting the fans at the start/finish line. He did so again yesterday, with nary a soul leaving the grandstands until after he finished his salute and took a victory lap. It was a rare moment in sports: a popular win in front of a crowd ready to cut loose after a year away from the most cherished venue in the sport. The race was everything that could be hoped for. Whether it will be enough to push INDYCAR back into the forefront of the sports world mindset remains to be seen, but one thing is clear. For the faithful, this year’s Indianapolis 500 was the sweetest manna from heaven imaginable.
And oh yes — old guys rule. Again.