If you were fortunate enough to watch the Indy 500, you witnessed one of the best races ever. Every “500” has 33 unique stories but only one winner – and in this case it turned out to be a (now) four-time winner in Helio Castroneves.
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Kicked to the curb after more than 20 years at Team Penske with 50 poles and 30 wins on his Indy car resumé, Helio was adamant that his driving days in the open wheelers were not over. After winning his first professional racing championship last year for Team Penske in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, he found a new home for a partial season of six races in the NTT IndyCar Series with Meyer Shank Racing for 2021 starting with The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Team owners Mike Shank and his wife Mary Beth came from humble beginnings to reach the pinnacle of all Victory Lanes in the world and celebrate their first-ever NTT IndyCar Series victory with co-owner Jim Meyer (former CEO of SiriusXM).
With that expansion this year to include a second car at select races, the hunt for a driver was on. Do you go with youth and exuberance or with a veteran and the experience that they bring? After watching the consummate professionalism of the way Castroneves sized up his competition and earned his victory, that decision proved they made the right choice. Castroneves poked and prodded for different ways to pass or even pull ahead just a wee bit at the yard of bricks and it was obvious that he had a clear cut method to extract all the information he needed to make his move at the right time and in the right place. He credited his years of experience with having finished second as not only motivation, but also because he learned what he needed to do to win. His outside pass on lap 198 into Turn 1 over Alex Palou proved to be the key move. Experience, race craft, and understanding how to use the tools in the car to make it better all played a part in his victory. The other part had to do with his MSR crew giving him a good car to begin with and executing their plan throughout the race to save fuel, get track position and have fabulous pit stops.
It’s true that luck also plays a part in that the caution flag didn’t come out when Castroneves was running second with just three laps to go. Typically, there’s a caution with just 10 laps to go at Indy. The race this year was uncommonly clean with only Graham Rahal’s tire leaving his car exiting the pits and putting him into the SAFER Barrier and numerous spins on pit road as multiple drivers locked their brakes entering pit lane. That all added up to a speed record for the 500 in excess of 190 mph average.
Of course at the end of it, ‘Spiderman’ parked his car on the main straight, jumped out and climbed the fence and was joined by his jubilant crew. The largest sporting event crowd since the pandemic started last March of 135,000 strong started chanting, “El ee Oh, El ee Oh” which reduced him to tears of joy with the realization of him becoming only the fourth driver ever to win four times. Even Mario Andretti kissed Helio on top of his head in a congratulatory way. Credit goes to NBC for not breaking to commercials and showing the sheer joy and raw emotion that filled the screen as he soaked in the adoration of the crowd and from fellow drivers and team members. One of the best races ever? You bet. The best post-race celebration? Without question.
Copyright © 2021 Larry Mason