Ryan: The overlooked cunning of Helio Castroneves makes him an Indy 500 legend

Helio Castroneves cunning Indy
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INDIANAPOLIS – With hundreds of fans surging against the metal barriers surrounding Victory Circle, wildly chanting his name, Helio Castroneves played the crowd with the same virtuosity as behind the wheel.

“Let me tell you, it’s not the end of it, it’s the beginning,” he jubilantly said, triggering another in the incessant waves of resounding cheers that rocked the Brickyard for the better part of an hour Sunday after an historic 105th Indy 500.

“I don’t know if this is a good comparison or not, but Tom Brady won the Super Bowl. Phil Mickelson won the Masters and now here we go! So the old guys still got it, still kicking the young guys’ butt, you know! We’re teaching them a lesson. This is absolutely incredible.”

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The comparison was perfect because just like Brady and Mickelson, it was veteran savvy that sewed up Castroneves’ record-tying fourth Indy 500 victory.

The ebullient Brazilian showed again at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that he is a man of many talents. The former “Dancing With The Stars” winner is an all-time people’s champion in the NTT IndyCar Series with fence-climbing, frontstretch-jogging outbursts of exuberance that are contagious for a crowd of 135,000 screaming “HEL-I-O! HEL-I-O.”

Yet that star magnetism shades some of his cerebral brilliance in caricature. During his 20 years at buttoned-up Team Penske, Castroneves sometimes stood out like a cartoon character with his quirkiness and oft-unintentional irreverence.

There were signs of it again amidst the bedlam Sunday.

Helio Castroneves cunning Indy
Helio Castroneves poses Monday with the Borg-Warner Trophy after his fourth Indy 500 victory (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Aside from incorrectly identifying the most recent golf major won by Mickelson (it was the PGA Championship), Castroneves also referenced telling Al Unser Jr. a night earlier at St. Elmo’s Steakhouse in downtown Indianapolis that he was ready to join the club of four-time Indy 500 winners (he meant Unser’s father, who stands with A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and now Castroneves as co-holders of the Brickyard’s most prestigious honor).

On Monday, the newest four-time Indy 500 winner posted an Instagram video in which he gleefully showed off his Borg-Warner Trophy (while apparently oblivious that he was holding his smartphone camera at an awkward angle).

But Castroneves’ goofiness belies the cunning required to win the biggest race in the world.

Despite his four victories, Castroneves easily could have two more if he had made the right decisions to outwit Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014 and Takuma Sato in ’17 (two of his three second-place finishes at Indy). All of those missteps were applied to his 21st Indy 500 start.

At 46, he has perfected the thinking man’s game for the 500-Mile Race, and the final 50 laps Sunday were a master class of three-dimensional chess at 230 mph by a dashing driver whose intelligence somehow still gets underrated at Indy.

But Mike Shank spotted that sublime instinct for navigating traffic, which is why Meyer Shank Racing filled its No. 06 Dallara-Honda with Castroneves for a partial 2021 season, his first outside of Penske in two decades.

“Man, Helio is just so good here,” Shank said. “I really got to witness it today. Kind of around (Lap) 150, I’m looking at him. Finally I figured out about 155 he’s doing this on purpose. Everything he did from 150 on was a chess match. He knew exactly what he was doing. That’s the G.O.A.T. in him. … He was calculated. Exactly what I expected.”

Helio Castroneves cunning Indy
(Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Trailing the battle between Castroneves and runner-up Alex Palou, third-place finisher Simon Pagenaud said he could tell that Castroneves, his former Penske teammate, was toying with Palou and forcing the Spaniard to reveal all of his defensive maneuvers as well as his weaknesses around the 2.5-mile oval.

“Helio was just waiting,” Pagenaud said. “He knew exactly where he could get him, when he could get him. All of a sudden, he jumped at (Palou’s) throat like a tiger. That’s when the attack started” with about seven laps remaining.

“He knows where to position the car,” Pagenaud said of Castroneves. “He knows how to play the game. The last 15 laps, he wasn’t even trying to pass Palou. Palou was showing him everything that he could do, and Helio was just watching. Palou I’m sure will rewatch the race and understand what Helio was playing. It was pretty cool to see from behind. I was trying everything to join him because I knew what he was doing.

“It was basically a four-time legend showing a rookie how to win the race, and that was amazing.”

Palou said he will rewatch the finish daily until IndyCar’s Detroit doubleheader two weeks from now. The second-year Chip Ganassi Racing driver (who has shown extraordinary acclimation to ovals, which he began racing only last season) seemed confused as to how he’d been beaten despite having what he believed was the faster car.

“I was able just to manage when I wanted to pass him,” said Palou, who led 35 laps to Castroneves’ 20. “But the thing is that after three, four laps, he was behind me, he was able to pass me and I couldn’t really do anything.

“I need to ask (Castroneves) if he was going all out the last 15 laps or if he was waiting for the last four to overtake me. If he was waiting for the last four, then that was experience. If he was just going all out, he had better timing today.”

Castroneves’ exquisite timing was about the experience of having 19 more Indy 500 starts than Palou.

The conventional wisdom entering the race was that the winning pass would happen on the last lap. But when Castroneves spotted a gaggle of cars more than a straightaway ahead with more than a lap remaining, he punched the throttle to pass Palou.

“I decided just to go, not lose momentum, that’s the moment,” Castroneves said. “Once I saw the traffic, I timed it absolutely right.”

Gaining speed off the tow from the cars ahead, Palou had no chance of catching Castroneves with a counter-slingshot on the final lap.

Pagenaud compared his 2019 Indy 500 duel over Alexander Rossi with Castroneves’ winning move Sunday.

“This place is all about experience,” Pagenaud said. “what Helio did at the end, I want to rewatch it. There was something going on. There was a lot of that between me and Rossi in 2019. But I think he just took it to a whole other level. He’s got a feel for this place. Also I feel like the more you love the place, the more the place loves you back. There’s something really strange about it.

“All Helio thinks about is the 500. Everybody talks about his line being different than anybody else. I don’t quite understand why he’s running that line, to be honest with you. I’ve always tried to understand. No matter what year it is, what package it is, it works. He just knows what he needs from the race car. He knows when he’s going to be in the fight for the win. He keeps it to himself.”

Look hard, though, and you can see the smart and quick-witted assassin buried beneath Castroneves’ persona of a fun-loving court jester.

“All the years of finishing second paid off,” Castroneves said with a wink. “I have to tell (Team Penske president Tim) Cindric I’m becoming a good poker player now.”