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

Helio Castroneves cunning Indy
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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.”

RELIVE THE CELEBRATION: Helio Castroneves’ unforgettable postrace party

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.”

2023 SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Houston: Eli Tomac retakes 450 lead, Hunter Lawrence tops 250s


After his Anaheim 2 crash, Eli Tomac was surprised he was not injured, but despite getting knocked down momentarily, he picked himself up, rode to last week’s win and reascended to the top of the SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Houston. This is the third time in three weeks Tomac has topped the rankings.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Houston
Jason Anderson has back-to-back podiums to his credit and sits second in the Power Rankings. – Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Last week, Tomac finished second in his heat before winning the Main – and that translated to near-perfect points in the Power Rankings, which award 100 for a win in the feature and 90 for a heat victory. Tomac’s average was marred by the Houston accident when he finished 13th in that heat before settling just outside the top five in overall standings. Racing is about bouncing back and last year’s Supercross and Motocross champion Tomac did just that as he chases a third consecutive title.

Jason Anderson earned his second consecutive podium finish with a third at Houston. He momentarily rolled past Aaron Plessinger into second during a restart following an accident involving Dylan Ferrandis and held that position for four trips around the track until he was tracked down by Chase Sexton. Afterward Anderson faded and finished 12 seconds off the pace, but along with a heat win, he easily leapfrogged Ken Roczen and Cooper Webb, who struggled in the fourth race of the season.

MORE: Eli Tomac rebounds from Anaheim 2 crash with Houston win

Webb held his position by passing Roczen in NBC’s SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Houston. Webb has been solid in 2023 with a worst moto result of seventh in the first Triple Crown race at Anaheim 2, but in order to be considered a solid challenger to Tomac he needs to win either a heat or main this week in Tampa.

Roczen was involved in the incident that sidelined Ferrandis in Houston. Racing for eighth at the time, his bike may have sustained some damage when Ferrandis landed on his back tire, but he was not overly impressive in his heat either with a fifth-place finish. That was enough to drop him three positions in the standings, but he still has Tomac in sight.

After his disappointing heat in San Diego when he crashed and sustained enough damage to place him last, Sexton has roared back. He won the overall in Anaheim 2’s Triple Crown format and narrowed the points’ gap slightly on Tomac. Last week he yarded the field in his heat race and won by a wide margin. A modest start in the Main kept him from getting to Tomac’s back wheel early in the Houston round, and he lost a little ground in the championship.

450 Rankings

Rider Power
1 Eli Tomac
[3 Main; 3 Heats Wins]
85.20 2 1
2 Jason Anderson
[2 Heat Wins]
82.60 4 2
3 Cooper Webb 82.10 3 0
4 Ken Roczen 81.70 1 -3
5 Chase Sexton
[1 Main; 3 Heat Wins]
80.70 6 1
6 Dylan Ferrandis 71.60 5 -1
7 Aaron Plessinger 71.30 8 1
8 Justin Barcia 70.10 7 -1
9 Justin Cooper 68.00 NA
10 Adam Cianciarulo 67.40 9 -1
11 Joey Savatgy 61.20 10 -1
12 Marvin Musquin 61.00 10 -2
13 Malcolm Stewart
[1 Heat Win]
58.75 11 -2
14 Christian Craig 57.20 13 -1
15 Colt Nichols 56.50 14 -1
16 Dean Wilson 49.30 15 -1
17 Justin Hill 39.67 18 1
18 Shane McElrath 36.33 22 4
19 Brandon Scharer 34.00 21 2
20 Logan Karnow 33.33 19 -1

Supercross 450 Points

The 250 East division debuted in Houston and with only one race – and therefore no chance yet to stumble – three of their riders jumped to the top of the chart.

Hunter Lawrence had a perfect week with wins in both his main and heat. It wasn’t without drama, however, as he was forced to jump wide early in the feature to avoid contact with Tom Vialle, who was making his Supercross debut. Without a former 250 champion in the field, it is guaranteed someone new will grace the top of the box at Salt Lake City after the season-ender and it looks like it’s going to be Lawrence’s to lose.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Houston
Jordon Smith’s last podium before Houston came four years ago in Detroit. – Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

It was more than four years ago that Jordon Smith scored his last Supercross podium in Detroit. Despite finishing second that afternoon, he was battling a wrist injury that eventually sidelined him. More injuries have followed, but Smith was a favorite to win the title in 2019 and he’s shown how well he can ride when he’s healthy.

Debuting third in the Houston SuperMotocross Power Rankings, Max Anstie moved from the 450 class last year to 250s in 2023 and the change has gone better than he anticipated. Finishing second in both his heat and main, Anstie was edged by Smith because he finished second behind that rider in their heat. That is Anstie’s first top-10 since finishing sixth at Southwick, Massachusetts last year on his 450. In that race, he scored fifth-place results in both motos.

Supercross 250 Points

Haiden Deegan proved the hype surrounding his graduation into the 250 class was well deserved and he landed fourth in his division and fifth overall in the SuperMotocross Power Rankings. In his first professional Supercross race, he finished fourth in his heat. In a field with twice the talent, he finished fourth again in the main. At Houston, he balanced aggression with patience. Now that he has a taste of that success, everyone will be watching him closely at Tampa to see if he can continue tiptoeing on the line.

Michael Mosiman, Jeremy Martin, and Vialle are tied for fifth in the 250 East division and seventh overall.

Vialle is the most notable of these three because he challenged for a podium position during the Main before making a mistake and falling in a turn. Significantly, this was not only his 250 debut, but his first time in Supercross. As with Deegan, he has generated a lot of attention for the coming weeks.

250 Rankings

Rider Power
1 Hunter Lawrence – E
[1 Main; 1 Heat Win]
95.00 NA
2 Jordon Smith – E
[1 Heat Win]
90.50 NA
2 Max Anstie – E 90.50 NA
4 Jett Lawrence – W
[2 Main; 2 Heat Wins]
89.13 1 -3
5 Haiden Deegan – E 81.50 NA
6 Cameron McAdoo – W
[1 Heat Win]
77.63 2 -4
7 Mitchell Oldenburg – W 77.00 3 -4
7 Michael Mosiman – E 77.00 NA
7 Jeremy Martin – E 77.00 NA
7 Tom Vialle – E 77.00 NA
11 Stilez Robertson – W
[1 Heat Win]
76.75 4 -7
12 Chance Hymas – E 74.50 -12
13 Levi Kitchen – W
[1 Main Win]
73.75 5 -8
14 RJ Hampshire – W
[3 Heat Wins]
70.00 6 -8
15 Max Vohland – W 69.29 7 -8
16 Cullin Park – E 66.00 NA
17 Chris Blose – E 65.50 NA
18 Derek Kelley – W 63.75 8 -10
19 Enzo Lopes – W 63.25 9 -10
20 Pierce Brown – W 61.29 10 -10

* The NBC Power Rankings assign 100 points to a Main event winner and 90 points for each Heat and Triple Crown win, (Triple Crown wins are included with heat wins below the rider’s name). The points decrement by a percentage equal to the number of riders in the field until the last place rider in each event receives five points. The Power Ranking is the average of these percentage points over the past 45 days.

POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 3 AT ANAHEIM 2: Consistency makes Ken Roczen king
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 2 AT SAN DIEGO: Roczen moves up, Chase Sexton falls
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 1 AT ANAHEIM 1: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence gain an early advantage