(Editor’s note: As Helio Castroneves attempts to make history May 29 as the first five-time Indy 500 winner, NBC Sports will review his four previous victories at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and examine how each race was a significant and unique milestone for both the driver, series or track — and sometimes for all three. The series begins on May 27, 2001 with Roger Penske’s triumphant return to IMS and Castroneves bursting into the national consciousness for the first time.)
INDIANAPOLIS – Helio Castroneves’ first Indy 500 victory was nearly two years in the making, and it started with a “no” to Roger Penske.
Tim Cindric was hired in the fall of 1999 to become the president of Team Penske, and the first directive from the new boss was to get his team back to his treasured Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After a dominant victory by Al Unser Jr. in the 1994 Indianapolis 500, Roger Penske’s cars failed to qualify in ’95 and had skipped the race from 1996-99 while racing in the rival Championship Auto Racing Teams series (which had split from the Indy Racing League).
Penske bought a Riley and Scott chassis with the full intention of returning to the Indy 500 in 2000 – until Cindric hit the brakes on the plan.
“They hadn’t won an IndyCar race in two and a half years,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “Roger wanted to create a wind tunnel model to go to Indy, and I talked him out of going in 2000. In my first month of working for him, I’m fighting him to not go to Indy 500. I said, ‘Roger, I’m the last guy who wants to tell you this, but we can not properly go to the Indy 500 next year. You missed the race in ’95. We can’t go back not ready.’
“We got through that conversation and decided to mothball that process.”
Castroneves had yet to join the team when the decision was made. Penske was dealt another blow with Greg Moore’s fatal crash in the Oct. 31, 1999 season finale at California Speedway. Moore already had signed to join the team, and the seat was filled by Castroneves, who was teamed with another new incoming driver, Gil de Ferran.
Penske rebounded by emphatically snapping its winless drought in 2000 with five victories (three by Castroneves, two by de Ferran). And he still had a presence at the Indy 500, sponsoring Jason Leffler’s car for Treadway Racing in a deal that also embedded Cindric (as the strategist) and a Penske engineer with the team to lay the groundwork for returning.
“The Captain” entered the 2001 Indy 500 among the favorites (after Juan Pablo Montoya led 167 laps to win the 2000 Indy 500 for Chip Ganassi Racing, the first CART team to cross over).
But Cindric recalls the team owner being extremely leery about making the show. On qualifying day, Penske refused to set any goals for qualifying (“He was like, ‘Just go do it. Just handle it,’ ” Cindric recalled) and had to be persuaded to come to the pit lane to help wave the green and yellow flags that signified a team’s laps were official.
“Roger was pretty nervous all month, because he hadn’t been in the race,” Cindric said. “I’ve never seen Roger more nervous and probably still haven’t since qualifying day in 2001.”
Some key moments and vignettes associated with Castroneves’ first Indy 500 victory on May 27, 2001:
Castroneves started 11th and led the final 52 laps, taking his first lead on Lap 149 and never relinquishing the point again. He finished 1-2 with de Ferran, who started fifth and led 27 laps.
The duo methodically advanced the front through attrition and pit cycles, overcoming a lack of track time. Because CART had raced in Japan a week before the Indy 500, Penske was unable to compete in the second weekend of qualifying at IMS.
Penske gained an advantage through swift pit work and strong in and out laps on green-flag stops by Castroneves and de Ferran.
After a red flag for rain, the finish was determined by the final pit stop, and Castroneves beat de Ferran, Tony Stewart and Michael Andretti out of the race.
“I left Helio a little short on fuel to get out first,” said Cindric, the strategist for all three of Castroneves’ Indy 500 wins with Penske. “Michael ran into the back of Stewart, and we waved Helio right in front. It was a real mess.
“From then, Helio controlled the restart and won. I remember going to victory lane, Helio climbed fence, which we didn’t expect at Indy.”
Castroneves’ first win is Roger Penske’s favorite of his trio with the Brazilian.
“When we hadn’t been at the Speedway, we were off on our trying to run something else as a group of car owners and came back, and it was amazing,” Penske told NBC Sports. “Not only for him as a driver but us as a team. To think we’d been away from the track, the last time we’d won it was ’94.”
It also was special to return to IMS after essentially boycotting the race with CART since ’96 – which Penske now says “was probably one of the bigger mistakes I’ve made over my business career.”
Nearly 20 years after the return, Penske would buy the place, bringing the story full circle. “To depart from the Speedway for a few years but come back and now here we are in a much different position,” he said. “Now I really care who’s running and that we have a great event.”
The May 27, 2001 race also was the first Brickyard victory for Cindric, whose father had worked on Indy 500 teams from 1968-92 but never reached the Winners Circle.
“I said to Roger in victory lane, ‘I know you’ve won this thing 11 times, so this is old hat for you, but this is a big deal for me,’ ” Cindric said. “And Roger says, ‘I’ve never finished first and second here.’ So it was really cool that he’d never done that before.”
THE LEGEND OF ‘PICASSTRONEVES’
Having grown up following Formula One and Brazilian hero Ayrton Senna, Castroneves had no appreciation of what Indy was about – but he got a literal “crash course” in one of the track’s “traditions” after his first incident.
Castroneves smacked the wall between Turns 1 and 2 in practice during the first week, bending the right-side and left-side suspension on his Dallara-Oldsmobile.
He managed to drive the car back to the garage, and Cindric gave him some bad news.
“I told him there’s a lot of traditions here, and you’ve got to go paint the fence at night,” Cindric said. “And he believed that was true! We called him, ‘Picasstroneves.’ ”
Speedway employees were recruited for the gag, meeting Castoneves with a bucket of paint at the point of contact.
“I was telling him you need to live up to it, and he went out there and painted the fence where he crashed,” Cindric said with a laugh. “Then he found out that wasn’t really true.”
After the victory, Castroneves came to love the Speedway and its many traditions.
“It was fun to watch his evolution through that now to the of four-time winner. I look back to the first day we tested there in October (2000). He said, ‘I don’t care what you say, this place, I don’t really see it.
“But Helio had no idea what Indy was about. I was trying to explain to Helio, and I knew he had the personality that if he was successful at Indy, he’d embrace Indy.”