Twice as nice and a lengthier legacy: Helio Castroneves’ controversial 2002 Indy 500 win

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(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 began with Roger Penske’s triumphant return to IMS and Castroneves bursting into the national consciousness for the first time on May 27, 2001. Part 2 is the controversial finish of the May 26, 2002 race, whose outcome fully was resolved five weeks after the checkered flag.)

INDIANAPOLIS – The 2002 Indy 500 forever will be associated with one of the biggest controversies in the CART-IRL Split that tore the major leagues of U.S. single-seater racing asunder.

But it also is possible to remember the race as affirming the oncoming exodus that effectively ended the open-wheel civil war.

Castroneves’ second Indy 500 victory came in the first season that team owner Roger Penske (and longtime sponsor Marlboro) became the first big name from Championship Auto Racing Teams to move full time into the Indy Racing League. By 2003, the dominoes quickly had fallen as Andretti Green Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Rahal followed suit.

IRL vice president of operations Brian Barnhart said in 2002 that Penske’s move “legitimizes everything Tony George started with the IRL. It’s kicked down a lot of doors and has teams saying, ‘If Roger Penske and Marlboro are buying into the IRL, it’s the right way to go.’ I think we’ll see a lot of other big teams coming to the IRL because of Roger in 2003. He’s laid the groundwork and foundation for that.”

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Team Penske president Tim Cindric recently told NBCSports.com that “absolutely, you could see the tide had shifted for sure,” which made it very awkward when the yellow flag flew on Lap 199 of 200 of the 86th Indy 500.

Castroneves was in the lead but nursing his fuel tank to the finish and under serious threat from the CART-affiliated Team Green car of Paul Tracy.

Tracy passed Castroneves for the lead in Turn 3, but the caution also flew at virtually the same time for a crash between Buddy Lazier and Laurent Redon in Turn 2.

Castroneves and Team Penske claimed the driver of the No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet had slowed as soon as the caution lights were illuminated, allowing Tracy to take the lead. IRL officials led by Barnhart ruled that Castroneves was ahead when the yellow flew. That ruling was protested and then appealed by Barry Green, Tracy’s team owner, who presented exhaustive statistical and video evidence to make his case.

In a bizarre twist, the appeal hearing was decided by Tony George, CEO of the IRL and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (which his family had owned since 1945). George ruled against the CART team by declaring the yellow flag was a judgment call that actually wasn’t eligible for protest.

The decision had major repercussions. Green sold his ownership stake to Michael Andretti and left racing for good within a year. Tracy, who got only two more cracks at the Indy 500, often has referred to himself as the 2002 Indy 500 winner and still maintains (such as in this recent interview with the Indy Star) that the victory should have been his.

Indy 500 Practice
Paul Tracy during Indy 500 practice May 19, 2002 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Jamie Squire/Getty Images).

Tracy was quoted in the 2021 book “Indy Split” as having said, “I feel that I won the race, but we weren’t able to win the political side of it. That’s frustrating for Barry, and I think it’s frustrating for a lot of the fans that it has come down to politics. It’s sad for the sport and it’s sad for open-wheel racing. I think this just shows how deep the gap is between IRL and CART.”

With 20 years of hindsight, Cindric said he views the finish outside the political prism.

“I guess I didn’t see it as a CART-IRL thing as much as what it was,” Cindric said. “It was sad it came to that, honestly. You look at all those things. There’s no way Paul Tracy was going to pass Helio on the outside in Turn 3. It just doesn’t happen. Unless Helio has some indication of a caution, and he lifts.

“I still feel the right guy won the race. I don’t have any question in my mind, even if the caution doesn’t come out. If he had it to do over again — these days he hears caution and doesn’t see anything, he’s not letting anybody by him after all that. He had fuel on his mind, so as soon as heard or saw yellow, he lifted. It should have been left at that, but instead it kind of left the door open. Then it became a different discussion.”

Though the dispute had no long-term effect on Castroneves becoming the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history, it blunted the achievement of becoming the first driver to win his first two starts in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“It’s a shame it went that way,” Cindric said. “For a rookie to win the first two years had never been done before. That put a downer on it for sure.”

Some key moments and vignettes associated with Castroneves’ second Indy 500 victory on May 26, 2002:


THE RACE

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Helio Castroneves celebrates his 2002 Indy 500 winner with his sister (left) and mother Robert Laberge/Getty Images).

After Castroneves qualified a disappointing 13th, the 2002 Indy 500 seemed to be falling into place for teammate Gil de Ferran, who led 13 laps but suffered a loose wheel on his last pit stop and fell to the rear because of a hole in the underwing.

Gambling on fuel, Cindric had kept Castroneves on track while running ninth under a yellow with 28 laps to go. As the rest of the lead pack pitted, Castroneves inherited the lead and caught a break when de Ferran’s wheel coming off extended the caution.

Castroneves led the final 24 laps, 18 of which were under green after a Lap 181 restart until the controversial yellow that ended the race.

“We weren’t in the running to win, so if we pitted pit at that point, we didn’t have the speed and had no chance to win,” Cindric said. “It turned out we had enough fuel in the car had the final caution not occurred that we still could have finished the race. A lot of people still think the caution won him the race. We did the calculations and drained the fuel because we wanted to know, and we probably would have run out on the back straight of the in lap.”


THE UNWILLING PARTICIPANTS

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Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran goof around during May 17, 2002 practice for the Indy 500 (ANN MILLER CARR/AFP via Getty Images).

Though didn’t challenge Penske’s move to the IRL, Castroneves and de Ferran had to be convinced that it was a good idea. In Penske’s final CART season, de Ferran won the championship, and Castroneves won a career-best four times.

“We did a test with Helio and Gil in the IRL car at the end of 2000, and they were kicking and screaming about going to the IRL,” Cindric said. “Those cars were unsophisticated. No (other CART team) was doing it. The (IRL schedule) was all ovals and no road races. I kept trying to convince them both. Gil didn’t want to drive (the car) much because he didn’t want to get hurt in it. They said it drove like a tractor, vibrated and was horrible.

“Between the two of them, it was, ‘Really?’. They never said too much of it publicly, but they weren’t enthused about going to the IRL, but they knew that’s the way the team was going. We had a great relationship, and they believed in the team, so they carried on.”

Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran after practice
Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran after Indy 500 practice May 6, 2003 (Robert Laberge/Getty Images).

WARM WELCOME

Much like Chip Ganassi Racing, which won the Indy 500 in 2000 with Juan Pablo Montoya as the first CART team to cross over, there was a warm reception for Penske, the winningest team owner in the race’s history.

Cindric said IRL officials went out their way to work with the team on its transition to full-time status in 2002 (though the vibe changed when it immediately became a championship contender).

“We felt welcome there, and the IRL saw if Penske comes, and Ganassi was at Indy in ’02 and Andretti in ’01-03, they were starting to see the war (end),” Cindric said. “Someone had to win. Us moving over and Marlboro was a big indicator the tide has shifted. But it was like anywhere we raced, too: We went in the beginning to open arms until you start winning. Then it becomes a rivalry.

“I remember in 2000 rooting for Montoya and (Jimmy) Vasser to win that race (for Ganassi). You felt whoever won that race was looked at as the series with best drivers and teams. You were trying to prove that we and Ganassi were waving the flags for our series but quietly. Because we still felt the best talent and teams were still in CART.”


THREE IN A ROW?

One of the most jaw-dropping statistics of Castroneves’ Indy 500 career: 0.5001 seconds.

That’s the combined margin of victories in Castroneves’ three runner-up finishes at the Brickyard, the first of which was in 2003.

Though he remains the last back-to-back Indy 500 winner, Castroneves winning three consecutive years by finishing 0.299 seconds behind de Ferran. Castroneves won the pole position on his 28th birthday in 2003 with a late qualifying run through 30 mph wind gusts.

“Helio should have won three years in a row,” Cindric said. “Roger will tell you that was the best qualifying run I’ve ever seen. We still have the American flag that was ripped up at the top of the Pagoda, literally shredded by the win that day. And he put in a lap at 232 mph. It’s probably the best performance in worst conditions I’ve ever seen at Indy.

“He kept saying, ‘take more downforce off, take more off,’ and he went out and blew everyone away. I still remember Tony Kanaan and Honda already were celebrating like they had the pole. No way in those winds someone would go as fast as Helio.”

De Ferran and Castroneves
Gil de Ferran and teammate Helio Castroneves celebrate their 1-2 finish for Team Penske in the 2003 Indy 500 (Robert Laberge /Getty Images).

Castroneves led 58 laps but made a mistake in traffic after his final pit stop while trying to pass the lapped car of A.J. Foyt IV between Turns 1 and 2.

“Helio had to downshift two gears to third, and de Ferran blew by him,” Cindric said. “He had a decent lead, and everything was done, but at the end of the day, you have to time those passes.”

The Indy 500 proved a perfect capper to an esteemed Penske career for de Ferran, who retired after the season. The Brazilian nearly had missed the Brickyard after suffering a head injury in a crash at Phoenix Raceway.

“It was mixed feelings for me,” Cindric said of Castroneves coming up short. “We had a chance to win the race three times in a row, and it would be as legit of any win at Indy to sit on pole and dominate the race.

“But for de Ferran to win after he couldn’t make up his mind whether to race Indy or not. He’d gone back and forth and been to the Mayo Clinic, and it was time to make a decision on Easter Sunday 2003. I called him that morning and said I need to know by end of the day. And if not, we’re putting Robby Gordon in the car. That night, (de Ferran) called and said I’m doing it. It was that close to Gil never having won an Indy 500. But it was that close to three in a row, too, and it should have been.”

Penske and de Ferran celebrate
Roger Penske and Gil de Ferran celebrate victory in the 2003 Indy 500 (Donald Miralle/Getty Images).