(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 was the controversial finish of the May 26, 2002 race, whose outcome fully was resolved five weeks after the checkered flag. Part 3 was about Castroneves’ cathartic triumph in the May 24, 2009 race that came barely a month after being acquitted on federal tax evasion charges. The series concludes today with Castroneves’ historic feel-good victory in the May 30, 2021.)
INDIANAPOLIS – The saying goes that Indianapolis Motor Speedway omnisciently chooses the winner of its greatest race, and there might be no greater example than Helio Castroneves winning the 2021 Indy 500.
With the country emerging from its COVID-19 pandemic slumber, Roger Penske proclaimed the 105th Indianapolis 500 as “the reopening of America” with a limited crowd of 135,000 allowed in the grandstands after a somber Aug. 23, 2020 race in which no one fan was allowed to attend.
HOW TO WATCH THE INDY 500: Details and schedule for Sunday’s race on NBC
STARTING LINEUP: Where the 33 drivers will take the green flag
What better reward for the return of loyal spectators than the history of watching the fourth driver to become a four-time Indy 500 winner at the 2.5-mile track that has been playing host to 500-mile automobile races since 1911.
And the punctuation mark was perhaps the most exuberant celebration ever seen at the Brickyard as Castroneves capped a sublime performance with his signature fence-climb and a sprint down the frontstretch to deafening cheers of approval for joining a club that includes A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and the late Al Unser.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric told NBC Sports. “Not only for Helio but IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the fans because I think those that attend Indy do because they want to be part of something big. And the die-hard fans want to witness history. And history was made. Hasn’t been made since Mears in ’91.
“The days of track records being broken (in qualifying), people looked forward to witnessing that. But those days have since gone past. There’s few opportunities to witness history there. It brought back that sense of history. For Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it couldn’t have been a better day for that track.”
It also was the perfect scenario for Meyer Shank Racing, which just had started a partial NTT IndyCar Series schedule with Castroneves in the No. 06 Dallara-Honda. Within a few months, the team had announced a second full-time car for the 2022 season with the Brazilian, who was joined this year by 2019 Indy 500 winner (and former Penske teammate) Simon Pagenaud.
“With regard to both of us, the team and (Castroneves), it was so necessary for all of us to move on with our lives to win that race,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports. “For him to get the fourth, which is world history in a way. For us to get our first IndyCar win, let alone the 500, has taken us to another level. It’s the gift that never stops giving. It’s unbelievable what it did for us. I didn’t realize how much so.
“We put in a big effort. We knew we needed to do well at the 500, but now I really know, and that’s one of the reasons we went and got Simon because that was another guy we knew we wanted because of what that race can do for us, especially on the partnership side.
“It was so necessary.”
Some key moments and vignettes associated with Castroneves’ most triumphant moment at the Brickyard:
THE RACE: Though he made the Fast Nine in qualifying and started eighth, Castroneves hardly was mentioned as among the contenders, being 12 years removed from his last Indy 500 win and in his mid-40s. The primary prerace narrative was the youth movement with Alex Palou, Rinus VeeKay and Pato O’Ward already earning their first career victories in the first month of 2021 season (joining Colton Herta, who had become the youngest winner in IndyCar history two years earlier).
Herta (second), VeeKay (third) and Palou (sixth) all started ahead of Castroneves, who still managed to take his first lead on Lap 36 and consistently ran toward the front in only his second start with MSR and first on an oval.
“I didn’t really know what I had yet from a performance standpoint, but at Indy, Helio was very strong at the open test in April,” Shank said. “In the race, I started watching him in these big packs. I was on (then-teammate) Jack Harvey’s stand. They were asking, ‘Who’s moving?’ I kept saying, ‘Helio.’
“He’s going up, falling back. I really came to appreciate the art and skill he has at IMS on the oval. It’s next world. It doesn’t mean it’s always perfect. But he knows what he needs to happen. There’s no (hesitation). And I really began to see that.”
The final 10 laps could be considered the best of Castroneves’ Indy 500 career.
Positioning his car perfectly through every corner, he outdueled Palou while trading the lead twice in the final six laps. Pagenaud, who finished third, said it was obvious that Castroneves was toying with Palou, who was making his second start and unwittingly revealed all of his defensive maneuvers and weaknesses around the 2.5-mile oval.
“Helio was just waiting,” Pagenaud said afterward. “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.”
Cindric, the strategist for Castroneves’ first three Indy 500 victories with Penske, said patience always had been a key part of the driver’s massive skillset.
“It comes down to focus and really he’s one of the very few that literally has no fear but instincts,” Cindric said. “He’s instinctively fearless. He respects the place. Hell, he’s been upside down, he’s flipped and had crashes. I’ve never been around a driver more committed to driving a race car no matter what. He’s never said he won’t drive or not got in the seat and driven 100 percent.
“I just feel like he’s willing to take a lot more risks at Indy than anybody else I’ve been around. There’s no doubt he’s driven by the payday, too. I don’t necessarily mean the money. But the stage. Especially after he won the first time, he understood how big of a stage and how bright the lights were. He’s always been one that’s chased the bright lights. He’s always wanted the stage and bright lights and more than anybody else. During the races, he rarely made mistakes at Indy.”
PREP DAY: Foreshadowing the leadership role has assumed at Meyer Shank Racing, Castroneves bent over backward to ingratiate himself with the new crew throughout May (having made his MSR debut on the IMS road course in the GMR Grand Prix two weeks earlier).
“Helio was very generous with everybody,” Shank said. “He thanked everybody. You never felt like you were watching a guy celebrate something he did by himself. He made you feel you were a part of what he did. He makes you feel like he appreciates it and understands.”
Shank said the morale-boosting attitude helped provide extra motivation for his team members, who spent the day off before the race practicing pit stops at Andretti Autosport’s shop near the track.
“They went over there when they should have been at the hotel resting, and they banged out reps for two hours on Saturday before they went to dinner,” Shank said. “And that ended up really paying off for us in the race.”
SPECIAL OPENING: Though Roger Penske had closed on his purchase of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in January 2020, this was the first time he was able to showcase the 2.5-mile oval with a crowd (the track had limited crowds for IndyCar races on the road course the previous October after running the 2020 Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 without fans).
“For Roger and Penske Entertainment as the new stewards of that track, it couldn’t have been a bigger or better coming-out party after having to sit out with no fans there,” Cindric said.
Castroneves’ effervescent celebration was a stark contrast to the silent and subdued celebration of Takuma Sato’s second Indy 500 win nine months earlier.
“If there was a race not to win, it was (2020),” Cindric said. “I walked by victory lane and Sato and those guys and felt so sorry for them because at least he experienced it before. At least it wasn’t a first-time winner and missing all that other stuff. There’s so much more that goes into winning that race and being part of that and just the lap around the track afterward is pretty magic.
“The best thing that could have happened was Helio winning that (in 2021).”
HOMETOWN FAVORITE: Though Castroneves said last Thursday that he had seen the 2021 race replay only once (while he happened to be at the gym), Shank regularly rewatches the event as a native of Columbus, Ohio, who grew up watching Indy cars at Mid-Ohio and Indy.
“Johnny Rutherford, Bobby, Mario, the Unsers, they were all there when I was growing up,” Shank said. “It just felt like another world I could never see or touch. It was untouchable. Unthinkable. It’d be similar to going to play baseball at Yankee Stadium. Churchill Downs. Places like that. Kids that didn’t go to college, all they did was race cars out of high school. You think you’re pretty good and to get there with no money at the start of it was really, really difficult. It took a lot of partnerships and treating people well.”
With six laps remaining in the race, Shank said he took his headset off, left the pit stand and told his engineers they could handle the rest.
“It just all went in slow motion from that point on,” he said. “It’s really opened the world up to us a lot. … I really look forward to going back (to Indy). We had so many people paying attention to us and watching the team and Helio and all that. It’s so cool to have people reach out and relate to us.”