‘Spider Man’ Climbs To Upper Reaches Of 500 Lore

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 31 2021

Helio Castroneves and his Meyer Shank Racing team members climbed the fence at Indy on Sunday. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – Already a “Legend of the Brickyard,” Helio Castroneves joined the ranks of INDYCAR royalty Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as only the fourth four-time winner in the 105-year history of the Indianapolis 500.

Castroneves sized-up Alex Palou over the final 19 laps around the famed 2.5-mile oval before completing a daring, winning pass on the outside of Turn 1 on Lap 199 of the scheduled 200. That move allowed Castroneves to join A.J. Foyt Jr. (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977), Al Unser (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987) and Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991) as the only four-time champions of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Castroneves – who previously won the Indy 500 in 2001, 2002 and 2009 with Team Penske _ gave Meyer Shank Racing its first NTT IndyCar Series victory in his first start with the team based in Pataskala, Ohio. At 46 years, 20 days old, the popular Brazilian is the fourth-oldest winner in Indy 500 history behind Big Al (47, 1987), the late Bobby Unser (47, 1981) and Emerson Fittipaldi (46, 1993).

Additionally, this was the fastest Indianapolis 500 in history with an average speed of 190.690 miles per hour. The previous record of 187.433 mph was set in 2013 by fellow-Brazilian Tony Kanaan.

“I can’t believe it,” Castroneves yelled after kneeling to lightly kiss the Yard of Bricks marking the start/finish line. That Indy 500 tradition was preceded by Castroneves’ signature victory celebration _ climbing the front stretch fence as “Spiderman.” On this occasion, Castroneves was joined by team co-owner Mike Shank and a number of fans mimicking their hero.

“That was really nice seeing the fans climbing the fence, celebrating,” Castroneves said in reference to a crowd reportedly limited to 135,000 due to COVID-19 pandemic protocols. “They made it happen. So, great moment for everyone. Especially after last year, being so difficult with the pandemic, everybody comes back, even though it’s not full percent everyone here, but very, very nice for everyone to celebrate.”

And celebrate Helio did, beginning with a jog down the front stretch to salute the fans. There were hugs from current MSR crewmembers on his team and that of teammate Jack Harvey; congrats from former Team Penske teammates and Indy 500 champions Will Power and Simon Pagenaud as well as Tim CIndric, president of Roger Penske’s organization, which has won a record 18 Indy 500s. Helio also exchanged greetings with two-time Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Johnny Rutherford, a retired three-time Indy 500 champion working with Arrow McLaren SP.

Helio Castroneves is a four-timer at the 500.

Meanwhile, team-owner Foyt _ the first four-time Indy 500 winner _ saluted Helio via a statement issued from Gasoline Alley: “He deserved it, he worked hard to get it and he finally got it. It wasn’t given to him and when someone works as hard as he did, I’m glad it happened for him. As I said, he deserved it.”

And in a moment that amounted to INDYCAR’s version of Papal approval, Helio _ who was personally blessed by Pope John Paul II in December 2004 _ was greeted by and received a kiss on the head from 1969 Indy 500 champion and open-wheel legend Mario Andretti.

“OK. That was cool,” Helio said. “Look, he’s an incredible legend in motor racing, motorsport world. When he came by, it was very nice. I always respect what they accomplished. Wow, yeah, that was special.”

Indeed, Sunday’s start with MSR was the first of Helio’s six-race deal for the 2021 season with team co-owners Shank and Jim Meyer. On Thursday, Castroneves insisted he was not done with INDYCAR after a three-year stint in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Castroneves, co-champion with Ricky Taylor of IMSA’s 2020 Daytona Prototype International class, made it clear he is looking to return to the IndyCar Series fulltime.

“I couldn’t be more happier. I couldn’t be more happier for Mike, for Jim,” said Castroneves, who scored his 31st career series victory and first since 2017 at Iowa Speedway. “They did everything they told me, which is they promised to give me a good car. I said, ‘All right. If that’s happen we have a great chance. Just give me a chance to fight, opportunity to be up there, then I will fight.’ And they did.

“Great moment. I mean, amazing to follow in this group with Al Unser Sr., A.J. Foyt and my hero, Rick Mears. Super-honored to be in this group. But more important is I love to be surrounded by great people. It was great to be with Penske, and now my new friends. I really am having a great time. New opportunity with this amazing team. Look what they’re showing.

“This is a great group of people. That’s why I love it.”

Shank immediately took care of an issue pertaining to the Month of May in 2022.

“By the way, I believe Helio deserves to go for a fifth Indianapolis win,” said Shank, himself a former open-wheel competitor. “We’re going to do everything we can to make that happen for him.”

Castroneves noted he is batting 1.000 this season, having won both races he has started _ IMSA’s season-opening and prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Indy 500.

“I think I still got it, don’t you think?” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda. “I couldn’t do this without my family and The Lord. The Lord has been by my side all the time.

“I tell you what. It’s not the end of it, it’s the beginning. I don’t know if it’s a good comparison, but Tom Brady won a Super Bowl, Phil (Mickelson) won The PGA and now here you go. The old guys still got it, kicking the young guys’ butts, teaching them a lesson.”

Castroneves’ margin of victory over Palou, driver of the No. 10 Honda fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing, was 0.4928-seconds.

“It hurts. It hurts a lot,” said Palou, a 24-year-old native of Spain. ”I didn’t expect that a second place would hurt that much until I crossed the finish line. But I’m super-proud, super-happy. I think the No. 10 NTT DATA car was super-fast. I had the best car, for sure. I was really confident. It was a close battle until the end. The good thing is that the two cars were Honda-powered. Congrats to Helio and Honda.

“I tried everything. But to be honest, it’s good to lose against probably one of the best. Well, it’s (not) one of the best, probably the best. Yeah, it’s Helio.”

Frenchman Pagenaud completed the podium in the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet and was followed by Pato O’Ward in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. O’Ward, a native of Mexico, won Race 2 of a doubleheader weekend at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth earlier this month. Indianapolis resident Ed Carpenter, the series’ lone owner/driver, finished fifth in his No. 20 Chevrolet.

Castroneves, who started eighth in the 33-car field, led 20 laps during a race that saw Indy resident Conor Daly lead his first 40 laps around IMS in ECR’s No. 47 Chevy. Palou paced 35 laps while front-row starter Rinus VeeKay of The Netherlands _ winner of the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road-course two weekends ago _ led 32 in the No. 21 Bitcoin Chevy fielded by ECR.

The race pace was slowed only twice by cautions for a total of 18 laps, both race-record lows. Just 1.2424-seconds separated the top five despite the last caution period ending on Lap 124.

Castroneves made his final pit stop on Lap 172, followed by Palou on Lap 173. Palou slotted in front of Castroneves when he exited the pits, and they formed a three-car train with O’Ward in the virtual lead of the race, as numerous cars in front needed to make one final stop.

Pagenaud, Sage Karam, Kanaan and Santino Ferrucci peeled off from the lead for their final stops under green by Lap 180, putting Felix Rosenqvist, JR Hildebrand and Sato in the top three, respectively, and about 12 seconds ahead of Palou, Castroneves and O’Ward.

Castroneves and Palou diced for position behind that lead trio, knowing they had plenty of fuel to reach Lap 200 and cognizant they would become the lead pack due to pit stops needed by the fuel-thirsty cars of Rosenqvist, Hildebrand and Sato if a caution flag didn’t fly late in the race.

That caution never came. Rosenqvist pitted from the lead on Lap 192 in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, and Sato was forced to dive in for a splash of fuel from the lead on Lap 193 in the No. 30 Honda.

Castroneves inherited the lead on Lap 194, but Palou blasted past Helio for P1 in Turn 1 on Lap 196, reminiscent of Mears’ decisive move against Michael Andretti in 1991 that led to his fourth win 30 years ago. Castroneves collected himself and placed his car in Palou’s draft on the front straightaway as they rocketed past the flag stand to start Lap 199. Castroneves then returned the favor to Palou, using an identical outside move in Turn 1 to seize the lead.

Lapped traffic ahead posed a possible problem for Castroneves, but he used the race craft gained over 20 previous 500 starts to hold off Palou.

“The car was so good, so I just have to make sure that I stay there in the end,” Castroneves said. “Once the pit cycles came in, I was in second place with Palou. Pato came to play a little bit. I was like just keep doing what I’m doing, understanding what I need to do. I lost too many races in second place here.”

Castroneves acknowledged that Palou’s car was wicked fast.  “The Ganassi guys did a great job,” Helio said. “They were very, very strong on their own. They really were able to do some amazing laps. I think it was almost 221. I try myself, and I couldn’t do it. I decided just to wait for the right opportunity. I did a couple of tries. I remember my (Penske) teammate, Sam Hornish, beating me a lot in those races by a nose. So, I did a couple tries to see if I would cross the finish line first, and I did.

“My strong corners were both (Turns) 2 and 4, I knew that. It’s just a matter of, like, waiting for the right opportunity. When I saw the traffic, it was a bunch of it actually. I’m like, ‘That’s it _ I’m not going to wait’ because I need that traffic to pull me so I can get the same speed. When I made the move, I said, ‘That’s it.’

“It was fun. When I saw Hunter-Reay in front of me…is he going to block? What is he going to do? I don’t know. Time again, make sure that Palou wouldn’t dive-and-bomb me. It was perfect.

“When I crossed the finish line, I was like, ‘Can you believe it? I don’t believe it. Do you believe it?’ I was talking to myself; it was really fun.”

Palou, who won the season-opening road-course event at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., last month, displayed sportsmanship beyond his years in defeat.

“I don’t know why, but he had three (Indy 500 wins), and why he wanted four?” Palou joked. “He could have gave me one. I just wanted one. But it’s OK. It’s racing. It’s the beauty about racing. When it hurts, it’s good because you know there’s something better. When you win, it’s like the most satisfying thing.

“When you lose, for me _ c’mon, we finished second in my second Indy 500. How can I be sad?”

Shank said Castroneves’ closing strategy was akin to a chess match. “He was calculated. Exactly what I expected,” Shank said. “We noticed something on video that he does in traffic to pass people.

“When I figured out he had this planned, I got a real weird calmness over me. I thought, ‘He is stalking this guy and he’s going to pounce.’ Then we had some traffic right after that, and the race was over at that point. Once he got around that, that was it. But three laps to go, I looked right at Jim, he’s looking at me, I’m like, ‘We got this! I think we can do this actually.’

“Listen, what I figured out in this deal for sure is give him (Helio) what he wants. If you just give him what he asks for, he’ll do it. He’ll do it anytime, anyplace, anywhere. I’m anxious to see where this goes with Helio, I really am.”

Meyer noted this team _ launched with Brit Harvey’s one-off appearance in the 2017 Indy 500 _ has benefitted from its technical alliance with Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti _ who finished second to Mears in the 1991 Indy 500 _ and Honda Performance Development.

“Our alliance with Andretti, we couldn’t have done what we’re doing without it,” said Meyer, an Indianapolis resident who retired as CEO of SiriusXM in December 2020 after a seven-year tenure as boss. “We compete, don’t kid yourself, hard on the racetrack. Michael was the second person I saw after we won the race, to come up and congratulate us. It’s just great.

“Helio winning is just great for our sport. It really is. It will be a great story, bring a lot of publicity to INDYCAR racing.”

A caution on Lap 33 turned the race on its head early. Stefan Wilson of Great Britain locked his brakes and spun entering pit road in the No. 25 Cusick Motorsports Honda, hitting the outside pit wall with the right side of his Andretti Autosport entry.

NTT P1 Award pole-winner Scott Dixon, the chalk favorite pre-race, was among a group of cars that had not pitted before the caution. But those cars started to run out of fuel because the pits were closed while the AMR INDYCAR Safety Team removed Wilson’s damaged car and cleaned debris.

Dixon was leading when he, 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi and five other drivers made emergency stops on Laps 36 or 37 for fuel. However, Dixon’s and Rossi’s Honda-powered cars would not refire, and they both fell a lap down when racing resumed on Lap 46.

Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 champion from New Zealand, raced back to the lead lap in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing, but finished 17th. Rossi finished 29th in Andretti Autosport’s No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts/AutoNation Honda, two laps down.

Palou took the series point lead in the double-points race, building a 248-212 advantage over Dixon, the six-time/reigning champion.

Next series races are the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader, headline events of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear on June 12-13 at the Raceway at Belle Isle Park.

Results Sunday of the 105th Indianapolis 500 NTT IndyCar Series event on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

  1. (8) Helio Castroneves-(W), Honda, 200, Running
    2. (6) Alex Palou, Honda, 200, Running
    3. (26) Simon Pagenaud-(W), Chevrolet, 200, Running
    4. (12) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 200, Running
    5. (4) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 200, Running
    6. (23) Santino Ferrucci, Honda, 200, Running
    7. (31) Sage Karam, Chevrolet, 200, Running
    8. (3) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 200, Running
    9. (24) Juan Pablo Montoya-(W), Chevrolet, 200, Running
    10. (5) Tony Kanaan-(W), Honda, 200, Running
    11. (9) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 200, Running
    12. (21) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 200, Running
    13. (19) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 200, Running
    14. (15) Takuma Sato-(W), Honda, 200, Running
    15. (22) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 200, Running
    16. (2) Colton Herta, Honda, 200, Running
    17. (1) Scott Dixon-(W), Honda, 200, Running
    18. (20) Jack Harvey, Honda, 200, Running
    19. (25) Marco Andretti, Honda, 200, Running
    20. (17) Scott McLaughlin-(R), Chevrolet, 200, Running
    21. (16) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 200, Running
    22. (7) Ryan Hunter-Reay-(W), Honda, 200, Running
    23. (30) Dalton Kellett, Chevrolet, 199, Running
    24. (29) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 199, Running
    25. (13) Pietro Fittipaldi-(R), Honda, 199, Running
    26. (27) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 199, Running
    27. (14) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 199, Running
    28. (11) Ed Jones, Honda, 199, Running
    29. (10) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 198, Running
    30. (32) Will Power-(W), Chevrolet, 197, Running
    31. (33) Simona De Silvestro, Chevrolet, 169, Contact
    32. (18) Graham Rahal, Honda, 118, Contact
    33. (28) Stefan Wilson, Honda, 32, Contact

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 190.690 mph
Time of Race: 2:37:19.3846
Margin of victory: 0.4928-seconds
Cautions: 2 for 18 laps
Lead changes: 35 among 13 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Herta, 1
VeeKay, 2-30
Herta, 31-32
Dixon, 33-35
Castroneves, 36-38
Herta, 39-48
VeeKay, 49
Daly, 50-70
Castroneves, 71-76
Palou, 77
O’Ward, 78
Rahal, 79-81
VeeKay, 82-83
Daly, 84-102
O’Ward, 103-113
Rahal, 114-118
Palou, 119-124
Castroneves, 125-126
O’Ward, 127-130
Palou, 131-147
Castroneves, 148-149
O’Ward, 150
Sato, 151-156
Rosenqvist, 157
Dixon, 158-161
Palou, 162-168
Castroneves, 169-171
Palou, 172
Pagenaud, 173-175
Karam, 176-177
Ferrucci, 178-179
Rosenqvist, 180-192
Sato, 193
Castroneves, 194-195
Palou, 196-198
Castroneves, 199-200

NTT IndyCar Series point standings: 1, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, 248; 2, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 212; 3, Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP, 211; 4, Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske, 201; 5, Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing, 191; 6, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, 184; 7, Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport, 154; 8, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 148; 9, Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske, 143; 10, Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, 138.

Note _ All cars use the fourth generation NTT IndyCar Series chassis (Dallara IR-12) with universal IR-18 aerodynamic bodywork, Chevrolet or Honda twin-turbocharged V-6 engines and Firestone Firehawk tires.

(W) _Denotes Indianapolis 500 winner

(R) _ Denotes Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year candidate


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 31 2021
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