It’s pretty clear God is a Helio Castroneves fan.
After all, how can a 46-year-old veteran race car driver, who was viewed by some as potentially over the hill, put on an incredible show Sunday by capturing the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in dramatic fashion.
“I have to also thank the Lord,” Castroneves said.
The 46-year-old Castroneves passed youngster Alex Palou on the second-to-last lap and held on to win buoyed on the final lap by a screaming, cheering throng of 135,000 fans (the maximum number that were allowed due to COVID restrictions) at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“This is unbelievable,” Castroneves exclaimed as he climbed out of his Meyer Shank Racing Honda. He then launched into arguably the longest post-race celebration ever seen at IMS, climbing the fence in the kind of joy the U.S. hasn’t seen in well over a year due to the pandemic.
It’s like Castroneves let everything hang out and was not going to be denied.
But there’s a good reason for that: after 11 tries since his last 500 win in 2009, he finally earned his fourth Indy 500 win, lifting him into one of the most exclusive clubs in racing, sharing the title with three of the greatest drivers in IndyCar history who have also won the Greatest Spectacle In Racing four times: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
Castroneves, who also won the 500 back-to-back in 2001 and 2002, is a huge fan favorite. He was even before Sunday’s record-tying triumph, but this win was arguably more special than the other three.
The Brazilian native said he won’t think about whether he’ll go for a record-breaking fifth win in next year’s 500. “We’ll talk about five in a week later,” he said afterward.
But still, there was no denying the significance of what Helio did Sunday.
“We won Indianapolis, we did it!” an obviously excited Castroneves said. “I think I’ve still got it!”
And that right there is the key. While NBC touted that five of the top-eight finishers in the 500 were “young guys” (under 30), it also kind of skewed the overall picture, as five of the top-10 finishers were “older guys,” 37 years of age or older.
Castroneves (46 years old), former teammate Simon Pagenaud (37), fifth-place finisher Ed Carpenter (40), ninth-place finisher Juan Pablo Montoya (45) and the 10th-place finisher and the oldest driver in the field, Tony Kanaan (46).
That proved that, while IndyCar is trying to build its future on today’s large crop of young drivers, Castroneves’ win proved that the old guys still have a lot of gas left in their respective tanks.
“Tom Brady won the Super Bowl (at 43), Phil Mickelson won the PGA championship (last week, at the age of 50),” Castroneves said. “So, the old guys still have it and are still kicking the young guys’ butt. We’re teaching them a lesson.”
Castroneves never gave up on his dream of winning a fourth 500, even though the 12-year gap between his third and fourth wins at Indy marked the second-longest winless streak in the 500 behind Montoya’s 15-year spread between his Indy 500 wins in 2000 and 2015.
“I never stopped dreaming,” Castroneves said. “I wanted to prove to the young kids that you can still win.”
Although he still has five other IndyCar starts scheduled for Meyer Shank Racing this season, Castroneves right now is batting 1.000: he was on the winning team at the Rolex 24 in late January and now is a four-time Indy 500 winner.
Not bad for an old guy.
“People put a label on a number,” Castroneves said. “Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, all these incredible guys, were able to race into their 50s. All of a sudden, they see a young guy and are probably going to spend more time and money on the crashes he’s (involved in while) learning then a guy who has experience and makes things happen.”
And Castroneves certainly made things happen Sunday. Yet in a twist of irony, he became the only driver to ever win the Indy 500 for two different owners. That’s right, he won his first three during a 20-year tenure with Team Penske. But when he was told the team wouldn’t be able to field a car for him in this year’s 500 due to the addition of young New Zealand driver Scott McLaughlin to the Penske fold, Castroneves was left with a difficult choice.
He could either essentially call it quits and retire from IndyCar racing, or if Penske didn’t want him any longer, he could go out and find another team that did.
Enter Meyer Shank Racing. They gave Castroneves the chance he wanted and he delivered in a big way, earning the first-ever IndyCar win for MSR at the same time. And in yet another salvo against the age situation, Castroneves proved he’s far from being over the hill as Sunday’s race was the fastest in Indy 500 history at 190.690 mph and at 2 hours, 37 minutes, 19.3846 seconds, breaking the old mark by more than 3 mph and over five minutes.
“I just wanted a chance to fight and we did,” Castroneves said. “Super honored to be in this group. It was great to be with Penske and now my new friends, I’m having a great opportunity.”
At the rate he’s going, and with his career and life both reinvigorated by Sunday’s historic finish, Castroneves may wind up racing not just into his 50s, but maybe even his 60s if he keeps this all up.
“I still have the fire, I love what I do, this is my passion,” he said. “You can’t take that away. So for me, representing the old guys, I feel like with technology, we can still go for a long time. And as long as I have the opportunity, I will.”
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski