Helio Castroneves won an emotional and evocative fourth Indy 500 last Sunday. The Brazilian legend joined the four-time club 20 years on from his maiden ‘500 win. The 46-year-old came into Indy after he got let go by Team Penske; Castroneves scrambled for a one-race deal with Indycar minnows, Meyer Shank Racing. The win was the team’s first Indycar win, and they triumphed at the biggest race in the world. The win cemented Castroneves’ legacy as an Indycar legend and left him on the brink of history. But, we’ll come back to that later.
The Speedway Gets Its Soul Back
The 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 was a historical, emotional event. Firstly, 135,000 fans returned to the Brickyard. That number marked the highest attendance for a sporting event since the pandemic started. Seeing race fans return to their cathedral of speed made the pageantry all the more special. After last year’s empty ‘500, the soul and spectacle returned for the 2021 edition.
The emotional singing of ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ and the electricity of the driver introductions heightened the atmosphere. Add all the pomp and circumstance to the level of talent on the grid, and the race couldn’t come soon enough. The field of 33 were the fastest qualifiers in Indy history, while nine former winners were on the grid. The blend of youthful exuberance and veteran experience created an exciting cocktail of drama. It didn’t take long; After his twirl at the driver introduction, young Dutchman Rinus Veekay overtook Scott Dixon and Colton Herta to surge into an early lead. Veekay got followed by young American Herta in the early stages. The drivers settled in for the early stint until a dramatic twist shook things up.
A Dramatic Twist and Scott Dixon’s Bad Luck
Scott Dixon is a six-time Indycar champion; he’s won over 50 races, the Kiwi is a bonafide legend. Yet, Dixon has only drunk milk in victory lane once in his legendary career. That sole victory in 2008 looked like it might get joined after Dixon took a phenomenal pole position. Unfortunately, Stefan Wilson’s crash in the pitlane caused an early safety car period. Dixon was waiting to pit a tad later than Herta and Veekay.
Instead, race control closed the pits, and Dixon needed to complete one more lap around the track. Eventually, he was allowed in for an emergency stop. As the Iceman pulled in, his car spluttered to a halt. Dixon went a lap down and tumbled to the last position in their desperate efforts to restart the car. The favourite, the reigning champion, saw his Indy hopes get ripped away from him in an instant. Indianapolis often picks its winner; lady luck was definitely not on Dixon’s side this year.
The early safety car brought Conor Daly into play. The Indiana born-and-raised driver emerged into the leading pack after the pace car period. When the green flag finally waved, Daly went into hyperdrive. Daly took second place away from Herta; he then passed his teammate going into turn three; the roar from the Indiana faithful was deafening. The boy born 20 miles from the speedway was now in the lead; however, Indianapolis and its 230mph Russian roulette would once again change everything.
A Horrifying Crash, Hometown Heartbreak and the Ninja
As the laps continued to fly by, Graham Rahal was quietly moving into contention. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver went on a long stint in an attempt to overcut several cars. His team won the race last year with Rahal’s teammate Takuma Sato, and Rahal’s desire to emulate his father and win the Indy 500 was fueling him. Rahal came to a stop, time was of the essence, and his mechanics hurried their way through.
Devastatingly for Rahal, he left without the left-rear wheel tightened; as he accelerated out of the pitlane, the wheel rolled off, and Rahal crashed into the wall. It was eerily similar to Alex Zanardi’s horrific crash in 2001. Luckily, Rahal was ok. The loose wheel ricocheted back onto the racing line and struck Conor Daly’s car. The aeroscreen arguably saved Daly’s life; however, the resulting damage on his car would prove his undoing. Add that to a late pitstop, and the Indiana racer was out of contention.
Daly’s teammate Veekay was struggling with fuel-saving; it seemed as if the race was down to four drivers: Helio Castroneves, Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Captain America ruled himself out as he got a pitlane speeding penalty. The race had come down to two fearless youngsters and the grizzled veteran.
The Legend’s Flying Finish, but the Young Guns Are Here to Stay
As the race reached its dramatic denouement, the front three were racing for the win. It looked like the Honda-powered cars of Palou and Castroneves held a power advantage. O’Ward got placed on the periphery due to his Chevrolet engine’s power disadvantage. Palou and Castroneves traded places until the penultimate lap when Castroneves pounced. The Brazilian swept around the outside of turn one to pass Palou;
Castroneves then negotiated the longest three corners of his career to cross the yard of bricks before everyone else. The charismatic Castroneves then celebrated in signature style by climbing the fence. Once again, the crowd’s roar was incredible as they showed their affection and admiration for one of the sports biggest stars.
At various points, the Indy 500 got led by Alex Palou, Rinus Veekay, Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward. All four of these drivers are race-winners; all four of them are under-25; these fearless young bucks will get plenty of opportunities to come back and win at Indy. Although it won’t be easy, Castroneves said the old guys have still got it, citing Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson as examples. Spiderman will almost certainly return in 2022 to take a crack at winning ‘500 number five. That would place Castroneves into an exclusive club of one, and a packed house at Indy may erupt. But, the young guys are coming for him and his crown. Can it be May 2022 already? Please?