Helio Castroneves’ Indianapolis 500 Win Goes Well Beyond Racing

Living in Indianapolis, watching the Indy 500 live in the comfort of your own home is impossible.

The local ABC station delays the broadcast until Sunday evening with the intentional effect of keeping live attendance high. Not going to the race this year, I did what I ordinarily the night before Memorial Day, watching the 500 at home.

When the broadcast started I knew Helio Castroneves had won.

I was also aware of the significance of the victory in both human and racing terms.

A little more than a month ago, Castroneves’ career teetered on the brink of disaster, but it had nothing to do with a race car or the Dancing With The Stars win that elevated his fame. The feds were after Castroneves for hiding tax money outside the country. If convicted, it could have meant six years in jail. At 40 years old in a sport that demands fitness for endurance, a return to the track would have been dicey at best.

Castroneves was acquitted and Friday, the same day his team won the pit stop competition and already having clinched the pole for the race, the government stopped pursuing the one remaining charge.

As Castroneves steamed to victory in the waning moments Sunday there was no shortage of disbelief at the complete reversal of fortune. Castroneves thanked God for his circumstances both in the cockpit after winning the race and again in a wildly emotional Victory Lane. His family’s hands were clasped in obvious prayer during the final laps.

Castroneves has never been known, at least publicly, as a particularly religious person. His emotion belies his belief that there’s more than just happenstance in the incredible directional shift of his life.

From a racing standpoint it further cements Castroneves and race team owner Roger Penske in Brickyard lore.

This was Castroneves’ third win at Indy. Only three other drivers have won four 500s and none has won five. With a few more years left behind the wheel, no shortage of motivation after what he’s been through, and being affiliated with a man in Penske who has owned this race for the past 25 years, five – or more – is not impossible.

Think of the greatest sports dynasties. The New York Yankees of the ’20s and ’30s. The Boston Celtics of the ’60s. UCLA basketball in the Wooden Era. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers in their respective glory years. The Michael Jordan-powered Chicago Bulls of the ’90s.

Penske drivers have won the Indy 500 an unfathomable 15 times. Winning one race isn’t the same as a team slogging it out for an entire season, year after year, at least not on the surface.

But, consider all the teamwork it takes to put together a successful race team from the garage to signing drivers to keeping sponsors’ money flowing and it’s more than about three hours one Sunday every May.

There’s also the significance of the Indy 500 itself. Next week the IndyCar Series heads to Milwaukee, a short track with a long history and lots of loyal racing fans. But any driver telling the truth would say they would rather win Indy once than win Milwaukee – or any other stop on the circuit – 50 times.

No, Sunday was special in many ways, and quite obviously for Castroneves, fulfilling in many ways that had nothing to do with handling a car at 200 miles per hour.

 

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