Fine lines, despite the wrinkles: How Helio Castroneves conquered Indy, aged 46

Indycar Racing News

Helio Castroneves looked to be slowing towards retirement at the end of last year. Now, his fourth victory in the Indy 500, he looks capable of a record-breaking fifth win, writes Damien Smith

Helio Castroneves celebrates winning the 2021 Indy 500


Were these the most protracted race-win celebrations ever? They were certainly memorable, wildly joyful, even genuinely moving – and in the circumstances entirely justified. At 46, Hélio Castroneves had just won the Indianapolis 500 for the fourth time to join a special club at The Brickyard and make the illustrious trio of AJ Foyt, Al Unser Sr and Rick Mears a quartet. He’d also done so in considerable style, for a team long considered among IndyCar’s minnows, after a classic 500 in which one of the ‘old boys’ had got the better of the new wave of exciting talent that’s sweeping through the series.

Talk about a feel-good victory.

The Brazilian’s previous three wins, in 2001, 2002 and 2009, had all been achieved within the Team Penske winning machine – but all good things come to an end. Castroneves was shuffled off into IMSA after finishing a close second to Takuma Sato at the 500 in 2017. He returned to Indy in Penske Dallaras for the three editions thereafter, but after an 11th-place finish in the Covid-delayed 2020 race, that was it in terms of starts for The Captain.

A fine career slowing towards a natural conclusion? We might have thought so – but this perennial fan-favourite just wasn’t having it.

Helio Castroneves climbs the fence after winning the 2021 Indy 500

‘Spider Man’ Castroneves scales the debris fence after his victory


“I’ve started two races this year and won them both,” said the beaming hero on Sunday when the interviewer finally caught up him with after he’d hugged and shaken the hand of just about every member of the pitlane (it’s always a good sign when rivals are genuinely pleased to congratulate a winner). The other victory this season? The Daytona 24 Hours, no less, Castroneves having joined Felipe Albuquerque, Alexander Rossi and Ricky Taylor in Wayne Taylor Racing’s winning Acura DPi back in January. Now here he was, in the black and pink of Meyer Shank Racing, still sporting his old #06 – and back on top at the race he knows better than any other, a full dozen years after his third victory.

And naturally, ‘Spider-man’ climbed again! There it was, the signature celebration of the still helmeted figure clambering up the debris fence to scream in sheer abandon at the masses, who roared right back at him following a year when they’d been barred from the Speedway by the grim restrictions imposed by the pandemic. It’s hard to think of a better winner to mark the crowd’s much-anticipated return.

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To some, this writer included, it was sometimes easy to doubt the sincerity amidst the larger-than-life personality traits and mile-wide smiles during Castroneves’ 20-year career at the top of his sport. But of course he’s sincere – he’s a Brazilian racing driver! And just put aside the cynicism: he’s a natural for American crowds to love, especially since he burst into wider mainstream consciousness by winning Dancing with the Stars, the US version of Strictly Come Dancing. Eat your heart out, Bill Bailey.

As for the race itself, who says it’s hard to pass on ovals these days? The stats on this Memorial weekend read 361 passes for position, 36 of which were for the lead of the race, Castroneves securing his victory with a beautifully timed Turn One move on the outside of the weaving Alex Palou – at 24, nearly half his age – just two laps from home. Their tense battle, in which they passed and re-passed each other following the final pit stops, will go down as one of the finest of the 500’s 105 editions.

It turned out to be a decent day for the veterans. Behind the exceptional Palou, 37-year-old Simon Pagenaud finished a tough month of May for Penske on a strong note, charging past Arrow McLaren SP’s 22-year-old Pato O’Ward to snatch third place. With a few more laps he might well have added a second 500 victory to the one he scored two years ago.


Behind O’Ward, Indy specialist Ed Carpenter, 40, capped a strong showing for his team – like Meyer Shank, once considered a minnow but perhaps no longer – by finishing fifth, ahead of Americans Santino Ferrucci and Sage Karam, who had started 23rd and 31st respectively. Behind them, Carpenter’s front-row starter Rinus VeeKay was a deflated eighth after a race that had promised so much more – but at 20, time is well and truly on the Dutchman’s side.

And completing the top 10? No less than Juan Pablo Montoya, the two-time winner finishing his somewhat underwhelming 500 return with Arrow McLaren SP on form, ahead of another 46-year-old Brazilian fan-favourite, Tony Kanaan. Still life in the old dogs and all that.

But the result didn’t mask what we’d also seen in the previous five IndyCar races, in what is proving to be a terrific season. The generations most definitely are turning thanks to the likes of Palou, O’Ward and Veekay, all of whom led the race, as did 21-year-old Colton Herta before his challenge faded. They all looked perfectly at home at the front too and in their hands, IndyCar has a great deal to look forward to through the rest of this decade.

At the upper reaches of the so-called new-wave, 29-year-old Conor Daly spent the most time of anyone up front, and for the first time in his career too, driving Carpenter’s cool US Air Force entry that looked a little like an F-16 on wheels. Derek Daly’s son spent 40 laps in the lead and while 13th at the finish represented another anti-climax at his home track, the over-riding emotion should surely have been one of sheer relief. His escape from a collision with an errant wheel was a sobering reminder why IndyCars now run with ugly Aeroscreens. Daly’s wrap-around windshield wasn’t actually tested on this occasion, because the Firestone that had spun off unlucky Graham Rahal’s car after a botched pitstop pinged sky-high off the USAF Dallara’s nose – but Daly’s quivering hand movements on the steering wheel signalled what a terrifying moment this must have been. Another mile an hour more, and in an earlier era, he wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Watching those onboard TV pictures, thoughts immediately turned to Romain Grosjean, watching from afar after choosing to give the ovals a miss in his rookie IndyCar season – in the wake of his own miraculous deliverance from that fiery crash at the Bahrain GP last year. Sure enough, the Frenchman responded on Twitter: “Thanks Aeroscreen!!! I was very stupid not to want the Halo or Aeroscreen to be brought fwd,” he wrote. “I’ll never race a car without it anymore.” As Grosjean says, he was an outspoken critic when such devices first appeared and indubitably both solutions are ugly, heavy, ungainly – but all too clearly, there’s no going back now. There just can’t be when they have and will save lives.

Helio Castroneves with Mario ANdretti after winning the 2021 Indy 500

A moment with Mario Andretti


Helio Castroneves embraces Roger Penske after the 2021 Indy 500

An embrace from Roger Penske

Back at the finish Castroneves jogged most of the length of Indy’s main straightaway, then returned to kiss the yard of bricks. Here’s a man who knows how to play to the crowds. The moment when The Captain warmly shook his hand must have been sweet, given all that has passed between them. But there was another moment that stands out. At the pit wall, a familiar figure approached Hélio with a big smile. In solemnity, the winner bowed his head – and Mario Andretti kissed it. As blessings go it can’t get much better than that.

Or perhaps it can. Castroneves is still a year younger than Unser Sr when he became the oldest winner of the Indy 500 in 1987. So will the new four-time victor go for the high five in an attempt to stand alone? On current form, he’s literally unbeatable… No way has The Brickyard’s smoothest mover taken his last dance on the biggest stage of them all.

See you next year, twinkle toes.