Helio Castroneves reveals key to winning Indy 500: 'It's so close'

Indycar Racing News

Helio Castroneves is aiming for a record-breaking fifth Indy 500 win in 2024. The 49-year-old tells James Elson how he's drawing on all of his experience as he seeks to become the most successful driver in the race's history

Hélio Castroneves holds up 4 fingers

If anyone knows how to win the Indy 500, it's Hélio Castroneves

Getty Images

Some drivers spend their entire careers trying to win the Indianapolis 500, one of motor sport’s crown jewels, and never get to taste that famous celebratory milk – as they search in vain for the secret to success.

Michael Andretti won 42 IndyCar races, but at 18 times of asking at The Brickyard managed a best result of runner-up just once, retiring from the lead four times as he was struck by the apparent ‘Andretti curse’.

Tony Bettenhausen won 22 IndyCar races but couldn’t crack the Speedway, while Sébastien Bourdais has the discipline’s best win rate (one every 5.5 events) which ties him with the most successful IndyCar driver of all time, AJ Foyt, but left him with little luck at Indianapolis. Dan Gurney, Tony Stewart and Ted Horn are also stars without success at the 500.

However, a very select quartet won the race time and again, balancing their cars at the razor’s edge of 220mph for 500 miles while duelling with some of the most formidable drivers in the world: currently on four victories apiece are Foyt, Al Unser Sr; Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves – the latter of whom is attempting to win an unprecedented fifth in 2024.

2 Helio Castroneves 2001 Indianapolis 500

Doing the famous ‘Spiderman’ celebration after first win in 2001

Getty Images

Looking ahead to this weekend’s big race, the charismatic Brazilian revealed to Motor Sport what’s key to winning at The Brickyard, saying, “I learnt as much from finishing second as winning.”

The evergreen Castroneves won the 500 at his first attempt in 2001, then in 2002 and 2009 (all for Penske), followed by a famous victory in a one-off appearance with Meyer Shank. Pivotal to that success is his longevity. The Sao Paulo native has been racing in IndyCar since 1998 when he made his Champ Car debut at Miami, and says that understanding the development path the current DW12 car has taken is crucial.

“It used to be about just lowering the wing, trying to run as little downforce as possible to move away from your competitors,” the 49-year-old explains, thinking back to the Dallara IR-01 he first ran at America’s biggest race.

“Before, if your car was fast enough to pass then you were able to make that move, no matter what happens.

“Now, with the way cars drag on the straightaway, sucking along the guy behind, it changes the dynamic. It’s not too much about how fast your car is, it’s about how good it is in traffic – it’s about the front floor of the car and the set-up.”

Related article

An IndyCar in super speedway aerodynamic configuration generates up to 88% of its 5000lbs downforce from the floor. When a car runs in the turbulent air of a competitor it becomes ‘light’ as it loses aerodynamic grip – the name of the game is to try and regain this mainly through bolting on flaps, strakes and bargeboards to the protruding front section of the floor, wings and rear diffuser, while not adding too much as to make your car comparatively slow when running alone.

However, getting to the set-up sweet spot isn’t easy – Castroneves emphasises how is easy it is to be led up a blind gasoline alley.

“When you come to Indianapolis and practice for a week, it’s easy for you to start really well and then sometimes drive into the wrong direction without even noticing due to the weather, the track conditions changing etc.

“It’s a long week, but that’s why the details are so important because the cars are… I don’t want to say old [the Dallara DW12 made its debut in 2012]! But pretty much everyone knows all the tricks – so everybody is very, very close.”

Helio Castroneves 2024 Indianapolis 500

Castroneves emphasises how important it is to have a car which can run well in traffic


One of the ‘Month of May’s’ peak moments of excitement is the qualifying knockout round, when cars run at their most trim while hitting over 240mph.

That said, putting aside the danger of being caught in a mid-pack pile-up, Castroneves doesn’t particularly value a high-starting position – achieved through a car with hot one-lap pace – above all else.

“It’s important but not a deal-maker,” he says. “Because it’s such a long race, you want to start the race with a good perspective on what to do, the strategy and things like that. However if your car is good, it doesn’t matter where you start.

Related article

“You’ve just gotta be patient, and that’s why so many people do so many practice laps in traffic, because these days that’s most important.”

A significant aspect of the Brazilian’s approach is also that he takes a wider line than most into the corners.

The now largely ubiquitous tighter entry was popularised by early 2010s racer Carlos Munoz, but Castroneves favours a more old-school approach which helps him maintain corner speed at a trade-off of making himself easier to follow. However with the cars now running largely as a pack throughout the race, it’s not a significant loss.

When Castroneves began at Indy, fellow four-time winner and Penske alumni Rick Mears gave him advice on “the rhythm of the race, what to do at different times – in 2001 when I won the first time it was like, it’s actually happening!”

Helio Castroneves fights with Alex Palou in the 2021 indy 500

Wily Castroneves used all his nous and experience to beat Palou in 2021


Now the Brazilian has been able to pass on what he knows to his current Meyer Shank team-mates Felix Rosenqvist and Tom Blomqvist – like how to space out their race moves. Never was this more apparent than in 2021 when, in a one-off appearance, he was duelling with Alex Palou in the dying moments.

Spying traffic further down the road, Castroneves surmised he should pass the Spaniard with two laps to go, realising once they reached the backmarkers he could use their slipstream as defence to hold off Palou until the chequered flag – it proved a winning decision.

Now though, the veteran racer is just “glad I’m back with the helmet on, because that’s what I know best.”

Clearly a fifth win, making him the most successful Indy 500 driver ever, would mean the world to him. What would he do if it actually happens?

“I think I’ll run for Mayor of Indianapolis!”