Written off as too old to race full-time, too old for a fourth Indianapolis 500 win, Helio Castroneves at long last joined that exclusive club in a popular victory for the old guys.
Then Spider-Man scaled the Indianapolis Motor Speedway fence for his trademark victory celebration at the largest sporting event since the start of the pandemic.
Castroneves wasn’t done yet. At 46 and one of the oldest drivers in the field, he ran along the frontstretch of the speedway waving to the 135,000 fans in attendance. He pumped his arms in the air and waved to the ecstatic crowd, his explosion of emotional energy stopped every few feet by a flood of rivals who rushed onto the track to congratulate him.
Almost every member of Team Penske rushed out to meet Castroneves, including former teammate Will Power, who saw the final scoring pylon and had no idea his longtime friend won.
“I was looking up and down, ‘Who is the 06?'” Power told Castroneves in a victory hug. “You’re a legend.”
SpiderMan returns to #IMS for the 4th time. #ThisIsMay | #Indy500 pic.twitter.com/fJZU4pWyaj
— Indianapolis Motor Speedway (@IMS) May 30, 2021
Castroneves became the fourth-oldest winner in Indianapolis 500 history, behind Al Unser (47, 1987), Bobby Unser (47, 1981) and Emerson Fittipaldi (46, 1993).
“It means a lot,” Castroneves said of the reception. “I’ve been in the sport for a long time, and I hope I have more friends than actual enemies. And even those who don’t like me, I hope they understand that this is a very difficult place to achieve. And that meant we did something very special.”
After more than two decades driving for Team Penske, winning three Indy 500 with them, Castroneves was eventually phased over to the sports car program, where he won the IMSA championship last season before Roger Penske shuttered the team and made the business decision to cut Castroneves loose.
Spider-Man insisted he was not done racing, and Michael Shank agreed. He hired Castroneves for the Indy 500 to complement the one-car Meyer Shank Racing team. Maybe Castroneves would have a shot to win, but he would also boost a team that needed some veteran leadership at one of the most challenging tracks in the world.
His last Indy 500 win was in 2009, and Castroneves has been trying since to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears, his former mentor at Team Penske, as the only four-time winners of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Mears was the last driver to join the club in 1991.
“I love Indianapolis! You guys don’t understand it! The fans, you give me energy,” Castroneves said.
Castroneves, who also won the 500 in 2001 and 2002, was part of the winning Rolex 24 Daytona sports car team in January, taking the prestigious sports car event for the first time. This was the only IndyCar race on Castroneves’ schedule this season.
“I’ve run two races this year and won two races, I’d say that’s pretty good,” said Castroneves, who noted this might be the year for aging veterans. “I don’t know if this is a good comparison, but Tom Brady won the Super Bowl and Phil Mickelson won the golf [PGA Championship], so here you go. The older guys are still kicking the younger guys’ butts.”
It was a stark contrast to the recent theme of young drivers taking over IndyCar, which now has six different winners through six races this season. Three of them have been first-time winners, and four are drivers age 24 or younger.
Castroneves found himself in a closing duel with one of the young stars, 24-year-old Spaniard Alex Palou, but he passed Palou for good with two laps remaining and beat him by 0.4928 seconds for the victory.
“It hurts. It hurts a lot. I didn’t expect a second place to hurt that much,” said Palou, who took the series points lead.
Castroneves, who has three runner-up finishes at Indy, said Palou “had a great car and did everything he possibly could. Last year, he didn’t finish. This year he finished second, so that’s a big improvement.”
When he finally made it to victory lane — after a kiss from Mario Andretti, a hug from Johnny Rutherford and well wishes from just about every Indy 500 great — Castroneves sipped from his bottle of 2% milk and then dumped the rest over his head.
As he climbed into the back of a convertible for his true victory lap around the 2.5-mile speedway, most of the fans were still in the stands cheering Castroneves.
Former Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, the 2019 Indy winner, was third, followed by Pato O’Ward, the 21-year-old budding IndyCar star.
“I felt like we had a very competitive car, a car that for sure could have won the race,” O’Ward said. “I didn’t have enough for them. I didn’t have enough speed.”
The race was the fastest Indianapolis 500 in history, with an average speed of 190.690 mph. That broke the record of 187.433 set in 2013.
A year ago, no fans were allowed for the race that was delayed from May to August. This year, celebrities were back and fans were everywhere, and they were treated to a win by one of the most popular drivers in Indy 500 history.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.