Back to the future

Helio Castroneves after winning the 105th Indianapolis 500. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway/ Joe Skibinski

The fastest field in history (230.294 mph average). The fastest RACE in history (190.690 mph average). Long steeped in tradition, the 2021 Indianapolis 500 delivered a classic mix of drama, intrigue, history, and, of course an extremely popular winner. And, most importantly, the race built an important bridge toward the race’s future with veterans and younger drivers battling it out until the very end.

Let’s start with Helio Castroneves, despite being one of IndyCar’s biggest crossover stars (who, yes, we even predicted wouldn’t even have a ride this year) drove with passion, tact, focus and a little luck to make his own history.

Helio’s fourth win elevated him to the Mount Rushmore of Indy 500 greats with Al Unser, A.J. Foyt, and Rick Mears (who won his 4th race exactly 30 years ago). But this ordainment wasn’t something that was particularly certain, especially after missing out on win #4 by an eyelash in 2014 and 2017.

Tough performances in 2018 and 2019 saw him lose his IndyCar ride in favor of sports cars, and then ultimately, led to no ride at all when Roger Penske shuttered his sports car program at the end of 2021.

Juan Pablo Montoya fought to a 9th place finish in the 105th Indianapolis 500: Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway/Joe Skibinski

Both Castroneves (46) and Juan Pablo Montoya (45) both found themselves fighting for jobs, relevancy and quality opportunities to add to their Indy 500 win totals in a sea of younger drivers. The both found them this year in extra cars for non-Penske teams (Helio with Meyer Shank Racing and JPM with Arrow McLaren SP).

When Helio snuck into the Fast Nine last week, and gave himself a solid starting spot in 8th place, you couldn’t help but flag him as a dark horse, for his raw speed, of course, but also for the fact that he clearly had something to prove.

In fact, the “old guard” of IndyCar wasn’t willing to go out quietly. Indeed, fully half the top ten finishers were drivers were 37 years old or older (Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud in 3rd, Ed Carpenter in 5th, Montoya in 9th, and Tony Kanaan in 10th).

Ultimately, this experience counted for a lot in the end. Hand an assist to “Lady Luck” who took contenders Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Graham Rahal and Conor Daly out of the mix well before the final battle at the finish, and the cards were set to allow for a shootout at the end. β€œThe youngsters were playing checkers today and Helio was playing chess“, said Paul Tracy, as he watched his rival from the controversial 2002 Indianapolis 500 outduel Alex Palou, someone nearly half his age in the end.

Helio Castroneves climbs the fence after winning the 105th Indianapolis 500 / Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway/Karl Zemlin

But, what made this race especially great, and what makes every Indy 500 unlike anything else in the world, of course, was having the fans back in the stands on Memorial Day weekend. In the largest gathering of any sporting event anywhere in the world since the start of the COVID pandemic, the fans got what they wanted with plenty of history with Helio’s victory. The fastest race ever left them plenty of time to cheer and chant his name as he climbed the fence Spider Man style for the fourth time before they headed home with a pocket full of memories and a deeper feeling that maybe, just maybe, things were going to be ok again.

Now, the question then turns to “who’s next” to offer a shot at the 4th timers club, and you have wonder if it will take another 30 years to see someone join them. Montoya and Takuma Sato are the only two active drivers that even have 2 wins, and they are will into their 40s. It will likely take a medium-sized miracle for them to get to 4 wins before they hang it up for good.

Could Helio win number five next year? It’s sure looking like he’ll have another shot in 2022.

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