It was the fastest Indianapolis 500 ever and I think you’d be hard-pressed not to call it one of the best ever — from start to finish. It had 36 passes for the lead, including the winner with two laps left, and a total of 361 passes for position. It showed that a little team could take baby steps and leap out of the crib into big boy pants three years later with hard work, smart management and some under-the-radar talent.
Meyer Shank Racing is the best advertisement IndyCar could ask for because it’s a small-market team winning the World Series on a playing field about as even as has ever existed. And the fact a one-off effort whipped Andretti, Ganassi and Team Penske in the biggest race on the planet just confirms that theory.
But the best thing about May 30, 2021 was that nobody knew who was going to win until the very end. It could have been Conor Daly, Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward, Alex Palou, Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rinus VeeKay or Helio Castroneves and it had the fans (sure looked like more than 135,000) standing and screaming to the checkered flag.
True, the last 10 laps were pretty much a three-man scrum between Castroneves, Palou and O’Ward before Simon Pagenaud and Ed Carpenter joined the party but it all came down to the old guard against the new wave.
Palou, 24, is a breakout star who drove a magnificent race and came up a half a car length shy against a guy who began racing at IMS when the Spaniard was two years old.
At 46, Helio doesn’t look much different than he did at 26 and he damn sure acts the same as when Roger Penske gave him a ride back in 2000. We weren’t sure what to make of this bubbly Brazilian, who was always smiling and upbeat and never seemed to have a bad day. In an old IRL media guide, Vitor Meira said HCN was his favorite actor and we all laughed.
Yet as time went on, it became clear that this effervescent personality was for real and his consistent kindness towards the fans and media made him one of the most popular drivers.
Of course there is an expiration date at Team Penske and after 2015 winner Juan Pablo Montoya was transferred to the sports car side, Castroneves followed suit in 2017. He still ran Indy for The Captain but after losing the 2017 race to Takuma Sato by a car length, his last hurrah came in 2019.
It looked like game, set and match because very few drivers have ever won Indy after being cut by R.P. Especially old guys. But HCN swore he wasn’t ready for full-time sports car duty and wanted one more shot with IndyCar.
Not sure who gets the nod for signing Castroneves but he showed he was serious by turning up for pit stop practice at 7 a.m. last winter in Columbus, Ohio. It’s hard to not pull for Mike Shank because of his persistence to make it to IndyCar and partner Jim Meyer is a good guy who just blends in with the scenery.
The fact crew chief Matt Swan was first with HCN at Hogan Racing in 1999 just makes this story a little better, and obviously engineer Mark Bryant meshed well with the newest four-time winner.
After the controversial finish and kangaroo court in 2002 when many considered Paul Tracy the legit winner, there was quite a bit of grumbling that Castroneves didn’t deserve to be in the same breath with Foyt, Mears and Unser.
But that talk eventually died down and the guy who could hold the biggest grudge was damn near cheering for his old rival on Sunday. “The youngsters were playing checkers today and Helio was playing chess,” said Tracy during his NBC commentary. “He drove a helluva race and this has become the year of the old-timers.”
The crowd’s reaction was all anyone needed to hear to affirm this ageless racer’s popularity as he ran up and down the track saluting the fans and then was besieged by everyone from Will Power to Mario Andretti. And one of the legends he now sits at the same table with gave him the highest compliment.
“He deserved it — he worked hard to get it and he finally got it,” said A.J. Foyt, the first four-timer back in 1977. “It wasn’t given to him and when someone works as hard as he did, I’m glad it happened for him. As I said, he deserved it.”
Hard to disagree with the King.