INDIANAPOLIS — Roger Penske signed Helio Castroneves’ pay checks for 20 years. At the end of 2020, he stopped signing them. Castroneves, wouldn’t be retained as the popular Brazilian driver had to look for new employment. Instead of looking for work in sports cars, Castroneves eyed an NTT IndyCar Series return.
Meyer Shank Racing took a chance on him and he delivered in the biggest moment.
Penske, will now sign a new check to Castroneves, one in the millions category as the new owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will pay the newest member of the prestigious four-win club handsomely.
Castroneves, took his No. 06 Honda to victory lane in Sunday’s 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in what was his first start with MSR. He passed Alex Palou on Lap 198 and held the Spaniard off as he crossed the yard of bricks .4928-seconds ahead of the No. 10 Honda for his 31st career Indy Car series victory.
“To be honest, I felt that my car was very good since after qualifying, after that practice,” Castroneves said. “I knew it was very good. I felt the car great. I told Mike, I said, Mike, don’t touch it, the car is really good. Then Carb Day, I didn’t want to run much. We wanted to do some pit stops. Remember, this is the first time we’re running. It’s a little bit of timing, understanding. Even myself, I need to be understanding what the group needs. When you’re going 60 miles an hour, I have to say I did not push coming in and out laps because I didn’t want to make any mistakes.
“The car was so good, so I just have to make sure that I stay there in the end. Once the pit cycles came in, I was in second place with Palou. Pato came to play a little bit. I was like just keep doing what I’m doing, understanding what I need to do.”
Castroneves, said that at that point, the past runner-ups here was in his head. He was bested by Gil de Ferran in 2003 by .2990-seconds. Ryan Hunter-Reay beat him by .0600-seconds in 2014. Then it was Takuma Sato by .2011-seconds in 2017.
Castroneves wasn’t going to get denied a fourth trip to climbing the fences again.
“I lost too many races in second place here. I was like, this is not going to be the day,” he continued.
Castroneves said Palou was very good and very fast. They were really strong on their own and able to turn in some amazing laps. He said he had to wait for the right opportunity to make his final move.
“Like I said before, I remember my teammate, Sam Hornish, beating me a lot in those races by a nose,” Castroneves said. “So I did a couple tries to see if I would cross the finish line first, and I did.
“My strong corners were both two and four, I knew that. It’s just a matter of, like, waiting for the right opportunity. When I saw the traffic, it was a bunch of it actually. I’m like, That’s it, I’m not going to wait because I need that traffic to pull me so I can get the same speed. When I made the move, I said, That’s it.
“It was fun. When I saw Hunter-Reay in front of me, Is he going to block? What is he going to do? I don’t know. Time again, make sure that Palou wouldn’t dive and bomb me. It was perfect.
“I was having a little bit of vibration towards the end, but didn’t bother me. I just kept on it, make the right tools to change the car a little bit. When I crossed the finish line, I was like, Can you believe it? I don’t believe it. Do you believe it? I was talking to myself, it was really fun.”
Palou says that he felt like he had a faster car but he couldn’t really do anything about it in the end. It was just a perfect storm of Castroneves hitting lapped traffic to help him get a tow and also putting them pretty deep in a train of cars in which it was tough to pass in those circumstances.
“To be honest, I think when I say we had the fastest car, I mean because as soon as Helio was passing me, I was able to get him back before turn three or even in turn one,” said the Spaniard. “I was able just to manage when I wanted to pass him.
“But the thing is that after three, four laps, he was behind me, he was able to pass me and I couldn’t really do anything because it was overtaking me all the car.
“When he passed me, I was like, Oh, maybe that’s going to be bad for me just because we were reaching the traffic. As soon as you’re on traffic, you’re not P2 any more, you’re like P8. When you are P8 on a pack, it was not easy to pass today.
“So, yeah, I still tried, fight for it, turn three, turn four. It was not enough. For sure the traffic made the things a bit more difficult today. That’s part of racing. At some other areas, some other parts of the race the traffic was helping me. This time Helio was a bit luckier at the end. Yeah, he deserve it.”
Simon Pagenaud, the third place finisher, said that he felt like Palou was showing his hand too soon.
“Alex (Palou) was showing his game too early,” said Pagneuad. “No disrespect to him at all. He did amazing job, great race. Obviously he’s young, learning the draft and all that. It’s not easy on an oval of this size.
“I could see what Alex was doing. He was trying to find ways to keep Helio behind, but there were too many laps to go. Helio was just waiting in the back, keeping Pato behind, judging the timing. He knew exactly where he could get him, when he could get him. All of a sudden you saw him, he jumped at his throat like a tiger. That’s when the attack started. I believe it was 193, lap 193. I knew it was coming.
“I was waiting for Helio to do that because he disrupted the rhythm of the pack in front of me. That’s what helped me get Pato and maybe I could have gotten Palou quicker. It was very interesting to watch. Certainly there’s a lot to learn from that battle.”
Pagenaud, said that this result hurts him too because he felt like he had a car capable of winning in the end too. He just needed another lap or two and he felt like Castroneves was his.
“No disrespect to Helio. I’m super happy for him and he deserved it, but I do believe I had the chance,” Pagenad continued.
Castroneves, was sent from a full time driver to Penske’s new IMSA program in 2018. The Captain didn’t want to turn his back on his loyal driver so he offered him a Month of May only gig for his No. 3 Chevrolet. It wasn’t working. Castroneves’ worst ‘500’s came in this span as he finished 27th, 18th and 11th in that three year run. Penske, elected to shut down his sports car program at seasons end last year and hired Scott McLaughlin as a full time driver, essentially replacing Castroneves.
While Castroneves never had any ill will works the move, he just showed on Sunday that it was now best for all parties.
“It’s not about to prove a point. When I moved to sports car program, I have to say I learned so much. My knowledge of racing just expand. When you start racing with three different type of series in the same race with different speed, you start learning how to timing, you start learning how to calculate moving and pass without damage the car.
“I have to say that was a great — was it when I wanted? No, because I want to keep going at Indy. You do lose a little bit of the timing because it’s a completely different car.
“However, I took a different route. We finished with Team Penske winning the championship, with a lot of wins. It wasn’t just like luck, it was a lot of wins. Then I want to go back. I said I want to go back. I am eager to want to go back. I did everything that I possibly could to go back. I’m very fortunate that Mike and Jim said, You know what, I can see this on you. Here we go.
“When you work hard, when you put all the puzzles together, it should be a great opportunity. I’m so grateful for that.”
The team concurred.
“I can tell you we believed from the very beginning Helio to get a fourth,” said Jim Meyer, co owner of Meyer Shank Racing. “I will also tell you until I got directly involved after attending the event for 37 straight years, I failed to grasp how hard it is to win this race, just how many things have to go right, how hard you work to get everything prepared. Could not be prouder of our team. It’s a team sport. I’m glad Helio was the driver. I’m thrilled he got number four.
“The drivers just seem to take such great care of themselves now. We’re seeing it everywhere in sports. Mike and I were joking last night, Tom Brady, Phil Mickelson, Helio Castroneves, why not? It’s just great.”
The other part of Meyer Shank Racing, Mike Shank, agreed.
“Listen, I mean, Jim and I looked at the numbers, the performance numbers from Helio in 2017. I didn’t quite get him not running anymore,” he said. “Of course, I thought he still had something left to him. He went on to do the Acura program, did really well in prototype. We felt like we needed a veteran to come in and help our program overall and also help Jack.
“Jack was involved every step of this kind of talk. We want a young guy, experienced guy. We all agreed, I think, that we wanted Helio. Man, I tell you, he’s just so good here. I really got to witness it today. Kind of around 140, 150, I’m looking at him. Finally I figured out about 155 he’s doing this on purpose. Everything he did from 150 on was a chess match. He knew exactly what he was doing. That’s the G.O.A.T. in him.”
Meyer went on to say when the test occurred in April, Shank looked at him and both said, “Turns out he still has got it. We were very, very confident that we would have good outcomes today. We’re just thrilled.”
Castroneves noted that he never doubted he’d get a fourth win, even with the change of teams.
“Because when I change from Penske to Mike, when Mike said, We’re going to do everything we can to put you over there, I believe him,” he said. “When I walk into the garage, I see all the graphics they did. I notice they’re doing everything they can to win this race.
“I believe it. I saw the technical part with Andretti. They want to win, for sure. They had fast cars many, many years. So I knew I would have a good opportunity. I just got to find it. Sunday after qualifying, I found it, I was like, Now we just got to make things happen here.
“I never stopped dreaming. I never stopped believing it. I’m so glad I did that because I want to know those young kids, sometimes they think hard work doesn’t pay off. It just proof you still can believe in yourself and make yourself better.”