When Hélio Castroneves claimed his first three Indianapolis 500s, they each came while dressed in the red and white colors of Marlboro Team Penske.
If there was to be a fourth, it would have to come in a different shade. Castroneves was out after 20 years with Penske, losing his full-time IndyCar Series seat after the 2017 season and losing his IMSA and Indianapolis 500 ride after 2020.
Perhaps it was easier to say on Sunday after winning his iconic fourth, wearing the pink and white of Meyer Shank Racing, but Castroneves never had a doubt.
“When I changed from Penske to Mike, when Mike (Shank) said, ‘We’re going to do everything we can to put you over there (in victory lane),’ I believed him.”
The reality of the opportunity really hit home when Castroneves first visited the MSR paddock in Indianapolis and saw the work the team had accomplished, the sponsorship they had procured and the engineering support acquired from Andretti Autosport.
The 46-year-old knows what a championship caliber operation looks like and this was it.
“I believed them,” Castroneves said. “I saw the technical part with Andretti. They want to win, for sure. They had fast cars for many, many years, so I knew I would have a good opportunity. I just (had) to find it. Sunday after qualifying, I found it.
“I was like, now we just got to make things happen here.”
Boy did he ever.
Even as Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing continually challenged him, or even outright took the lead on numerous occasions, Castroneves never lost sight of it. Palou, a second-year driver from Spain was up against two decades of experience from one of the most accomplished drivers in Indianapolis history, who had found several ways to lose this race over the past decade.
The most notable defeat came in 2014, when Ryan Hunter-Reay passed Castroneves on the outside. He learned. Takuma Sato passed him on the frontstretch in 2017 entering Turn 1 too. He learned.
Castroneves made the move with just under two laps to go, into Turn 1, just like his previous two defeats. He timed that move just before Palou reached lapped traffic. He wanted to use them to his advantage.
“I knew the potential of my car,” Castroneves said. “I knew exactly what I have to do. Like I said, when I saw traffic coming before me … I had to get that right. Just like in practice, you have five cars, six cars, everybody lined-up and nobody (is) passing each other. With 25 laps on the tires, I don’t think he’s going to be able to pass me either. That’s what I was thinking.
“Turned out to be the right thought.”
So was the decision to join Meyer Shank, and their decision to pursue Castroneves, even at 46 and without a lot of options beyond a one-off at Indianapolis.
Mike Shank and Jim Meyer agreed Castroneves was their guy.
“Jim and I looked at the numbers, the performance numbers from Helio in 2017 and I didn’t quite get him not running anymore,” Shank said. “Of course, I thought he still had something left in the tank.
“He went on to do the Acura program, did really well in Prototypes. We felt like we needed a veteran to come in and help our program overall and also help Jack (Harvey, full-time MSR driver) … We all agreed that we wanted Helio.”
Shank realized that Castroneves was making every decision with a purpose from around Lap 140 to the finish.
“Everything he did from 150 on was a chess match,” Shank said. “He knew exactly what he was doing. That’s the G.O.A.T. in him.”
Castroneves has been very clear from 2017 onwards that he wanted to be back in IndyCar. But when Roger Penske offers you a ride in anything, much less a contract that includes racing at Indianapolis every May, you make the most of it.
He won a championship.
There was no visible chip on his shoulder when detailing the past three years with Penske, and finally winning his fourth Borg-Warner but only after leaving the IndyCar powerhouse. He’s also the first driver to win another Indianapolis 500 after leaving Penske.
“It’s not about proving a point,” Castroneves said. “When I moved to the sports car program, I learned so much. My knowledge of racing just expanded. When you start racing with three different (classes) in the same race with different speeds, you learn more about passing without damaging the car. That was a great experience.
“Was it what I wanted? No. I wanted to keep going at Indy … but I took a different route. We won the championship last year, but I wanted to come back. I said I wanted to go back. I’m eager to come back. I did everything possible to come back.”
Mike and Jim acquiesced his request and Helio rewarded them with something he knew he could accomplish — his fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.
“I never stopped dreaming,” Castroneves said. “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.”
What about No. 5? What about one more full-time season? Meyer Shank wants it, and Castroneves wants it, too.
First comes the party.
“Let’s enjoy this first, then we talk about ‘five’ a week later,” Castroneves said with a laugh.
That iconic laugh and grin as iconic as he has become now.
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