Castroneves Well-Positioned to Tie Record with Fourth Indy 500 Win
INDIANAPOLIS - No matter how easy Helio Castroneves has made it look in winning the Indianapolis 500 three times, he has had triple the number of disappointments.
Before victory No. 3 last May were seven years of bad luck (by his standards) at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as well as several incidents that almost derailed the Brazilian's triumph last year from the pole. To Castroneves, that drought and those challenges should counter the perception of a charmed existence here.
"I never took it for granted," said Castroneves, who could join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as a four-time Indy winner Sunday. "Those first two years I put myself in the right position, and some (other years) it was youth, getting caught on a (lapped car), putting myself in the wrong spot or Mother Nature working against me. It wasn't meant to be.
"Last year I got everything in my favor. I was shoved back to sixth place, I had people crashing in front of me, I had problems in the pits, but at the end of the day I was able to surpass all those issues and end up winning the race, so that was meant to be. Sometimes the odds go against you, and sometimes it's meant to be."
Certainly, several factors boost his chances of joining that elite group in the 94th edition, in which he will start on the pole for the fourth time. His No. 3 Team Penske Dallara/Honda was fastest during a truncated practice schedule and Saturday's qualifying, when his team also won the battle of wits to earn him the prime position.
Castroneves has been ninth or better in eight of nine starts, including six runs of fourth or higher, and with more horsepower against teammate Gil de Ferran in 2003 he could already be in the club. Even if he falls short Sunday, the 35-year-old has plenty of years left to match or surpass that trio as long as he stays healthy and remains with open wheel's premier team.
"Realistically, he's got a shot to get to five," said Mears, who won all four with Penske and serves as its driver coach. "To be a part of helping him get to four would be great. He reins himself in in respect to records, and that's one of the things that's helped him win three. This is a new race, and it doesn't matter what he ran last year or the year before. He's good at keeping that type of focus."
At the same time, Mears and Foyt caution that winning the next one becomes more difficult as fate sometimes trumps power. That might sound odd coming from Mears, who somehow decreased the gaps between each victory; but after earning his final Indy win in 1991, he knew that was it.
Foyt, on the other hand, endured a decade of close calls before his fourth win in 1977 and laments victories left on the track because of circumstances out of his control. But he thinks Castroneves has a strong chance to set the record because he has a strong overall record, it's a different era and it's time for someone to rise above the crowd, he said.
"I think it's easier to win it four or five times now than with the older cars," said Foyt, who made 35 starts. "Records are made to be broken, but it was a lot harder then. To win it four times, everything's got to go your way all day long."
The whole prospect still amazes Castroneves, who remembers being a wide-eyed rookie when he won in 2001. Not much has changed since then, which is what makes his possible brush with history so enticing.
"I always dream big," he said. "And every time I pull the visor on, I'm ready to go."