“Dreeew!” the man yelled exultantly at my laptop from his Fort Lauderdale home, filling the screen with a grin full of teeth and dimples that leaves anyone who sees him smile almost as brightly. Such is the contagious effervescence of Hélio Castroneves, and on Monday afternoon we finally enter this Roberto Benigni of the track who feels extra sparkling.
The day before, he had claimed a record-breaking fourth victory in the 105th Indianapolis 500 race after a 12-year dry spell that would make a successful career for just about any other driver. But even though Castroneves placed fourth in the 2017 Championship and twice second in his previous seven Indy 500 starts, he ended up losing his longtime seat in Team Penske’s No.3 car. To put it in terms that a Lethal Weapon fan might appreciate: he was getting too old for this… sport.
That is, Castroneves was written off by the same blind logic that kills most athletes after age 30 and buries most people after age 40. That he’s sitting here now at 46, in his magenta-accented Meyers Shank team. The fiery costume, with a sparkling Indy 500 championship ring on its finger, is as much a testament to Castroneves’ undying perseverance as it is to the “great group of people” in his corner who “make you believe in yourself,” he says. It didn’t matter if the idea of anyone doubting one of the most successful drivers in American open wheel racing of any age seemed more than a little out of place.
But then again, I am totally biased. In almost 20 years of writing for the toy department, I find it hard to name another sports figure I’ve spent more time with than Castroneves. It is not I who pass myself off as an excellent access merchant. I’m still in disbelief having this book open for an introduction to motorsport when my editors at Sports Illustrated sent me there when I was 25.
Castroneves and I had a great time. There were the churrasco feasts in Midtown New York, the pre-dawn beach workouts, the backstage of the Dancing with the Stars tour with Joey Lawrence and Julianne Hough – “Wow, Drew! Don’t go, ”Castroneves said, cutting me off. “You’ve known me too long, man.”
Saw him beat Federal Tax Evasion on his way to victory for a third Indy 500, watched him go from a wanted bachelor to proud partner Adriana Henao and adoring father to daughter Mikaella who, sheesh, is 11 now? All the while, he had become an idol to a nation of blue-haired Dancing with the Stars fans – most notably Danica Patrick’s own grandmother – who couldn’t get enough of her Mirrorball trophy-winning quickstep routine. with Hough in the show’s finale in 2007. The last time I saw him in person, as he followed Fernando Alonso’s maiden Indy trip in 2017, Castroneves was hitting his feet on the soles of the drivers’ green room before the race; after finishing 0.2 seconds behind Takuma Sato, he wasn’t too deflated either.
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It was this carefree boy from Brazil – not a kid from central Indiana or northern California or even Patrick, a phenomenon entirely on his own – who would become the face of American open wheel racing after 14 years of war. civilians that threatened to completely sink the sport. That Castroneves could become the redundant man of Team Penske after a two-decade affiliation shouldn’t have come as a shock. After all, racing is a paid business that prefers cheap young talent – which doesn’t make it much different from most modern businesses, really. But given all that Castroneves had done to help IndyCar rise from the rubble of civil war and rebuild, it was hard not to feel like it deserved better than a part-time IndyCar program and a new role in the sports car division of Team Penske.
Of course, that was inevitable – the circle of life for great athletes of a certain age, all under constant pressure to find their way to the next man or woman. But here’s the thing with old folks: we’re stubborn. “Me, Rafa [Nadal] and Roger [Federer] are reinventing the Next Gen, ”said Novak Djokovic after finishing second at the Italian Open last month, holding the line for the triumvirate that has dominated tennis for the past two decades. “We are the next generation. Meanwhile, Serena Williams is still sinking into the Grand Slam as she nears 40.
Plus, in the last six months alone we’ve seen Tom Brady win a seventh Super Bowl at 43 and Phil Mickelson become the oldest major championship winner at 50. Even LeBron James, who went from being a teenage phenomenon to being ripped for having the temerity of turning 36, is here recreating classic Heatles posters with Alex Caruso while keeping (roughly) the Lakers alive in their playoff series against the Suns… who owe their resurgence in part to Chris Paul, also 36. WNBA legend Sue Bird is old enough to be the mother of some of her teammates. And yet here she is, losing dimes at the age of 40, chasing a fifth (!) Gold medal at the Olympics next month.
“People forget that Mario Andretti raced until he was 53,” says Castroneves. “AJ Foyt stopped even later. I’m not saying I’m going to keep driving until I’m 60, but I have the passion and I still want to do it.
As it turns out, driving sports cars for the past two years has bolstered Castroneves’ racing skills and adaptability behind the wheel. And that experience and even that temper, which peaked with the very first series championship of his career in 2020, returned to the center of Indy’s final laps. In an aerial fight with 24-year-old Spaniard Alex Palou for most of the race, Castroneves passed him with three laps to go and deftly took advantage of the air in the lap traffic to keep Palou in the race. home stretch. From there followed a most cathartic celebration which saw Castroneves immediately come out and climb the circuit fence before taking a victory lap in the front row on foot.
And as Castroneves bathed in the droplets of 135,000 full-throated spectators and was assailed by Penske and other rivals before dousing themselves with milk, the gray stains in his hair reminiscent of all the hair dye jokes that his Penske teammates always had it on hand, well, there was no way I could hold back tears for me. Maybe it was because I knew better than anyone the enormous sacrifice his parents, sister, and even Castroneves himself made in order for him to reach this peak. Or maybe it was me who was finally getting sentimental on a weekend where my dad, who I hadn’t seen for almost two years, got to see his 41-year-old son graduate. of mastery – something that seemed way beyond the grasp. from a husband and new dad who often struggled with career identity issues after becoming a 37-year-old cap victim at Sports Illustrated, My Once Upon a Time Penske Team.
Castroneves’ feat last Sunday not only marked the grand reopening of post-Covid sport. It was a victory for all those who were kicked out of their jobs for the inescapable sin of getting too old. It was more proof that the end only comes when we stop breathing and believing. So, to those of you who, like me, may have spent a lifetime following Castroneves and even seen a shine of yourself in his Brickyard triumph, just know: you have the time. And this time is ripe for milking.