Note: The editorial staff at INDYCAR.com is taking a look back at the 10 biggest moments of 2021 in INDYCAR in this year-end series, with one installment appearing on the site per day in countdown fashion from Dec. 22-31.
It wasn’t surprising that Helio Castroneves became the fourth driver in history to win the Indianapolis 500 four times. It was surprising how he did it and how long it took him.
Castroneves won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” three times in his first nine starts, was 34 years old when he drove to Victory Lane for a third time in 2009 and was pegged to drive for mighty Team Penske for at least another decade. Surely, it seemed, he would be the one to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ most iconic club of winners.
But the Brazilian’s final three years with Roger Penske’s organization hadn’t gone well at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with no laps led – the longest drought of his “500” career – and an average finish of 18.7. For 2021, Castroneves needed a new team.
Meyer Shank Racing was a surprising choice for the 46-year-old Castroneves, who rejoined Honda after nine years with Chevrolet. Paired with Jack Harvey, Castroneves had a reasonably good month of practice at Indy, but his eighth-place starting position didn’t raise too many eyebrows before the race.
Driving the pink-and-black No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda, Castroneves passed Alex Palou and Ryan Hunter-Reay on the opening lap, then settled into a groove. He got the lead for the first time on Lap 32 when Scott Dixon pitted, and his second chance at the front came on Lap 71 when Conor Daly peeled off the track for a scheduled stop.
Castroneves led Laps 194 and 195 but gave way to Palou when the Spaniard, making his first “500” start, posted his fastest lap of the race. For a moment, Castroneves appeared denied for a 12th consecutive year, but his experience judging traffic helped him engineer an outside pass coming down the front straightway with two laps left, and he was gone. The final margin was .4928 of a second.
Foyt became the first four-time winner of the “500” in the 61st running in 1977, and 10 years later Unser won his fourth. Mears followed four years after that, but this was the 30th anniversary of that victory. Many wondered if three was the club’s final number.
In dramatic fashion, Castroneves earned his way in, and his emotional celebration on the front straightway illustrated how much the win meant to him.
Now, the drive for five is on.