Indy 500 winner Castroneves pumped for return at Nashville

Aug 3, 2021, 8:56 PM | Updated: Aug 4, 2021, 10:21 am

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Helio Castroneves exhausted himself sprinting down Indianapolis Motor Speedway in celebration and then tacked on another — a fourth at Indy! — fence climb that left the Brazilian wanting more.

An Indy record tied, Castroneves was ready to party.

But Castroneves didn’t quite spike the 2% milk in honor of his fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.

“I didn’t wake up in the bar or the grass,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not like this guy woke up drunk the next day and had no idea or did something crazy like that.”

If he wants to try something really crazy, he could scale the 72 cables that suspend the bridge deck of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge he’ll race over should he win in his IndyCar return on Sunday.

The 46-year-old Castroneves could have kept the Indy party going well into the early morning … and a few more mornings into the summer. He had nothing but time once the Indy hangover — or at least some mellow merriment — subsided and it was time to get back to work.

When Castroneves races this weekend in the 2.17-mile, 11-turn and one bridge IndyCar street race in Nashville, it will be his first race in the series since May when he joined A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 four times.

It only seemed like the retired trio have had as much time off as Castroneves.

The Indy win failed to sway Meyer Shank Racing into mixing up its six-race plan for the season with Castroneves, and all his lobbying (“We’ve got to go! We’ve got to keep it going! Are you kidding me?”) couldn’t snag him a seat two weeks later in the Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader. IndyCar then took a whopping 34-day break leading into Nashville, giving Castroneves time to read all his congratulatory messages, moonlight in Tony Stewart’s All-Star Superstar Racing Experience, oh, and parlay that Indy win into a full-season ride in 2022 with Meyer Shank Racing.

Meyer Shank Racing has yet to name the second driver for 2022 after it declined to bring back Jack Harvey.

Left with an uncertain future after three Indy 500 wins and a breakup with Roger Penske, Castroneves suddenly finds the “Drive for Five” at Indy and a run at his first series championship alive and well.

“That’s one of the reasons I ended up going to this team, because I know they have huge potential,” Castroneves said. “Imagine now if you keep going, with the rhythm. Sometimes the wait is worth is it.”

Castroneves has patience: he waited 12 years to win his fourth Indy 500 and had to ride out the doubts that he could return to that elite level as he cobbled together a part-time schedule with a little-known team. Castroneves has made only eight IndyCar starts since the start of 2018 and perhaps needed to kiss the bricks to guarantee a ride for a full season.

The former “Dancing with the Stars” champion has tried to stay humble as he soaked in the spoils of Indy. He wore a welder’s suit when he poured molten bronze into a brick mold engraved with his name that will be laid among other bricks that mark the start/finish line at IMS. Castroneves joined the other members of the Indy four-timers club and flashed their Indy 500 rings during a group photo with the Borg-Warner Trophy on the Brickyard.

“He’s still doing what he’s always done. He’s always run hard,” Mears said. “He’s always run well, you know? This year’s one of those years where everything’s falling in place, and we all have those throughout our history, good years and bad. And this is one of those years.”

Castroneves had a four-timers club question for Mears in the days after his win:

“Do we have a membership? Do we have to pay an annual fee?” Castroneves said, laughing.

He’s a member for life. Just don’t expect Castroneves to strut into Tootsie’s with rhinestone goats sewn on his firesuit.

“I never stopped believing it,” he said. “There were some races, some years, probably, where it was more hope, a little more help from the guy upstairs. I won in all kinds of circumstances. The one where I had the fast car. The one where I didn’t have the fast car. Now I check another box, winning with another team.”

Castroneves, still the last driver to win consecutive Indianapolis 500s — in 2001 and 2002 — became the fourth-oldest winner in Indianapolis 500 history, behind Al Unser (47, 1987), Bobby Unser (47, 1981) and Emerson Fittipaldi (46, 1993). IndyCar is in the midst of a youth movement, with under-25 drivers Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta, Rinus VeeKay and Alex Palou all taking the checkered flag. Castroneves, meanwhile, defies his age and keeps plugging along as one of the old man winners in sports.

“I’m still waiting for Tom Brady to send me a message. Or Phil Mickleson,” he said, laughing. “Those guys inspire me. They’re able to do it. It’s why we’re different. If you love the sport and have the passion, you can do whatever you want and keep it going.”

His peers are glad to have him around.

“Old silver fox Helio. You know he paints his hair? I’m telling you,” two-time IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden said. “I think he should just let it go. I think if he let it be silver, it would be so much cooler.

“There’s obviously plenty of room for him on the grid. He’s one of the best. We wanted to win the 500, but if it wasn’t going to be us, it was so fun to see Helio get No. 4.”

Castroneves has five races left this season, including a return to Indy on the road course, as well as at Portland, Laguna Seca and the season finale at Long Beach. He already snagged his first career win in the Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race in January and won a pair of heat races in the Stewart-led vision of a “Battle of the Network Stars” series of racing that kept his mind from growing idle during the break.

Pushing 50, Castroneves isn’t ready to wave the checkered flag on his career.

“I still want to have that championship,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. But you want to accomplish your goals, right? Don’t get me wrong, for me to win a championship, I’ve got to win an Indy 500. Those go together. It helps your odds. That’s why I want to keep it going.”

___

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Indy 500 winner Castroneves pumped for return at Nashville