500 set to take over Indianapolis this weekend


By Lew Freedman | The Tribune

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A year ago, Helio Castroneves was a figure from history.

Then in a startling resurgence, the Brazilian driver made himself instantly relevant at Indianapolis Motor Speedway again.

Americans love second acts in life, and in 2022, Castroneves, now 47, comes to the starting line for the 106th annual Indianapolis 500 as the defending champion, one of a rare group of four-time titlists, and as a guy who has already experienced redemption and now seeks immortality.

Castroneves, always a crowd favorite, whose Spider-Man act involves climbing the protective fencing with the alacrity of a monkey swooping from tree to tree in the jungle when he wins, hopes he has one more ascent in him.

In 2021, as the Indy 500, like most of the United States and the world, was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, Castroneves provided a different type of shot in the arm to the most prestigious event in auto racing.

No one was betting on Castroneves to become an older winner than Tom Brady, but here he is now, locked into a firm achievement that means he has no need of turning another page in record books to become esteemed, but what the heck, is going for it anyway.

When Castroneves conquered the 2.5-mile oval in Indianapolis faster than anyone else last year, he registered his fourth victory in the automotive speed contest that dates to 1911. He made room for his name on the top line of accomplishment next to A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser. They are the only four-time 500 winners.

Castroneves, the only one of them still active, recorded championships in 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2021. On Sunday, the spotlight will shine on him most brightly, at least until the gentlemen start their engines. Then, as

usual, the 500 will become a free-for-all with 33 lead-footed drivers zipping around the course with some 300,000 pairs of eyes on them as they seek to top 230 mph as needed.

Although there are scheduled to be seven rookie starters, the most since 2014, fans will not need a program to identify all other competitors. In addition to Castroneves, there are seven other drivers entered who have previously taken the checkered flag. That’s a bunch of racers who know what it takes to close down the home stretch.

Juan Montoya (2000, 2015) and Takuma Sato (2017, 2020) have each won twice. They know their way around Gasoline Alley, and they know the protocols on race day. Scott Dixon (2008), Tony Kanaan (2013), Alexander Rossi (2016), Will Power (2018) and Simon Pagenaud (2019) also have an Indianapolis 500 triumph on their résumés.

Certainly, the most intriguing rookie is Jimmie Johnson. The seven-time NASCAR champion, who is starting fresh in IndyCars at 46, will race for Chip Ganassi and brings a built-in fan base with him. He is not the first crossover racer. Tony Stewart of Columbus, another NASCAR champ, raced the Indy 500 several times even though his career focus was stock cars.

At its peak, the stock car circuit was a dominating sport. The popularity has leveled off. Yet even then there was no single more significant race in the world than the Indianapolis 500. That remains true. In this field with 11 rows of three cars each lined up on the track, there are 13 American drivers and 20 international drivers from 14 countries. People care about the 500 everywhere.

Of the Americans, besides Johnson, who transports his fame with him, the two most likely sentimental favorites are Marco Andretti, carrying his family’s famous last name, and Ed Carpenter.

Carpenter, 41, heads an Indiana-based team, grew up in Indianapolis from age 8, graduated from Butler University and three times has captured the pole position at Indianapolis, finishing as high as second in 2018. He was fifth last year.

There is no doubt how much importance Carpenter places on the 500.

“The 500 makes veterans nervous,” he has said. “It’s a matter of bottling up those nerves and using it for you, not against you. It’s (a 500 win) what I’ve been racing for my whole career.”

That is probably an identical goal for others drivers who have never sipped from the milk bottle at the finish line. When Castroneves won yet again last year, he said, “It’s not the end. It’s the beginning.”

Sounds as if Helio wants at least one more big gulp from the celebratory dairy refreshment.

Lew Freedman writes sports columns for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]

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