Can Helio Ever Become Indy Royalty?

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Last year, when Helio Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500 for the third time, he became only the eighth person to do so in history – and the first one to join that elite club since Rick Mears won his third in 1988. His next quest is to place himself amongst royalty by becoming only the fourth person ever to win four Indy 500 crowns; joining icons AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

When I was a kid, Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose were the only three-time winners of the 500; with Rose being the last to accomplish the feat in 1948. AJ Foyt elevated himself into their stratosphere in 1967, when he won his third. Ten years later, he did the unthinkable by winning his fourth Indianapolis 500 crown. Ten years after Foyt’s fourth victory, Al Unser joined Foyt by winning his fourth. In 1991, Rick Mears tied their accomplishment – just four years after Unser tied Foyt.

Mears was only thirty-nine when he won his fourth. Foyt was forty-two in 1977 and Unser was forty-seven when he won his fourth in 1987. It appeared that Mears was a legitimate threat to trump them all and win an unprecedented fifth victory at Indy. But a year and a half after Rick joined the three-man fraternity; an injury-plagued 1992 forced Mears to decide to suddenly hang it up. Although I hated to see him quit, I admire the fact that he resisted the urge to ever try it once more. Once Mears stepped out of the cockpit, he would never compete again.

Of course, on the way to winning their fourth 500 – each of these gentlemen had to win their third. Nine years passed from their rookie seasons at Indy, for Rick Mears and AJ Foyt to win their third; while it took Al Unser thirteen years to win his third (although Unser missed the 1969 race with a broken leg). Last year was also Helio’s ninth race at Indianapolis and his third win.

During the offseason, I was saying that Helio Castroneves needed to have a strong season this year. With Team Penske having expanded to three full-time cars this season, I felt like Helio needed to reassert himself to prevent being the odd man out at the end of this season or next; if Penske decided to drop back to two cars. So far, Helio has done that. He won at Barber, and has had solid drives most of this season. Prior to Kansas, he was second in points. Now he is third, but barely trailing Kansas winner Scott Dixon. So if Castroneves can keep this pace, it looks as if he will be driving for Roger Penske for the foreseeable future – which means he will have many future opportunities to win his fourth and possibly fifth Indianapolis 500. Helio turns thirty-five today, so he still has many years ahead in which to do it.

But one question remains…if and when Helio Castroneves wins his fourth Indy 500; will the old guard of fans welcome Helio into the hallowed club of four-time winners as easily as they did Foyt, Unser and Mears? Although on the surface, Castroneves appears to be well-liked and is obviously one of the most popular drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series – there is still a contingent of fans that resent Helio because (a) he is foreign and (b) he is perceived by some as a tax evader – regardless of what a jury in Miami said.

You’ll never hear any such nonsense from me on either point, but if you go to some of the other more venomous sites and forums – that is an opinion that seems to be shared by more than a select few.

Helio Castroneves is not as beloved in his homeland of Brazil as much as current and former driving stars. No one will ever come close to the immortalization of Ayrton Senna in Brazil, but there are current drivers that are held in higher esteem than Helio. Tony Kanaan and Vitor Meira are two examples that come to mind. It seems that the Brazilians think that Helio has Americanized himself too much. He has made it clear that he wishes to live in the US and would someday like to become a US citizen.

Here at home, some think that Helio is more interested in the bright lights of winning the Indianapolis 500 and Dancing With The Stars, than he is in putting in the hard work to hone his craft and win championships. Plus, the fact that he was the first foreign driver to break into the three-time winner’s club was something that didn’t go unnoticed last year. There are those that love to predict that foreign drivers will eventually lead to the apocalypse. I’m old enough to remember such talk in the sixties during the so-called “British Invasion”. All Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and Colin Chapman did was to bring international notoriety to the 500.

As far as Helio’s tax woes go, I have enough faith in our justice system to go along with the jury. Was he doing everything out of complete innocence? Probably not, but most of those that begrudge Helio for his IRS indiscretions would probably prefer to avoid an audit themselves, if at all possible.

Foyt certainly had his share of detractors when he won his fourth 500. Anyone that grew up a Mario Andretti fan was probably not thrilled to see Mario’s nemesis roll into immortality. Al Unser ruffled a few feathers in his younger days also. While cool and smooth on the track, Al could have a quirky side off the track that didn’t always set well with everyone. If Rick Mears ever had any detractors other than Bobby Unser, I don’t know about it.

I tend to take Helio Castroneves at face value – an excellent driver who doesn’t take himself too seriously when out of the car. So if anyone has a problem with Helio joining the Mount Rushmore of Indy winners and possibly heading into uncharted ground with a fifth win, I hope it’s for a better reason than the same tired old rants that show up on the hate forums.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “Can Helio Ever Become Indy Royalty?”

  1. I’m an Helio fan and can’t wait to see how his month of May plays out. Know he CAN win #4.

    Will all of the fans accept him as a four-time winner? Probably not. But eventually, they’ll realized they witnessed history being made.

    Knowing him, whether the fans like it or not, he’s not going to care whether the other fans care if he won or not, he’s going to be so excited, he’ll be climbing fences. LOL!

    Best of luck to Helio at Indy this month. I’ll be watching and cheering.

  2. This is going to sound kinda of odd, but I think at first there will be some resentment that “it came to easy” for Helio. 9 races, 3 wins, all during a time when the competition was a bit watered down. I think that will work against him being accepted too quickly into this elite club.

    Over time though, I think people will warm up and come to accept him as a derserving member. Fans are kinda funny that way. We don’t like to put people up on that pedastal too soon. We like to see the immortals “pay their dues”.

    Bottom line, Helio is a hell of a racer, and anyone that can win four 500’s in any era deserves respect.

  3. Helio is already Indy royalty… At least to the current crossection of fans that are represented by the 15k that attended Kansas.

    I don’t think that it would be fair to reject him as a 4 time winner. On the other hand, I think it is impossible to ignore the fact that comparing Foyts accomplishments at Indy to Helios is apples and oranges.

    The level of risk, personal investment and pure driving skill that Foyt had to display to win 4 times is something Helio simply hasn’t needed because he drives in an era of flat out, underpowered cars that are put in a position to win by the team, not the driver.

  4. He won’t be equated to Foyt/Unser/Mears for two reasons, but neither of them having to do with nationality or tax evasion:

    1. He’s competed in an era when two or at most three teams are competitive for the win, and victory is more and more a measure of engineering skill than driving ability. No chance for a second tier team like Truesports or (Vince) Granatelli to win the race anymore.

    2. Let’s not forget that his 2002 win is highly disputed and there are many people who do not believe he won that race, whereas all of Foyt, Unser, and Mears’s wins were legit. Decades from now perhaps no one will care given everyone calls Bobby Unser a three-time winner without blinking or considering the legitimacy of 1981, although I think Helio’s disputed win would attract more notice in the long run if he actually makes it to four.

    • Both legit points, Sean. I think that the disputed 2002 win means that Helio might have to win five or six 500s before people really feel like he’s a top-10 “all time” guy at Indy, kind of like it took Michael Schumacher seven championships to break into many peoples’ top-5 “all time” F1 drivers lists.

  5. I think a lot of it will depend on who you talk to. If you talk to some of the haters who spew bile on internet message boards, the answer is no, because Helio is a Brazilian born driver.

    However, the true fans-those of us who love racing, not a car, driver, track, series or nationality, will appreciate Helio’s accomplishments, both on and off the track.

    • Trick Dickle Says:

      Get real Edward.

      Yes, some of us are critical of Helio because he’s Brazilian. That’s brilliant thinking. Why not call us “Xenophobes” (which is what most of you folks love to do) too?

      Helio is not a championship driver. Never has won one, while driving for Penske for a decade. In a very watered down version of the sport, where most of the best talent either never came to Indy Cars or came and left to greener pastures.

      Mears, Foyt and Unser were legends. They kicked ass on the track, against other legendary drivers. AJ had to beat Mario and both Unser’s and Rutherford and Parnelli and Donahue and Johncock. Legends. Mears had to beat Foyt and the Unser’s and Sneva and Fittipaldi and Michael and Mario and Rahal and Sullivan. More legends of racing.

      Helio has had to beat Danica and Dario and deFerren and Kanaan and Hornish and Wheldon and, uhh… Decent drivers, but not legends of racing and not even close to the level of talent this sport had in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

      Helio is not looked upon as strongly as others who have won the big race 3 or 4 times, because he simply should not be. He deserves credit for winning Indy 3 times. But he is simply not the driver and doesn’t have the pedigree and resume that the true legends of the sport have.

      • Eye of the beholder, fella. Some of the recent drivers you listed there could, in many peoples’ eyes, be just as good as all of the legends you listed. I was a touch too young to see Big Al, A.J., Mario, Bobby and whoever else in their prime (though I came in at the very tail end of the Mears era), but it’d be interesting to put TK, Dixon (who I have rated highly since his Indy Lights days), Dario (who I have rated highly since his International Touring Car days), Gil (same as the other two, just put “F3″ in there), Hornish (same, again, just put in “F2000″), Wheldon (broken record, “F2000″), and Helio up against the guys of yore. It’s the eternal debate, which era’s drivers are better? F1 fans kick this around endlessly (except it’s Clark, Fangio, Senna and Schumacher) with the same end point: it’s impossible to say. On the other hand, you can’t, in my opinion, categorically say that all of the current era’s drivers are wussies and that they’d never stack up to the drivers of the ’50s and ’60s. There’s no way to know.

  6. Jim Bob Says:

    Helio isn’t in Mears, Foyt or Unser’s league as far as a complete driver.

    The guy has never even won a championship. Even when driving for 9 years with one of the very few top level teams in the sport.

    I hope he never wins his 4th 500. He doesn’t belong to be mentioned with those true legendary race drivers. Those were 3 of the best that ever drove at Indy. Helio is just one of the best in one of the weakest and watered down eras of Indy 500 history (some of those years, you didn’t even have to worry about QUALIFYING for the race).

    Did Mears, AJ and Unser face most of the best American talent? Yep.
    Did Helio? No way.

  7. I have been following open wheel American racing since I can first remember watching Indianapolis 500 footage on WISH-TV in the very late 1950’s. Helio could compete with anyone I ever saw race. Anyone. If Helio does win his fourth Indianapolis 500 then he becomes one of FOUR people to ever win FOUR Indianapolis 500 Mile Races

  8. Oh we Americans love our stats and numbers and rankings, but one thing to consider is that while Mears, Foyt, and Unser drove victoriously against ‘the best’ IndyCar talent of the day, so often winning Indy meant having some of the best equipment and best crew as well.

    With the exception of Foyt in 1967 and Unser in 1987, I don’t believe any of those wins came with ‘outdated’ or less than top-notch equipment. Helio’s wins were no different and it could be argued that he is just as good due to the parity of equipment during his wins. I certainly believe that, with a fourth win, he should be classified among the best ever at Indy (Best ever meaning Top 10).

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