Can Helio Ever Become Indy Royalty?
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.