Do We Need Another Four-Time Winner?

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This weekend, Helio Castroneves will attempt to qualify for his eighteenth consecutive Indianapolis 500. He will also be going for his fourth Indianapolis 500 win, which would put him into that most elite fraternity of four-time winners. Currently, there are only three men that have accomplished that feat in history. AJ Foyt was the first to win four when he did it in 1977. Ten years later, Al Unser became the second. Rick Mears became the third and last to do it when he won his fourth in 1991.

Three men joined that select club in a span of fifteen races. There have been twenty-six races since Mears won his fourth. In 1992, all three men had a chance to win their fifth. It didn’t happen. Mears and Foyt retired before the 1993 race and Unser was retired before the running of the 1994 race.

I’ve heard some wonder if we need another four-time winner. I’ve heard more than one person say that we don’t.

Not to be morbid, but it may not be too long before Father Time starts taking some of our four-time winners. Foyt is currently 83. Even though we assume he will live forever, he won’t. Al Unser will turn 79 two days after this year’s race, and Rick Mears is now 66.

There are six former winners entered for this year’s Indianapolis 500. But there is only one driver that has multiple wins – Helio Castroneves who has won this race three times. No other driver has more than one victory.

This discussion is not going to enter into the Helio Castroneves-Paul Tracy debate from 2002. Helio has his face on the Borg-Warner trophy for 2002, and history calls him a three-time winner. There are several controversial and disputed Indianapolis 500 wins dating back to the 1911 race. That’s nothing new. If The Speedway ever reverses it’s 2002 decision and declares Paul Tracy the winner, that’s what I will recognize. Until that happens, I will consider Helio Castroneves a three-time winner. End of discussion.

If there is going to be another four-time winner in the foreseeable future, it will be Helio Castroneves. I’ve read several discussions that say the disputed 2002 race notwithstanding, Helio Castroneves does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with those other legendary drivers. I disagree.

A check of Helio Castroneves’ record in the Indianapolis 500 is impressive. To say that he has had quite a run is an understatement.

Helio Castroneves has won the race three times including the first two times he ever drove in it. He has finished second three times, including last year’s near-miss against Takuma Sato and another battle to the end with Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014. He also has a third and a fourth place finish to his credit. Altogether, Castroneves has finished in the Top-Ten in fourteen of his previous seventeen starts. Let me repeat that; In his seventeen starts in the Indianapolis 500, Helio Castroneves has fourteen Top-Ten finishes.

That last stat equates to a Top-Ten finish in 82.35% of all the Indianapolis 500s Castroneves has driven in. How does that compare with his fellow three-time winners throughout history? Wilbur Shaw came the closest, landing in the Top-Ten 61.53% of the times that he drove in the Indianapolis 500. The other Top-Ten percentages for the other three-time winners were as follows; Dario Franchitti was at 60%, Mauri Rose 53.3%, Louis Meyer was right at 50%, Bobby Unser scored Top-Tens only 47% of the nineteen 500s he drove in, while Johnny Rutherford was a Top-Ten driver only 33% of the time.

What about the group that Helio is trying to join? Surely they had a much better Top-Ten average than Castroneves didn’t they? Well, no. In fact, none of them came close. Rick Mears had nine Top-Ten finishes in fifteen starts, giving him a 60% average. Al Unser was next at 55.6%; while AJ Foyt, who most hold up as the gold standard, landed in the Top-Ten in only sixteen of the thirty-five Indianapolis 500s he started – giving him a Top-Ten average of only 45.7%.

Perhaps the most eye-opening stat of all is that if you took all three of Helio Castroneves’ second-place finishes in the Indianapolis 500; the difference between first and second in all three races is a total of 0.5601 seconds. That means that Helio is barely a half-second away from being a six-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

Do you want further proof that Helio Castroneves is one of the elite drivers in Indianapolis 500 history? In the three races when he finished outside of the Top-Ten; he finished eleventh in 2016 while on the lead lap, and seventeenth and one lap down in 2011. In 2006, he crashed in Turn Four, while lapping Buddy Rice who did not see him and came down on him, taking them both out of the race – one of the few crashes in history that involved two former winners.

Altogether, Helio Castroneves has one of the most impressive Indianapolis 500 resumes in history. He has the best start to a career in Indianapolis 500 history, finishing first, first and second in his first three races. Only one other driver has such a three-year stretch in their career, and that was Al Unser who already had four starts before he had a similar stretch.

Detractors like to point out that Helio Castroneves has never won a series championship, ever. That is the one thing that is missing from his resume. But there are many series champions that never won the Indianapolis 500, such as Rex Mays, Ted Horn, Tony Bettenhausen, Joe Leonard, Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Sébastien Bourdais. Most, if not all, of those drivers would have probably traded all of their championships for one win in the Indianapolis 500. I don’t think there are any “500” winners that would trade their win for a series championship.

But Helio Castroneves was no slouch in the series either. He has thirty combined wins in CART and the Verizon IndyCar Series along with fifty-seven poles and ninety-one podiums. From 2000 until 2011, he won at least one race in a season – a record finally broken by Scott Dixon in 2016. Foyt, Unser or Mears never had such a streak.

Some are put off by Helio’s demeanor. Foyt had a famous temper that displayed his intensity. Unser and Mears were quiet, reserved and calculative. Helio Castroneves is flamboyant and is always cutting up with a smile on his face. Some make the mistake of not taking his talents seriously, because Helio himself doesn’t take himself too seriously. That’s why he entered (and won) a dance contest over a decade ago.

Others point to Helio’s habit of blocking. Do you ever think Mario Andretti made his car extra-wide when drivers were trying to overtake him? And while I am a huge AJ Foyt fan, the liberties he took with the USAC rulebook were legendary.

I realize that haters are going to hate, and while Helio Castroneves has many fans, he has many detractors. But if Helio Castroneves wins the Indianapolis 500 this year or in the next few years, it is my hope that no one will cheapen his accomplishment by saying his wins were against inferior competition or say he didn’t earn those wins. Last weekend at Indianapolis, a friend of mine said that he puts an asterisk by Helio’s name as a three-time winner because he does not recognize his 2002 win.

I respectably disagreed with him then and I do now. If you do that, you have to put an asterisk beside Bobby Unser’s name for his 1981 win. His 1968 win came when Joe Leonard fell out with nine laps to go. His 1975 win came because it rained. What about AJ Foyt? You could argue that Foyt lucked into all four of his wins, because the likely winner fell out of contention late in the race. Al Unser? Had Roberto Guerrero not stalled leaving the pits, he would have won the 1987 race instead of Unser.

Lots of Indianapolis 500 winners have had their wins clouded by controversy. None of them have asterisks by their names. There are no conditional or provisional winners. There are only winners.

Seventy-one different drivers have won the Indianapolis 500 since 1911. Only three have won four times, while there are seven that have three victories to their credit. Helio Castroneves is the only one from either group that is still racing. A week from Sunday, I’ll be pulling for him to become the fourth four-time winner. Because, yes – we need another one.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “Do We Need Another Four-Time Winner?”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    I’ve always been a fan of Helio, bumped into him a few times at the Track and he’s always very gracious and friendly to the fans. His flamboyant personality is not an act either, that’s just how he is. I do hope we get to see him win his fourth 500 and I believe he deserves to be in that exclusive club. Love him or hate him, he’s done a lot for the race and the series.

  2. I think Don Garlits once said “They only remember the winners, not how they won” and that’s the way it is….

  3. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    His resume in the 500 is outstanding but I will never be able to get over the 2002 race that he didn’t win. So no, I would prefer he didn’t win again.

  4. S0CSeven Says:

    If facts and Youtube video evidence don’t sway you, I guess nothing will.

    • I never indicated how I think the 2002 race ended or should have ended. I simply said that Helio is recognized as the official winner and that’s what we have to go with. People recognize Ray Harroun and Graham Hill as winners, although both of their wins are surrounded by doubt. Helio’s win is just much more recent than theirs, so people remember his one disputed win more. – GP

      • Paul Fitzgerald Says:

        The problem with 2002 was that it was during the IRL and CART war and many people (me included) think that politics decided the outcome which made it hard at accept.

  5. I’d love to see Helio win his 4th. In fact, I’d like to see him win his 4th this year and then have a few years to pursue #5. He is a wonderful ambassador for the sport, probably the most recognizable name to the masses currently driving. I’m for anything that puts Indycar in the headlines in a positive way. Who knows, maybe Joseph Newgarden an up and coming Robert Wickens or whoever, win their first this year and start a drive to 4. A sport can’t rest on it’s laurels, it needs new stars who can be compared to legends of the past. It’s been 27 years since Mears won #4, that’s a whole generation plus that never saw him drive in person. My first race was 1987 seeing Big Al win #4, 31 years ago and AJ is now 41 years ago. Yes we need another 4 time winner.

  6. SkipinSC Says:

    Considering the close calls that Helio has had, there is, in my mind, no doubt that he is deserving of recognition as a four time winner, should he achieve it. Along with Danica, Helio is one of the two drivers for whom I will be rooting on Race Day. A win by either would be completely historic.

    The parity which we seem to have at this point in time leads me to believe that we may not see another three-time winner for some years, let alone a potential four timer.

    As you mentioned, George, the Speedway recognizes Helio as the winner of 2002, just as it does Bobby Unser for 1981. I was at the 1981 race and commented at the time that Bobby Unser had passed several cars under the yellow right in front of me. To my way of thinking, Mario Andretti has a far better case than Paul Tracy to be considered winner of those two controversial races.

    In fact, the result of the months long ordeal to decide whether Unser or Andretti would prevail so angered me that I did NOT go back to the Speedway for the 1982 race, thereby missing one of the best finishes in history.

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    Do we need another 4 time winner? Do we NEED oxygen? While fans can offer opinions, this is not a question for fans to decide. It is a question for those who put their lives on the line and race.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Racers want to win every race they qualify for. That is the essence of racing is it not? So if a driver has won three 500s he will want to win a fourth, then a fifth, and so on until he gets bumped by father time. So a four time winner may someday occur again whether we “need” one or not.

  8. Haters gonna hate. Lovers gonna love. 2002 was controversial but there have been a few races like that. Castroneves was declared the winner and that’s how it will be for all time.

    I have nothing against him except he drives for Roger Penske. For that reason, I don’t want him to get his fourth. Now if he were to drive for AJ or Ed Carpenter, I might change my mind on that. But not this year.

    Would really love to see one of the smaller teams pick off a 500. Tony Kanaan?

    Does Indycar need another 4 time winner. No. But it will come. And it will become part of the lore of the race. Whoever and whenever it is.

  9. I am all for another 4 time winner someday but not HCN. Would have rather seen Dario get it. I don’t know why but Helio rubs me wrong and I am generally tired of his act. I am normally in agreement with you George but the top-10 stat is irrelevant these days.

    I do agree that his 14 top-10’s is extremely impressive but you can’t compare it to other drivers who drove in eras where the cars were so unreliable and unpredictable. More impressive to me is Mears not crashing at Indy for so many years when the cars were unstable and breakage happened often.

    I am torn this year. I would like to see Newgarden or Power finally get a 500, but then I would also like to see someone else join the 2 time crowd. Not anxious to see HCN become a 4 timer though.

  10. billytheskink Says:

    Given that Helio is not a full-timer anymore, he probably is not the 4-time 500 winner that Indycar needs. That, of course, does not mean him winning a 4th 500 would not be a remarkable accomplishment. Helio, however, would not be as celebrated as the other 4-time winners and the reasons are understandable even if they are debatable. He would be discounted because of the era in which he raced, the perception of his competition, and because of the 2002 controversy.

    What is remarkable about the current club of 4-time winners is that they all raced against each other, as well as against 3-time winners Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser, 2-time winners Gordon Johncock and Emerson Fittipaldi, and THE Mario Andretti (and Rahal, Sneva, Sullivan, Little Al, Michael, Luyendyk, etc.).

    Castroneves frequently faced down another 3-time winner in Franchitti, a talented 2-timer in Juan Montoya, and THE Scott Dixon (how does he have only 1 win?!) as well as Hornish, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Power, etc. The quality and depth of the talent that Helio face can be debated (I don’t think it is all that far off, personally), but these drivers are most definitely less revered than those faced by Foyt, Unser, and Mears.

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