Helio’s Wild Rabbit

Drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series are synonymous with speed. Unfortunately, they are unable to control how fast time flies. Ten years ago, one energetic young driver earned his third trip to victory lane at Indianapolis.

Helio Castroneves will turn 44 years old on Friday, which coincides with the first day of activities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Practice and qualifying for the IndyCar Grand Prix will be his focus, but the real prize comes three days later. Team Penske will prepare the No. 3 car for Helio as he aims for his ticket into the four-time winners club.

The Brazilian seeks to join AJ Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears in immortality. If qualifying goes according to plan, this will mark the 19th career Indianapolis 500 start for Castroneves – all of them with Roger Penske.

Helio’s resume on the famous 2.5-mile oval is well documented. He has completed 3,399 of a possible 3,546 laps (96%) at Indianapolis, with 14 Top-Tens and 8 Top-Fives, while leading 305 laps.

Until last year, the only Indy 500 that Castroneves failed to finish was the 2006 race. Those are the only two races where he didn’t finish every lap. In fact, Castroneves has the record for the most consecutive number of laps completed (2,310) without falling out of competition. That streak started with the 2007 race, and came to an end last May.

There are some major records on the line in May:

  • Should Castroneves earn his fifth career Indy 500 pole this year, he will be just one behind the record, which is currently owned by his mentor Rick Mears.
  • There is a good chance Castroneves can lead a lap in this year’s race. If he does, he would tie AJ Foyt for the 2nd most races led (13) in the history of the Indianapolis 500. Foyt’s current driver Tony Kanaan holds the record with 14 races led, and will likely add to that this year.
  • If Castroneves is able to win the race this year, it will come 10 years after his most recent win at Indy, and 6,574 days after his very first glass of milk at the Speedway.
  • If he wins the Indy 500, it would also break the record for the most number of races between first and last victories. Al Unser currently holds the record of 17 years (1970-1987) between his first and last Indy wins.

Winning the Indy 500 in your first ever start is amazing. Winning in your second start is absolutely incredible. His third start wasn’t bad either, starting on pole and finishing runner-up to his Penske teammate Gil de Ferran. Only seven other drivers have finished 2nd as the defending race winner. Castroneves has finished runner-up three times in his career.

Mears offered the best advice to Helio when it came time to evaluate his future following the 2017 season. “He was brutally honest: ‘Stay here. In the long run, it’s going to pay off.’ And I was like, ‘Thanks man, that’s exactly what I want to hear.’” Castroneves has never been low on confidence either, as he told Autoweek last April. “I’m going to get that No. 4, and I want it. I feel Roger wants it, the team wants it and a lot of people want it.”

During the Open Test at IMS a couple of weeks ago, Castroneves referred to it as the “Disneyland of racing.” He understands the position he is in better than anyone. “We do have something very special. I have great teammates and a phenomenal team that can help us achieve something that only three guys have done. It sounds repetitive, but those guys are the Gods of Indianapolis. I would love to conquer what they did in the past.”

While he is an Indy-only participant now, Castroneves still has some unfinished business. Perhaps it is just coincidence that the driver of the No. 3 car has been stuck on three wins for so long. Maybe it is symbolic of the pursuit that he has been on for a decade now. One thing we do know is that his name is synonymous with the Indianapolis 500. Drivers are always hungry, but Helio’s thirst for immortality can only be quenched with a bottle of milk.

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