INDIANAPOLIS — Written off as too old to race on a full-time basis, too far past his prime for a fourth Indianapolis 500 win, Helio Castroneves at long last joined an exclusive club while scoring another popular victory for the old guys.
Then Spiderman scaled the Indianapolis Motor Speedway fence for his trademark victory celebration at the largest sporting event since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Castroneves wasn't done yet.
At 46 and one of the oldest drivers in the field, he sprinted along the front stretch of the track for a victory lap without a car for the 135,000 fans in attendance. He pumped his arms in the air and waved to the ecstatic crowd, his explosion of emotional energy stopped every few feet by a flood of rivals who rushed onto the track to congratulate the Brazilian driver.
Almost every member of Team Penske did so, including former teammate Will Power, who saw the final scoring pylon and had no idea his longtime friend won.
"I was looking up and down, 'Who is the 06?'" Power told Castroneves in a victory hug. "You're a legend."
Castroneves became the fourth-oldest winner in Indianapolis 500 history, behind Al Unser (47, 1987), Bobby Unser (47, 1981) and Emerson Fittipaldi (46, 1993).
Castroneves spent more than two decades driving for Team Penske, winning the Indy 500 in 2001, '02 and '09, but he was eventually phased over to the organization's sports car program, where he won the IMSA championship last season before Roger Penske shuttered the team and made the business decision to cut Castroneves loose.
Spiderman insisted he was not done racing yet, and Michael Shank agreed.
He hired Castroneves for the Indy 500 to complement the one-car Meyer Shank Racing team. Maybe Castroneves would have a shot to win, but he'd at least boost a team that needed some veteran leadership at one of the most challenging tracks in the world.
Castroneves had been trying for more than a decade to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears, his former mentor at Team Penske, as the only four-time winners of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." Mears had been the last driver to join the club in 1991.
"For a long time these people want to see a four-time winner," Castroneves said. "I say that because they tell me. Every time we sign the autographs, they are like, 'I've never seen a four-time winner. I want to see it.' That's what probably made me thank all of them, because they made this place special."
Castroneves was also part of the winning Rolex 24 at Daytona team in January, taking the prestigious sports car endurance event for the first time.
"I've run two races this year and won two races; I'd say that's pretty good," said Castroneves, who then noted this might be the year for aging veterans. "I don't know if this is a good comparison, but Tom Brady won the Super Bowl and Phil Mickelson won the golf, so here you go. The older guys are still kicking the younger guys' butts."
The 43-year-old Brady, who won six Super Bowls in his first 20 NFL seasons with the New England Patriots, capped his first campaign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by quarterbacking them to their first championship in 18 years this past February. Just one week before Castroneves' improbable victory, the 50-year-old Mickelson won the PGA Championship for his sixth major championship — eight years after his fifth — to become the oldest major winner in golf history.
Sunday's outcome provided a stark contrast to the recent theme of young drivers taking over IndyCar, which now has six unique winners through as many races this season. Three of them were first-time winners, and four were 24 or younger.
Castroneves found himself in a closing duel with one of the young stars, Alex Palou, but he passed the 24-year-old Spaniard for good with two laps remaining and beat him by 0.4928 second for the victory. Former Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, the 2019 Indy winner, was third, followed by Pato O'Ward, the 21-year-old budding IndyCar star.
When he finally made it to the real victory lane — after a kiss from racing legend Mario Andretti, a hug from three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford and well wishes from just about every Indy 500 great — Castroneves sipped from his bottle of 2% milk and then dumped the rest over his head.
A year ago, no fans were allowed for a race that was delayed from May to August. This year, celebrities were back and fans were everywhere — and they were treated to a win by one of the most popular drivers in Indy 500 history. When Castroneves climbed into the back of a convertible for his true victory lap around the 2.5-mile speedway, most of the fans were still in the stands cheering.
Despite Castroneves' success, it was a rugged day for some of IndyCar's biggest stars and veterans, including Scott Dixon, the six-time and reigning series champion who started in pole position in a bid for his second Indy 500 win but was bitten by fuel strategy and wound up 17th.
He also surrendered the season points lead to Palou and trails him by 36 as the series heads to Detroit for a doubleheader weekend in mid-June. Dixon is trying to match A.J. Foyt's series record with seven career championships.
"The car felt great," the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said. "Unfortunately, we were trying to go a little longer, which got us in trouble."
The team's decision to pit a few laps later than the first cars proved costly when Stefan Wilson hit the pit wall just 32 laps into the race. Race officials shut pit lane for the cleanup, and it resulted in eight cars being forced to restart from the back of the field for making emergency stops.
Dixon's was disastrous. The No. 9 Honda, which had been so dominant in practice and qualifying, rolled agonizingly slowly to the pit box, out of fuel. When crew members tried to restart the car and it wouldn't, Dixon knew a second 500 win was likely not to be, although he did manage to lead seven laps — mostly during pit cycles.
Takuma Sato, who won the Indy 500 in 2017 and last year, finished 14th.