Five things we learned from the 93rd Indianapolis 500
Only three drivers -- Foyt, Unser and Mears -- have more Indy 500 wins than Helio
If she sticks with IndyCar, Danica Patrick has a great shot to win at Indy
Even in tough economic times, the IRL is looking to expand its scope and schedule
Five things we learned on a sticky day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 93rd running of the Indy 500:
1. This Was Helio's Month
Over the past few weeks I've spent a lot of time with Helio Castroneves. We've had some dinners together, talked at length in the Team Penske garage at Indy, and spent an evening playing blackjack at the Brickyard Crossing restaurant. In nearly every conversation we had he emphasized that winning this year's 500 would be the most significant moment of his professional career because of his recent legal troubles and acquittal on federal tax evasion charges, which could have ruined his career and landed him in a federal prison for up to six years.
"I want to win for my family and my fans, because they are the ones that gave me strength to keep going through the trial," Castroneves told me earlier this month. "Without them, without all the messages they sent me on Facebook, without all of their support, I don't know how I would have survived."
Given the stakes of this race -- and the context of it in Castroneves' life -- it was easy to understand why he was so emotional after he won. He cried in Victory Lane, cried when he kissed the bricks, cried during his post-race press conference, and cried when he talked to a group of several hundred fans in a hospitality tent some two hours after the race. No doubt, this is going to be the biggest story in U.S. motorsports this season, and whether you are fan of Castroneves or not, you had to feel good for the guy. I can report he's a genuinely nice, fun, engaging person, and to me it was wildly fitting that he won Sunday.
2. This Was Helio's Race
Starting from the pole, Castroneves had the car to beat for most of the afternoon. Though the Brazilian struggled with a gearbox problem midway through the race, dropping to fifth, you always had the feeling he was simply riding around and waiting for the right moment to make his move. After a few tweaks on the car were made during pit stops, Castroneves pounded the throttle on lap 142 and passed Scott Dixon for the lead. From there, it was as if he were toying with the field. No one could get close as both Dan Wheldon (who finished second) and Danica Patrick (third) didn't have the speed to catch Castroneves.
At age 34, Castroneves now has three Indy 500 wins. Only three drivers have won four: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears. No driver has won five. Considering Castroneves is still relatively young -- he has at least six more good years in the sport -- and he drives for Roger Penske, who's the king of Indy, it's eminently possible Castroneves could some day become the winningest driver in Indy 500 history. At this point, I wouldn't bet against that.
3. This Is Penske's Track
I was with the 72-year-old Penske when Castroneves blazed across the bricks at the finish line, and he was as happy as I've ever seen him. Understand this: he is very, very close to Castroneves. They talked on the phone almost every day during Castroneves' trial, and Penske took a risk by adamantly standing by his side and offering unwavering support. Penske's never said this, but I'm sure he views Castroneves almost like a son, and his voice cracks with emotion when he talks about the way Castroneves was treated by the federal prosecutors in Miami and the way marshals shackled and handcuffed him and his sister Kati for several hours before they were arraigned in federal court.
"It was despicable and wrong," Penske told me earlier this month as we sat in his spacious motor coach in the infield at Indy. "Never once did it ever cross my mind that Helio had done anything wrong. It was not surprising to me at all that we got the result that we did."
Castroneves gave Penske his record 15th win at Indy on Sunday. To read about why Penske is so dominant at Indy, check out my piece in the magazine this week.
4. It Was Almost Danica's Day
Danica authored one of the best races of her career. Though her car didn't possess the straight-line speed of Castroneves, she steadily worked her way up through the field, was flawless on pit road, and could have stolen the race if Castroneves had a made a mistake in the final laps. He didn't and she came in third -- her best finish at the track and the best finish for a female in America's biggest race.
Patrick's contract with Andretti-Green Racing is up at the end of the year, and she's once again flirting with NASCAR. (From what I hear, Roush Fenway Racing is extremely interested in signing her.) But if she stays with AGR -- and, for what it's worth, I think she should, though that is a column for another day -- she'll have an excellent shot at winning the 500 over the next few years. AGR arrived at Indy this May decidedly behind Penske, and the team couldn't bridge the gap. But this is Patrick's best track on the IndyCar circuit, and Sunday she showed again that she's very, very capable of winning this race.
5. The IRL Will Soon Be Expanding
On Saturday I had a long chat with Terry Angstadt, the president of the commercial division of the IRL, and he told me about the IRL's bold expansion plans. By 2012 the IRL will be racing in Brazil, China and perhaps India. The existing 17-race schedule also will balloon to 20.
"The key for us is to get in these new markets and develop sponsorships and continue to grow," Angstadt said. "Our TV ratings aren't where we want them right now in the U.S. and we've got to do a better job of growing the profiles of our drivers. But we see great opportunities internationally."
This is a wise strategy. With NASCAR being the dominant motor sports series in the U.S., it now seems a near certainty that the IRL never will recapture the popularity it enjoyed in its glory days of the 1970s and '80s when the likes of A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, and Mario Andretti were competing for checkered flags.
But open-wheel racing is the second most popular sport in the world behind soccer, and the potential for growth for the IRL is enormous. One thing is certain: the IRL is in much better position to grow internationally right now than NASCAR, which is reeling more than the IRL from the current economic downturn. Consider: Since the end of 2008, NASCAR has lost more 1,200 jobs due to teams folding and merging. The IRL, conversely, has only lost a handful of jobs. The reason? It's far cheaper to do business in IndyCar, where it costs about $5 million to operate a team, than it is in NASCAR, where it cost about $25 million to run a team.