Helio Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in May.
Helio Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in May. (Al Steinberg photo)

LEMASTERS: A Four-Time Winner & Indy Memories

CONCORD, N.C. — Twice is nice and three times is a charm, it is said.

Four times? Now you’re talking legendary accomplishment.

With the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500, another driver entered the four-time winner’s club at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I am both proud and a bit miffed that Helio Castroneves’ triumph on May 30 was the first fourth 500 victory I didn’t see in person.

Proud because Castroneves deserved his fourth victory for the masterful way he delivered it, and miffed because I would have liked to have seen his — extended — victory celebration first-hand.

There is no doubt that Castroneves loves The Brickyard as much as I do, and the 135,000 people there that day experienced it with him, whether they were fans of his or not. Sitting at home, I watched every minute of the journey — and it was a journey — from the time he stopped his Meyer Shank machine at the yard of bricks until he finally got onto the victory podium and did all the things that every other Indy 500 winner did with alacrity in years past.

It was, in a word, special.

If there was a person near pit road that didn’t get a hug or a handshake from Castroneves, it was because they weren’t trying. It seemed like the voluble Brazilian was going to make a full lap of the 2.5-mile track to make sure everyone had a chance to celebrate the moment with him.

When you can get half the field to jump out of their cars and sweep up to the front straight to celebrate and congratulate the winner, that winner is a rock star, and Helio was the epitome of that genre that day. 

Juan Pablo Montoya, normally not the most excitable guy in the paddock, was jumping around like Helio had just scored the winning goal in the World Cup and Montoya had made the pass to make it possible.

It is nice, in this age of keyboard warriors and people with an attitude, to see such unabashed joy in celebrating what is a really big deal. 

Helio is 46, 10 years younger than I am and much more of a spring chicken, but I found myself wanting to climb the fence with him, were I able to reach it. That would not have ended well, I’m sure, but worth the potential risk.

I watched A.J. Foyt’s fourth victory from the Southwest Vista with my family and that was a banner day in my life. My father was a lifelong Foyt fan and I inherited that from him, so that day in 1977 is one of the most memorable in my life. Watching Super Tex ride around in the pace car with Tony Hulman brought tears to my eyes that day and I felt a tremor of that emotion when Helio won it, both in appreciation of his accomplishment and in memory of the man who rescued Indianapolis and made it what it is today.

Al Unser’s 1987 victory was his fourth and while not overcome with emotion, I was glad for Big Al. I was also smug in the fact that my guy had done it first, but that’s neither here nor there. I watched that one from the same place with the same people, this time including my wife-to-be, so it was special in its own way.

When Rick Mears joined the party in 1991, I was watching from the inside of turn one with dad, and we both saw his major-stones pass of Michael Andretti from the same ground-level viewpoint. It was a breathtaking move, one of the best I had seen to that point, and still memorable today. The rest of the race, we were in the open-air press box on the front straightaway, another special time in my memories of The Race.

When Helio won his fourth, I was sitting in my living room by myself, and while the venue was more comfortable it was not like being there when it happened.

Every year I tell myself I’m going back to Indy for the 500 and every year something gets in the way. In 2022, I will make sure nothing does and I’ll return to the place I love to see the race I love in person, one more time.

Congratulations to Helio Castroneves, both for his becoming the fourth member of a very exclusive club and for keeping the fire going for me at Indy.

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