INDIANAPOLIS — For 30 years, Rick Mears had the honor of being the most recent driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times.
He was a member of an exclusive group of three drivers that included A.J. Foyt and Al Unser.
Unlike those two drivers, however, Mears accomplished the feat the quickest. He won his first Indy 500 in 1979 and his fourth in 1991. His fourth victory came just three years after his third Indy 500 triumph. It took Foyt 16 years between his first win in the 1961 Indianapolis 500 to his fourth in 1977 and 10 years from his third win in 1967 to the fourth victory.
For Unser, it was 17 years from his first Indy 500 win in 1970 to his fourth in 1987, and nine years from his third Indy 500 win in 1978.
On the 30th anniversary of Mears’ fourth Indianapolis 500 victory, Helio Castroneves joined the club by winning his fourth Indianapolis 500 on May 30. It came 20 years after his first Indianapolis 500 victory in 2001 and 12 years after his third Indy win in 2009.
“I didn’t think about it like that, but that’s great,” Mears told SPEED SPORT when reminded that it happened on the 30th anniversary of his fourth Indy win.
The crowd could still be heard inside of Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Castroneves continued his wild celebration following his tremendous victory over Alex Palou at the end of the Indy 500.
“I think it’s great,” Mears said. “If we couldn’t win it today, somebody on our team couldn’t, I was tickled to death to see Helio get it. He has come so close so many times and he has earned every bit of it. He ran a hell of a race. We are all excited about it. It’s great for him. It’s great for all of us.
“It’s great for the sport, too.”
After his third triumph, it seemed only a matter of time before Castroneves would join Foyt, Unser and Mears in the “Four-Time Winners” club.
The likable Brazilian came close on several occasions, finishing second in 2014 and ’16.
Castroneves finished 27th in 2018, 18th in ’19 and 11th last season, and it was beginning to look like time was running out on Castroneves to win a fourth Indy 500.
When Castroneves joined Team Penske in 2000, Mears served as his mentor and at times, as his spotter. Castroneves always believed he had a secret weapon by having Mears as his spotter, mentor and friend.
This month of May found Castroneves driving for a team other than Team Penske for the first time at Indianapolis.
His No. 06 Honda for Meyer Shank Racing was fast all month, while his former team struggled to find speed.
Castroneves started eighth and spent most of the Indy 500 in the top three before using his experience to outlast Palou, a second-year driver from Spain.
Palou took the lead with four laps remaining and Castroneves waited until two laps to go to make his race-winning move, pulling off the pass in turn one.
From there, Castroneves used the air from the lapped cars driven by James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay to pull him along in the draft, while creating enough turbulence that Palou could not get a run.
He defeated Palou by .493 seconds.
“He’s always had the desire and that is what it takes,” Mears said. “He has kept that fire lit all of these years. It was a matter of right time, right place and getting it done. He got that opportunity today and made very good use of it.
“That was the same old Helio. He stands on the gas around here and he always has. This time, everything worked in his favor and he was running his butt off. It was well-earned, very well earned.”
It was important to Castroneves, however, to win his fourth Indianapolis 500 without Mears’ help.
“Rick and I worked together for 20 years, all the wins that I did the three previous, he was right there beside me,” Castroneves said. “I’m proud of myself that I didn’t have Rick Mears to consult this time. I was on my own, not on my own, I had these guys at Meyer Shank Racing with me.
“When I see Rick, I’m going to tell him, ‘I’m now part of your club, buddy.’”