Brazilian-born Helio Castroneves won today’s running of the Indianapolis 500 after starting from the pole position. In only his third race after being acquitted on federal tax evasion charges, the Team Penske mainstay led twice for 66 laps, including the final 59.
During a hellish legal process that began in October, the last thing on Castroneves’ mind was racing; instead, his goal was to acquit himself, his sister and business manager—Katucia, and his agent—Alan Miller, of all charges.
He lost a considerable amount of weight during the six-month legal proceedings and was replaced on an interim basis by Australian driver Will Power.
Upon his acquittal, he returned to the car at Long Beach after only missing the season opener at St. Petersburg. He finished the Long Beach race in seventh place and the following race at Kansas in second.
At Indianapolis this month, he and his team dominated all of the pre-race proceedings, winning the pole in dominating fashion, setting the fastest times in final practice, and winning the annual pit stop competition.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing on race day for the popular driver, however.
The first start attempt was waved off after he hit the accelerator too early and broke up the traditional starting formation. The second attempt, although similar in formation, was given the green flag and Castroneves led the field into turn one.
The race didn’t even last one lap before an accident occurred.
In the short chute between turns one and two, Mario Moraes and Marco Andretti made contact, ending the race for the former and limiting the capacity of the latter’s car. Moraes held the view that Andretti checked down on him, while Andretti believed that Moraes drifted up the track and squeezed him into the wall.
Both drivers expressed their frustration to the TV crews, with Andretti calling Moraes "clueless.” Moraes was credited with the 33rd and last finishing position with zero laps completed. Andretti returned to the track on lap 61 and ran until the team realized they could gain no more points, finishing 30th.
On the restart, Dario Franchitti passed Castroneves for the lead, which he would not relinquish for 47 laps. Castroneves’ car began to slide back in the field, falling as far as fifth.
These were the first of 123 laps led by Chip Ganassi Racing cars on the day.
Ryan Hunter-Reay had the day’s second accident, which occurred on lap 20. He hit the wall and his car slid into the pit lane. This capped a brutal month of May for the Vision Racing driver, in which his car never seemed to get up to speed, and he barely even made the 500 field.
Hunter-Reay, like Castroneves, finished where he started; unlike Castroneves’ position, Hunter-Reay’s 32nd wasn’t a desirable finish.
Franchitti lost the lead to Castroneves’ teammate, Ryan Briscoe, on lap 53, but he only held it for 11 laps. Defending race champion and IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, Franchitti’s teammate, then claimed the lead and continued Ganassi’s mid-race dominance.
Graham Rahal and Davey Hamilton had similar-looking accidents on laps 56 and 83, respectively. Both slowed their cars between turns three and four, drifted up the track, and hit the wall on the front straightaway.
Rahal, who expressed in pre-race interviews that he felt like his Newman/Haas/Lanigan team had a shot at the win, had plenty of reason to be disappointed: He made the same mistake early in last year’s 500.
Hamilton was classified 29th with Rahal 31st.
Dixon lost the lead to Franchitti during the pit stops which occurred under caution after the Hamilton wreck, but regained the point five laps later. He proceeded to lead laps 91-141 with little pressure as Franchitti helped him protect his position.
Tony Kanaan, lead driver for Andretti-Green Racing and a frequent victim of the race, saw his day end in a violent crash on lap 98. A part failed on the right side of the car while at top speed, and Kanaan bounced off into the backstretch wall. His car then slammed the turn three wall and eventually came to rest in the short chute.
In television interviews, Kanaan appeared visibly shaken by the wreck.
He finished 27th.
Drivers Robert Doornbos (28th), Nelson Philippe (25th), and Justin Wilson (23rd), all former Champ Car World Series race winners, had incidents in the middle-to-late stages of the race that ended their respective days.
Of the three, Wilson was the only driver to have attempted the race before. Doornbos and Philippe, counting practice sessions for the race, wrecked a combined five cars over the course of the month.
Under the caution for the Philippe incident, Franchitti's fueler got stuck in his car causing him to lose track position. With nobody to block for him, Dixon was powerless on the restart to stop the assault of a rejuvenated Castroneves. The Penske Dallara-Honda cleared Dixon before the cars even entered turn one.
The scariest incident of the day occurred on lap 173, when Vitor Meira and Raphael Matos collided in turn one. Their cars slammed the wall at top speed with Meira’s riding down the wall on its side. Meira was extracted from his car by the Delphi Safety Team and airlifted to nearby Methodist Hospital.
He broke two vertebrae in his back and will spend the next two days in the hospital being fitted for a back brace.
Meira was listed in 21st and Matos 22nd.
Briscoe, like Franchitti, had his share of problems: He had fallen back in the middle of the event with a bad set of tires, but short-fueled in pit stops after the Wilson caution to claim second place behind teammate Castroneves. Eventually Briscoe attempted to take the lead, with the intention of pulling Castroneves along, in order to help the Brazilian save fuel by using the draft.
However, he had to pit during the Meira-Matos caution and was thus not a factor in the race’s final stages, finishing 15th overall.
The field restarted on lap 183, with Castroneves in first, followed by 2005 champion Dan Wheldon, media darling Danica Patrick, and Townsend Bell, driving with a one-race deal for Jimmy Vasser’s team. Castroneves opened up a healthy gap on the second and third-place cars.
Because his car was only maintaining, and not topping Castroneves’ pace, and because he had to block Patrick’s advances, Wheldon could not catch the pole-sitter and all cars held their positions.
Castroneves crossed the finish line as his family and girlfriend celebrated. The driver and his crew engaged in his traditional victory celebration, climbing the front stretch catch fence to the delight of the crowd.
It was his third career Indianapolis 500 victory, with the others coming in 2001 and 2002. He is the sixth driver to win three 500s and the first foreign-born driver to do so. Despite missing the first race of the season, he now sits second in points.
Wheldon had his best finish of the season as well as his best 500 finish since his victory four years ago. It was the second consecutive year that his team, Panther Racing, finished second in the race—last year, Meira was the driver.
Wheldon now sits seventh in points.
Patrick’s third place finish, a career-best for her in the 500, was met with much fanfare.
Now sixth in points, it was also her best finish of the season.
Bell, who started 24th in the 33-car field, was the best of the drivers with either one-race deals or limited schedules. Power, driving a third entry fielded by Penske as a thank you for filling in for Castroneves, was the next-best driver in that category finishing in fifth.
Dixon and Franchitti were sixth and seventh, respectively.
Paul Tracy, driving for Vasser in his first 500 appearance since a controversial 2002 finish, was ninth.
Sarah Fisher finished 17th in her second 500 as an owner-driver.
John Andretti, driving the first Richard Petty-owned car to ever run at Indianapolis, was 19th...the last car on the lead lap.
Oriol Servia and Rahal Letterman Racing, in their first races since last season, finished 26th after a mechanical issue halted their race on the 99th lap.
The IRL IndyCar Series’ next race, the IndyCar 225, will take place at the Milwaukee Mile next Sunday.
Briscoe won the race last year.