“Dreeew!” howled the exultant man on my laptop from his Fort Lauderdale home, filling the screen with the toothy, dimpled grin that leaves all who see it smiling almost as brightly. Such is the infectious effervescence of Hélio Castroneves, and on the Monday afternoon we finally connect this Roberto Benigni of the track is feeling extra bubbly.
Just the day prior he’d scored a record-tying fourth victory at the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 after a 12-year dry spell that would make a nice career for just about any other driver. But even though Castroneves placed fourth in the 2017 championship and second twice in his previous seven Indy 500 starts, he wound up losing his longtime seat in Team Penske’s No 3 car. To explain it in terms a Lethal Weapon fan might appreciate: he was getting too old for this … sport.
Which is to say Castroneves was written off by same blinkered logic that kills off most athletes after the age of 30 and buries most people post 40. That he’s sitting here now at age 46, in his race-worn, magenta-accented Meyers Shank team fire suit, with a sparkling Indy 500 championship ring on his finger, is as much a testament to Castroneves’s undying perseverance as the “great group of people” in his corner who “make you believe in yourself”, he says. Never mind if the idea of anyone doubting one of the most successful drivers in American open-wheel racing at any age seemed more than a little off track.
But then again I’m totally biased. In almost 20 years writing for the toy department, I’m hard pressed to name another sports figure I’ve spent more time with than Castroneves. That’s not me making myself out to be some great access merchant. That’s me still incredulous about having this open book for an introduction to the motorsports beat when my Sports Illustrated editors shunted me there at 25.
Castroneves and I have had some good times. There were the churrasco feasts in New York’s Midtown, the predawn beach workouts, the backstage hangout on the Dancing with the Stars victory tour with Joey Lawrence and Julianne Hough – “Wow, Drew! Don’t go there,” Castroneves says, cutting me off. “You’ve known me too long, man.”
I’ve seen him beat federal tax evasion on the way to winning a third Indy 500, watched him pivot from in-demand bachelor to the proud partner of longtime squeeze Adriana Henao and doting father to daughter Mikaella who, sheesh, is 11 now? All while he’d become a heartthrob to a nation of blue-haired Dancing with the Stars fans – not least, Danica Patrick’s own grandmother – who couldn’t get enough of his Mirrorball trophy-winning quickstep routine with Hough in the show’s 2007 finale. The last time I saw him in person, while tracking Fernando Alonso’s maiden Indy voyage in 2017, Castroneves was pogoing on the balls of his feet outside the drivers’ green room before the race; after finishing 0.2 seconds behind Takuma Sato, he wasn’t too deflated, either.
It was this happy-go-lucky boy from Brazil – not some kid from central Indiana or northern California or even Patrick, a phenomenon entirely onto herself – †who’d emerge as the face of American open-wheel racing after a 14-year civil war that threatened to sink the sport entirely. That Castroneves could go on to become the redundant man at Team Penske after a two-decade affiliation should not have come as a shock. After all, racing is a pay-to-play business that prefers young, cheap talent – which doesn’t make it that much different from most modern businesses, really. But given all that Castroneves had done to help lift IndyCar from the wreckage of civil war and onto reconstruction, it was hard not to feel like he deserved better than a part-time IndyCar schedule and a new role at Team Penske’s sports car division.
Of course this was inevitable – the circle of life for great athletes of a certain age, all of them under constant pressure to make away for the next man or woman up. But here’s the thing about old guys: we’re stubborn. “Me, Rafa [Nadal] and Roger [Federer] are reinventing the Next Gen,” Novak Djokovic said after a runner-up finish in last month’s Italian Open, holding the line for the triumvirate that has dominated tennis for the past two decades. “We are the Next Gen.” Meanwhile, Serena Williams is still going deep into grand slams as she approaches 40.
What’s more, in the last six months alone, we’ve seen Tom Brady win a seventh Super Bowl at age 43 and Phil Mickelson become the oldest major championship winner at 50. Even LeBron James, who’s gone from being touted as a teen phenom to torn apart for having the temerity to turn 36, is out here recreating classic Heatles posters with Alex Caruso while (just about) keeping the Lakers alive in their playoff series against the Suns … who owe their resurgence partly to Chris Paul, also 36. WNBA legend Sue Bird is old enough to be a mother to some of her teammates. And yet here she is, dropping dimes at age 40, going for a fifth (!) gold medal at next month’s Olympics.
“People forget that Mario Andretti raced until he was 53,” Castroneves says. “AJ Foyt stopped even later. I’m not saying I’m gonna keep driving till I’m 60, but I have the passion and I still wanna do it.”
It turns out driving sports cars these past two years boosted Castroneves’s race craft and adaptability skills behind the wheel. And that experience and even temperament, which culminated in the first-ever series championship of his career in 2020, came into focus again over Indy’s final laps. In a dogfight with 24-year-old Spaniard Alex Palou for most of race, Castroneves passed him with three laps to go and deftly leveraged the air in the lap traffic ahead to hold Palou off down the stretch. From there followed a most cathartic celebration that saw Castroneves immediately climb out and up the circuit catch fence before taking a victory lap down the front stretch on foot.
And as Castroneves bathed in the droplets of 135,000 full-throated onlookers and was mobbed by Penske and other rivals before dousing himself in milk, the flecks of gray in his hair recalling all the hair dye jokes his Penske teammates always had at the ready, well, there was no chance of holding back any tears for me. Maybe it was because I knew better than most the enormous sacrifice his parents, sister and even Castroneves himself made for him to reach this summit. Or maybe it was me finally getting sentimental on a weekend in which my father, who I hadn’t seen in almost two years, got to see his 41-year-old boy graduate with a master’s degree – something that seemed well beyond the scope of a husband and new father who often wrestled with career identity issues after becoming a 37-year-old cap casualty at Sports Illustrated, my Team Penske once upon a time.
The feat Castroneves pulled off last Sunday didn’t just mark the grand reopening of sports post-Covid. It was a victory for anybody who’s been pushed out of a job for the inescapable sin of getting too old. It was yet more proof that the end only comes once we stop breathing and believing. So to those of you who, like me, may have spent a lifetime following Castroneves and even seen a sliver of yourself in his Brickyard triumph, just know: You’ve got time. And this moment is ripe for the milking.