By Kirby Arnold, Staff Writer
INDIANAPOLIS – A generation has passed since anyone witnessed a driver win the Indianapolis 500 for the fourth time. The most recent was 1991 when Rick Mears joined A.J. Foyt and Al Unser in the four-timer club.
If that makes you realize you’ve been around a long time, how do you think Helio Castroneves feels?
The 46-year-old won the 500 in 2001, 2002 and 2009, and driving for powerful Team Penske it seemed he not only was speeding toward a fourth victory, five (or more) seemed entirely possible.
He’s still waiting.
In the 11 Indy 500s since he became a three-time winner, Castroneves has finished second twice and 10th or better six times. Spider Man hasn’t climbed the fence or doused himself with Indy’s victory milk for a fourth time, but he hasn’t climbed into his car without the confidence he can do it.
His confidence is no different this year with a different team.
Castroneves is driving the No. 06 Honda for Meyer Shank Racing, a smaller team that has never won an IndyCar race but has found a nice rhythm in its fourth year in the series. Fulltime driver Jack Harvey has been consistently strong, to the point that many predict he will win a race this year.
And Castroneves, signed for six races this year, has been among the fastest drivers this month at Indy, having qualified in the middle of the third row with the eighth-best speed (230.355 mph).
He’s got a chance.
“I dream big,” Castroneves said last week during Indy 500 Media Day interviews. “It would be part of history. I feel this place is all about history. It’s a great opportunity with Meyer Shank Racing. They’ve given me not only the equipment, but also the confidence to go out there and fight for it.”
Until this month, Castroneves’ history in the 500 has been with Team Penske, primarily the No. 3 car and in recent years in yellow Pennzoil sponsor colors. Now, he’s in the pink-and-black 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM car and, yes, it has taken a while to get used to the change.
“I like the zero six,” Castroneves said. “Gil de Ferran wore that number a few years, and he said, ‘Now you’re going to win some races.’”
Better than the number, Castroneves has a great feeling about his new team. Yes, it has taken some time to get comfortable in new surroundings. But he believes Meyer Shank Racing is on the cusp of winning.
“It’s not easy to come to any work environment that you’re not used to,” he said. “Team Penske, I was not the person to tell them what to do. They told me what to do. Here, they’re expecting me to say things. But it’s been really, really great. We still have some work to do, but you cannot (beat) the passion and experience we have. These guys know what they’re doing. I’m glad to have that support because that’s what’s going to make me competitive on Sunday.”
Castroneves has hung around the team at the previous five races this season to get a feel for how he can mesh smoothly with a new group. It didn’t take long for him to see that the team, and especially Harvey, are bona-fide contenders.
“Jack is a driver who people haven’t given much credit,” he said. “But now, this year, he’s started putting his elbows out. I’m excited about it. I do believe he’s going to be a winner this year.”
As for his own opportunity, Castroneves hopes the six races he’ll run this year turn into a fulltime presence next year.
“Anyone who is given a great opportunity, you’ll treat it as a chance to keep going,” he said. “I want to go back fulltime. I want to race more races. Hopefully, this will be my chance.”
Not just a chance to race fulltime, but also a chance to win No. 4 at Indy.
“I don’t feel like a darkhorse at this moment because I’ve been here before” Castroneves said. “I feel very confident compared to my opponents. I’m going to give them a hard time, for sure, because I want to win this as bad as anybody.
“This place changed my name. I will do anything I can to be part of history. As long as I still have the fire, I want to keep going. I’m very honored to be in this position.”