“I didn't know how big the Indy 500 really was until they stopped calling me Hélio Castroneves and started calling me the Indy 500 winner.”

The month of May is now in full swing and in the world of motorsport it can only mean one thing, the famous Indianapolis 500 race is just around the corner.

“I didn't know how big the Indy 500 really was until they stopped calling me Hélio Castroneves and started calling me the Indy 500 winner.”

Since 1911 the iconic “Brickyard” has seen a whole host of winners, in races full of surprises that can often see rookies and even the underdogs cross the yard of bricks to write themselves in the history books.  If you’re lucky enough you’ll really cement yourself as a legend by winning it more than once and that person still racing today is Brazilian driver, Hélio Castroneves.

As a four-time winner, he’ll be looking to line up for his 24th attempt on Sunday 26th May and go one better than A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears.

“ It always was a dream for me to become a race car driver and be successful.  My mom always told me, whatever you do, you do the best you can to become one of the best. Of course the first time I tried the Indy 500 and watched all the videos and the legends drinking the milk, I said, this is what I want to become, I want to join the club just like those guys did.  I was able to achieve that and that's pretty special.”

A stellar career that has seen him the Indycar Championship runner-up four-times, it’s his performances in the Indy 500 that have shown what a talent behind the wheel he is and none more so than taking victory as a rookie for Team Penske at his first Indy 500 attempt back in 2001, of which the memories he has is of the preparation beforehand.

“When I actually came here we didn't have YouTube, maybe we had Google, but we didn't have a lot of things to get information from. So I had to do my studying talking to John Rutherford, Al Unser Senior, Rick Mears, AJ (Foyt), Bobby Unser, all these amazing guys and I'm sure it would have been something I would have learnt by talking to them.

So that for me was what I remember, the preparation to get myself into the race. Everyone always had a little bit of a story and everything they said it definitely happened for me. As soon as I crossed the finish line I didn't know how big the Indy 500 really was until they stopped calling me Hélio Castroneves and started calling me the Indy 500 winner.”

The number 13 might be unlucky for some, but after qualifying in that position a year later, he made it back-to-back victories, the fifth driver in history to do so. 

In 2009, the Team Penske driver went from pole to his first victory with Honda power as he started to notch up the history milestones.

His last victory was in 2021, this time for Meyer Shank Racing and just two laps from the end he overtook Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou to claim his fourth win, celebrating with his trademark ‘Spider-Man’ climb up the catch fencing.

“Each victory does feel different through different times, momentum and different things happening in each one. My first one was my first one, my second one everything went bad but I ended up getting an opportunity that ended up with me winning.  The third one, I didn’t even know if I was going to be at the race and the fourth one was with a different team under completely different circumstances, so, certainly they all taste very different.”

And what comes with the victories is the celebratory bottle of milk on the podium, where it’s often poured over the winning driver after the gruelling 200 laps around the special oval.

“For me it's a dream come true. When I had seen those incredible legends winning and then drinking it and all of a sudden I was the one doing it, it's an absolutely amazing experience and part of the tradition of this place. And let me tell you, winners do drink milk!”

The Indy 500 requires a lot of things to fall perfectly into place, unexpected caution flags can throw strategy into chaos and even the weather can play a part, but although not victories, the popular racer does have a couple of second place finishes that stick in his memories.

“The big one was in 2003, I had the best car ever and I wasn't able to close the deal. In 2014, it was an incredible battle under the rain and I can't believe I finished second, just 0.0600 seconds was the difference! With Takuma Sato in 2017 I didn't have the most power, but Honda came up with a really amazing package. I didn't have a great setup but I just wasn’t able to pass him, he was too strong. Those races I remember, including one that was won by Dario Franchitti and I finished third. We made a great pit strategy even though we didn't have to pit and the rain came out a little bit sooner, so we did have more opportunities to win but it didn’t happen.”

Back again for Meyer Shank Racing, Hélio will keep racing as long as he has the passion and the capability of being competitive and at the age of 49, when most racers have hung up their helmet, you just know that the Indy 500 is very special for him and place he’ll keep on returning to.

“You have several things, it’s not only the race, but it's the tradition, it’s the heritage. Every single thing about this place is that for me it’s the gods of racing, so you can't see or feel it unless you're right here and certainly it's an experience of a lifetime.”

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