We learn that age is just a number, but time and time again, we watch as age threatens to define and derail athletes’ careers. That is until this year.
Tom Brady became the oldest player to win a Super Bowl as the Buccaneers beat the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. It marked the 43-year-old’s seventh championship, more than any single NFL franchise has collected. Just over a week ago, Phil Mickelson made history when the 50-year-old became the oldest golfer to ever win a major with his victory at the PGA Championship.
And now, Hélio Castroneves joined the exclusive club of four-time Indianapolis 500 winners on Sunday. The 46-year-old now stands side-by-side with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears, his former mentor at Team Penske, as the only four-time winners of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Mears was the last driver to join the group with his victory in 1991.
“Never stop believing in yourself. I know it sounds cliche; however, even for someone that has been in the sport for a long time, people tend to put labels,” Castroneves says. “Doesn't matter if it’s age, color or gender. You can prove them wrong if you believe in yourself. And I love that way because we were able to do something with completely odds down, not in our favor. And we just turned things around because we knew what we could do.”
Sunday’s win marked the first Indianapolis 500 and first NTT IndyCar Series victory for Meyer Shank Racing, the team he joined after parting with Team Penske after 21 years last season. In 2018 Castroneves stopped driving a full InsyCar schedule, moving over to Penske's IMSA SportsCar program. Castroneves continued to race at the Brickyard, but his finishes in the last three 500s were 27th, 18th and 11th. When Penske shuttered its sportscar program, Castroneves was left looking for a ride, insisting he was not done driving yet. Michael Shank decided to give the Brazilian auto racer a chance. He says that Shank saw a driver who was willing to take a risk.
“I always dream big,” Castroneves says. “You want to make it to the big league and want to be competing, want to be compared to the greatest drivers. As the goals keep coming, as you win, you keep making new goals. And for me to be winning number four, it’s absolutely incredible.”
Castroneves had been written off as too old to race full-time and probably too old to be a four-time winner. After all, he’s 46 years and 20 days old when he took home the Borg-Warner Trophy while Unser Sr. is the oldest Indy 500 winner at 47 years, 360 days. But that didn’t stop Castroneves from continuing to bet on himself. Or from channeling his inner Spider-Man and scaling the fence line with his team, his notorious victory celebration.
But this time, it was extra special as he and his team did so in front of the largest crowd at a sporting event since the start of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Castroneves ran along the front stretch, waving and cheering with the 135,000 fans in attendance.
“After such a tough year in 2020, everybody exploded with emotion," he says. "Just to have this weight lift off their shoulders, saying, ‘Finally we were able to witness history making, which is someone winning four times,’ is absolutely incredible.”
Castroneves, who also won the Indy 500 in 2001, ‘02 and ‘09, will continue to dream big. He was part of the winning Rolex 24 Daytona team in January, and the 500 was the only IndyCar race on his schedule for this season. But he feels the momentum behind him as he prepares for what’s to come and thinks this is the year for the aging veterans. But he does have advice for the kids trying to follow in his footsteps: “Doesn’t matter what you do—drive race cars, be an engineer, accounting. Whatever you do, do with passion because that’s when the best comes out of you.”
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