Watching driver Hélio Castroneves win a race—and he’s won 31 IndyCar series races over his 21-year career—is like seeing joy personified. After crossing the finish line first at 200 miles per hour (or more), Castroneves does something utterly unique: He leaves his car and climbs the fence to celebrate with fans. “The fans love to share your emotions,” he says, “and my blood’s bubbling all the time.”
For Castroneves—who’s earned the nickname “Spider-Man” for those fence-climbing feats—every win makes his blood bubble (consider his recent win at this year’s 24 Hours of Daytona). But some wins are sweeter than others. And for Castroneves—who has called Fort Lauderdale home since 2009—the Indianapolis 500 is the sweetest of them all. The Brickyard, as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is affectionately known, is hallowed ground for race fans—Castroneves included. “I always call that place magical,” he says. “And it is. No question.”
To date, he’s won a record-tying four races in that special place. Next in his sights: No. 5. And for Castroneves, the question is not if, but when.
Hitting the Road
Castroneves’ love of racing began at the feet of his father, who owned a stock car team in their native São Paulo, Brazil. When Castroneves was 5 years old, his dad would smuggle him—wearing a custom fire suit and helmet—onto the pit lane. “The noise of the engines, the smell of the oil,” he recalls. “From that moment, I knew I would be a race car driver.” Castroneves received his first go-kart at age 11 and later rose through racing’s ranks—first in Brazil, then in Europe.
After moving to the U.S., he landed a spot with Team Penske in 2000. His
second IndyCar start was at the 2001 Indianapolis 500, a race known for eating rookies alive. That year, Castroneves sat on the starting grid in eleventh position, knowing that only eight rookies in the race’s then-85-year history had pulled off a victory.
But odds don’t faze Castroneves, who led the final 52 laps of the 200-lap race to win his first Indianapolis 500. “I always have winning in mind,” he says. “If you’re going into a fight, you can’t be thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll lose today, but hopefully I’ll win in the future.’ No! I’m always competitive, no matter the odds.”
Castroneves is admittedly not one to rest on the laurels of winning one Indianapolis 500. So when he returned to Brickyard in 2002, he did something that hadn’t been done since the 1970s: winning the race in back-to-back years. Even now, after 105 runnings, it’s a feat that only four Indy 500 drivers have achieved.
But there were naysayers. With only one-and-a-half laps to go, two cars collided, and the race was yellow-flagged (preventing drivers from advancing their positions). Unaware that the yellow flag had been waved, Paul Tracy overtook Castroneves for the lead—but officials disqualified the pass. Controversial? Yes. But a win, nevertheless.
“That year was tough,” Castroneves recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘I know what to do and I need to do it exactly the same.’ But the race did not go exactly the same. I was a lap down. And all of a sudden, I had one opportunity to gamble, and it paid it off. So that’s why I say that racetrack is magical. Some days it picks who’s gonna be the winner. And that day surely was like that.”
For the second straight year, Castroneves climbed the fence, kissed the bricks, drank the milk, and donned the orchid-laden wreath with Team Penske solidly behind him in Victory Circle.
And then the magic disappeared: a seven-year drought ensued. In 2009, Castroneves pulled off a stunning pole-to-pole finish for win No. 3 at Indianapolis. But by 2018, his racing schedule was reduced. His 21-year run with Team Penske had come to a close.
Without Penske, Castroneves needed to find a ride. Enter Mike Shank, owner of Meyer Shank racing, who was looking for a new driver. He says Castroneves’ experience and enthusiasm won him over. “Hélio is Hélio and there’s no other way to say it,” Shank says. “He has so much knowledge about IndyCar. That’s invaluable and something that has…really brought us to a whole new level in the sport.” In 2021, Castroneves signed with Meyer Shank Racing to a part-time schedule that included the Indianapolis 500.
Castroneves had already beaten a lot of odds in his career. But these new odds were daunting: No driver had ever won the Indianapolis 500 backed by different teams. Still, Castroneves was hungry for Indy 500 win No. 4 in 2021.
In a late-race pass on Alex Palou, he clinched the victory, tying the all-time Indy 500 record with three of the greatest names in racing: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears (who was Castroneves’ longtime mentor at Team Penske). Castroneves refers to them as “the gods of racing” and says he’s beyond honored to stand in their midst. “Over one hundred years of that race,” he says, “and only four of us were able to win it four times.”
Landing among the racing gods isn’t the only thing Castroneves is known for. After a chance encounter with Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno (winner of the fourth season of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars), Castroneves was tapped to participate in the show’s fifth season.
He’d never danced before, but Castroneves wowed the judges with partner Julianne Hough—sambaing, mamboing, and rumbaing their way to win the coveted Mirrorball trophy. “I worked as hard in three months as I worked in my entire life in racing,” he recalls. “But I’ve retired my dance shoes now. I love my Mirrorball trophy, but I like the Borg Warner trophy more,” he says of the iconic Indianapolis 500 award. “That’s why I have four.”
If Castroneves can pull off a fifth win at the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend this year, he will not only have his name and likeness on another Borg Warner trophy, he’ll become the undeniable GOAT of open-wheel racing.
What will it take to make the dream a reality? “I know one thing for a fact,” he says. “We just need to cross the finish line first.”
Shank believes his team is in the right place to do just that. “We have a lot more data going into this year’s Indy 500, so there will be less unknowns,” he says. “Hélio is completely capable of winning a fifth Indy 500. It’s our job to give him the best car possible to make that happen.”
Castroneves is confident that another back-to-back Indianapolis 500 win is doable. “I know I have the recipe. I’ve done it before,” he says. “When we do it, it will be best moment for not only myself, but also for Mike Shank, Jim Meyer, and the entire organization.”
But at 46 years old, Castroneves will be the oldest full-time driver in the venerated field of 33 at this year’s race. His age is a topic that comes up again and again—but one he says he only considers when he has to do media interviews. As he likes to point out, racing legend Al Unser won his last Indianapolis 500 just shy of his forty-eighth birthday, and Mario Andretti won his final IndyCar race at 53.
That gives Castroneves at least seven years to play with—but he doesn’t plan to wait that long—or hang his helmet up anytime soon. “The fire is still burning,” he says. “A long time ago, Rick Mears told me: ‘If you don’t have the fire—if you stop thinking about it—it’s the time for you to stop.’ I can’t live without it right now. Whatever happens will happen one day, but today I am still all in. It’s my comfort zone, my therapy, my everything.”
Another thing Mears told Castroneves? As a four-time Indianapolis 500 champ, he’s in the best of company. If he completes his “drive for five,” he’ll stand alone.
“But I’ll be super okay being lonely,” Castroneves says, laughing. “Because technically, I won’t be alone. I’ll have my team and my fans and my family behind me. And that’s what I love most of all.”
Hélio in the Hot Seat
What inspires him: My dad is my inspiration because he has shown me that even sometimes when you don’t have the best, you can find a way to make what you have better and turn it into the best.
How he starts his day: I open my eyes. First things first!
What scares him: Staying away from racing when the time comes to be finished. But not yet!
His hobby: Tennis
Favorite color: Black
Food he can’t live without: In general? Desserts.
Favorite on-screen binge: Family Feud with Steve Harvey
How he manages stress: Listening to music
Music he’s listening to now: Top 40 hits
Advice he’d give his younger self: Keep digging, keep hustling. You’re gonna get there one day.