GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Blog by Race Chaser Online Open Wheel Correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Bret Kelley photo — Drivers are fueled by emotion. Racing is a passionate sport, one driven by personal pride and the refusal to lose.
But just as in other sporting disciplines, there can only be one winner, and the harsh reality of losing is a universal emotion that stings no one harder than the loser himself.
At the end of a season, the refrain “there’s always next year” echoes through fans, media, and even the runners-up themselves. But what if next year never comes?
As recent as the 1970s, fatal accidents in open wheel racing used to give that question a much grimmer tone than in modern times, especially considering the myriad advances in safety. However, for aging drivers, that question means something different.
Aggressive Aussie Will Power currently leads the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings heading into the final trio of races beginning this Sunday with the ABC Supply Company Wisconsin 250 at the Milwaukee Mile, but he’s not the only championship hopeful who has come up short three times in the past. Although it’s hard to believe, Power’s teammate in the Penske stable is looking for his first career title as well.
Helio Castroneves has won almost everything there is to win in American open wheel racing—28 victories in CART and IndyCar, three Indianapolis 500 victories (and 0.0600 seconds away from a fourth in May), and even a victory in the fifth season of Dancing with the Stars. Yet, a series championship has continued to elude him, including second place finishes in 2002, 2008, and 2013. This time around, he enters the sprint to the season finale in Fontana sitting in second again.
Power is still in the prime of his career. Even if he finishes just shy of a championship once more, he’ll likely have close to a decade left to make his mark on the series record books. Castroneves may not have that luxury.
Helio Castroneves is almost 40.
Technically, he doesn’t turn 40 until May of 2015, but that’s only a handful of races from now. Sure, to the Indy diehards that have packed the stands for years and reminisce about the good ‘ol days before “The Split,” 40 is young. And with one of the most packed portfolios in IndyCar, Castroneves is certainly no Andy Stitzer—he’s been around the racing block since 1998 and is in his 15th year with the Team Penske powerhouse. Still, drivers spend the year relentlessly training and traveling, and both open-wheel racing and Father Time haven’t always kind to older competitors.
The landscape of the sport is constantly changing, and although some examples of older champions exist, so much is different from year to year and decade to decade that there is no precedent that snugly fits a case like Castroneves in 2014 and beyond.
In 1958, Indiana racing family patriarch Tony Bettenhausen won the USAC National Championship at 42, becoming the first man to win the title without actually winning a race. Although his season somewhat mirrors the Brazilian’s consistent but lone win campaign this year, Castroneves was over a decade away from being born and Parnelli Jones hadn’t even broken the 150mph barrier at Indianapolis, so the two eras are not comparable.
In the 1970s, seasoned veterans clinched the crown while in their 40s. Following a hugely successful career in motorcycle racing, Joe Leonard shifted his focus to USAC and won back to back championships in 1971 and 1972, the latter coming at 40 years old. His legacy on two and four wheels comprise a long list of memories in his hall of fame career, but a crash at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1974 jeopardized his health and led to a failed USAC physical one year later.
Gordon Johncock was 40 when he finally broke through to claim his first and only championship in 1976, and “Gordy” earned the second of his two Indianapolis 500 victories in 1982 when he was 45. Johncock isn’t the oldest Indy 500 champion, however.
A few drivers raced for longer, but none can match the age-defying feats of Al Unser Sr. “Big Al’s” legacy has little to do with age and more to do with other numbers—specifically, his four Indy 500 wins, a mark equaled only by AJ Foyt and Rick Mears. Also impressive was his longevity in open wheel, highlighted by a 1985 championship at age 46, and his victory at IMS in 1987 a week shy of his 48th birthday that set the record for the oldest winner in Indy 500 history.
Others have seen success after 40 too. The legendary AJ Foyt was 44 when he claimed the USAC crown in 1979, Johnny Rutherford was 42 when he succeeded Foyt as champion in 1980, and Formula One turned IndyCar superstars Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell claimed their titles at ages 42 and 40 in 1989 and 1993, respectively.
Mansell shockingly left F1 after winning the world championship in 1992 with nine victories in 16 Grands Prix with Williams, turning to Newman/Haas Racing in CART and claiming five wins en route to the championship stateside despite breaking his back in a crash at Phoenix. However, since Mansell’s triumph 21 year ago, open-wheel competition in both the IRL/IndyCar and CART/Champ Car has been largely dominated by drivers several years younger.
Dario Franchitti won his fourth and final championship in 2011 when he was 38, his third straight title securing season, but his career was cut short due to an airborne crash at Houston last fall, also snipping what would have been our best parameter to gauge how successful aging drivers can be in modern open wheel racing.
The most obvious change in racing over the years is the increase in speed. As the cars got faster, more fans flocked to see the action in person and on television, leading to more rounds in a season and greatly increasing the physical rigors on drivers. Top speeds at Indianapolis in the DW12 reach above 220mph and each driver is subjected to 4Gs of force while cornering over the course of 200 laps. Although the road and street circuits require less speed, different challenges are at play, especially with the inclusion of the tiring doubleheader race weekends that appeared three times on the 2014 calendar.
However, as the cars have evolved and the demands of driving have changed, so too has athlete fitness. Before tobacco sponsorship was forced to disappear from the racing scene, cigarette logos emblazoned many machines. It wasn’t uncommon to see notable competitors like F1 champion James Hunt or three time American open wheel champion Bobby Rahal chain smoking cigarettes as they moved about the paddock on race weekends. Rahal quit once he realized the negative effect of tobacco on his cardio, and other drivers followed suit. Once an expected sight and part of the racer stereotype, it’s now rare to see drivers let anything unhealthy anywhere near their bodies.
Despite checking in at 39, Helio Castroneves is still one of the most finely sculpted specimens in IndyCar. As many wives and girlfriends of fans have surely noticed, he’s quite adept at filling out a fire suit at the track, and if you picked up a copy of ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue in 2011 then you’ve seen…well, just about everything else. In modern IndyCar, the drivers are as finely tuned as the cars they drive, which can do wonders to increase longevity behind the wheel.
What does this history mean? Quite frankly, it means very little. Although these examples serve as great discussion points, none truly align with the circumstances that lie ahead for Castroneves, who sits just four points behind Will Power with a first championship within reach. If anything, they show that the feat can be done, and that any debate regarding aging is overblown for the time being.
In football, one famous old guy in Oakland once said “just win, baby.” Certainly, Helio Castroneves can’t be considered old yet, but within the next few years, he will eventually have to start answering questions about his age.
That line of questioning will be a lot easier to face if he’s already a champion.