INDY 500: Dario and Helio Racing To Join The “Four-Timers Club”

Joel Sebastianelli Featured, Sprints & Midgets, Uncategorized 0 Comments

 

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an institution built upon tradition and legend. Spanning the course of over 100 years since the first Indianapolis 500 was run and won by Ray Harroun in 1911, “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” has transformed the lives and legacies of the men and women who compete.

Within the walls of the raceway’s hallowed ground, the sport’s bravest drivers have risked their lives for eternal sporting glory, knowing well that the ultimate price to be paid, serious injury or even death was a realistic risk but one they were willing to take.

Although increased safety measures have dramatically changed the landscape of auto racing, a victory at the Indianapolis 500 still earns the winner more than a sweet sip of milk and an orchid wreath—it grants the winner immortality in the racing world, leaving behind a story of triumph to be told long after his days behind the wheel have passed.

While the list of Indy 500 winners is elusive enough, the fraternity of four time race winners is exclusive and marks a set of achievements that define one’s career. Only three drivers: A.J. Foyt (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977), Al Unser Sr. (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987), and Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991) have led the field to the yard of bricks on four occasions.

After Mears fended off Michael Andretti to complete the milestone four-peat, nobody but Unser and Foyt in the 1992 race lineup (who still competed in the race though their primes had passed) had even won the race twice. As the ensuing years passed, open wheel racing struggled to find the star power, ability, and marketability for its drivers, leaving some to wonder whether the feat of four wins could ever be topped.

Two decades later, enter the charismatic champions Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti, each seeking the status of all-time greatness at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a record tying fourth triumph hanging in the balance.

The Brazilian and Scotsman have co-led an era of IndyCar Series racing that has fallen into the shadow of hard times. Yet their accomplishment of three Indianapolis 500 wins apiece (all within eleven years of each other) holds the same historical value and significance to a race that continues to serve as the crown jewel for racers across the globe.

Although yet another victory and the distinction of becoming the first foreign member of the four-timers club looms within reach for both Castroneves and Franchitti, the pressure associated with such a challenge hardly seems to be rattling either driver.

“To kind of tempt fate a little bit, and say what it would mean and what it would feel like and all that stuff, is kind of wasted energy right now,” the defending race champion Franchitti told the media, keeping the same calm yet confident poise that has become a signature of the Scot’s personality.

Helio Castroneves, who last kissed the bricks in 2009 after back to back wins in 2001 and 2002 with Team Penske, believes that a historic win for either man could provide a jolt to the series and its fan base, many of whom never experienced the privilege of witnessing the exploits of Foyt, Unser, or Mears at the top of their game.  

“What an incredible opportunity for the fans to have not only one but two guys trying to make history,” Castroneves said on tour while promoting the race with Franchitti during the week. “Forget about the names, forget about who it is. But imagine people who didn’t even see the last time when the guy won four times.”

The popular Brazilian will roll off the grid eighth in his Chevrolet on Sunday afternoon, while Franchitti will pilot his Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda mired in the middle of the field for the second straight year, qualifying 17th alongside his teammate Scott Dixon in the center of row six.

Franchitti started 16th in 2012, but climbed to the front and led 23 laps en route to victory, staving off a charging Takuma Sato and teammate Scott Dixon to win his third Indy 500.

Aside from Castroneves and Franchitti, only five drivers have ever won the Indianapolis 500 three times. Louis Mayer, Wilbur Shaw, and Mauri Rose all triumphed prior to 1950, while Johnny Rutheford and Bobby Unser won their three traversing the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Although the sentimentality and athletic achievement of winning the race multiple times has not faded, cynics will surely point towards asterisks they’ve penciled next to Castroneves’ and Franchitti’s wins.

Castroneves won the race for the first time in 2001, but did so as a crossover from CART. The open wheel split in 1996 saw competition in the Indy Racing League and at the 500 diminished greatly, with only three previous winners in the field of 33 and most of the stars competing outside of the IRL that season.

In 2002, Castroneves and Team Penske transitioned to the IRL full time, but his win under yellow in the 86th running of the race remains one of the most controversial in Indy history. As Buddy Lazier and Laurent Rédon came together in turn two to bring out the yellow flag in the closing laps, Castroneves and Paul Tracy were side by side battling for the lead.

When the caution light was turned on, Castroneves backed off, and replays are indecisive in determining who was actually leading at the time of the caution. The race never got back underway, and Tracy’s excitement at winning the race was short-lived.  Conspiracy theorists claim the IRL did not want to suffer the embarrassment of another CART winner so they gave the win to the Brazilian.

For Dario Franchitti, all three of his race victories have come under the stigma of the yellow flag. Franchitti’s breakthrough performance came in 2007, a race shortened after 166 laps due to rain and a Marco Andretti flip in the waning moments, saving Franchitti the struggle of fending off second place Scott Dixon and third place Castroneves on the restart.

Dario’s other wins at Indianapolis ended under yellow too, although his 155 laps led in 2010 and fierce battle to the final lap in 2012 left little room for debate as to the legitimacy of his successes.

Controversy and auto racing go hand in hand, but regardless of dissenting opinions on the achievements of Castroneves and Franchitti, the possibility of a fourth win is made even more remarkable based on the era in which they did it.

While open wheel racing no longer exists as the primary form of racing in America and the importance of the Indianapolis 500 has faded amongst the newest generation, the parity in the modern era is undeniable and incomparable.

In the early days of the Indy 500 it was common for no more than five cars to finish on the lead lap. In 1967, the third of A.J. Foyt’s race wins, Foyt was the only car on the lead lap, winning the event by two laps over Al Unser Sr. and the rest of the field.

Rick Mears and Michael Andretti were the only cars on the lead lap in 1991, the last of Mears’ wins at The Brickyard. Compare those staggering figures to last year, when 16 cars finished on the lead lap and nearly all were capable of winning, with ten drivers leading at least one lap during the 96th running of the race.

With 2012 setting the record for lead changes in an Indy 500 and the 2013 Izod IndyCar Series season starting with some of the most entertaining street races in the history of the series, it’s clear the fierce competition and breathtaking wheel-to-wheel excitement are back and strong as ever.

As the 97th Indianapolis 500 nears the green flag, all eyes will be firmly planted on the present, but if Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti have any say, Sunday afternoon may become a day planted in the memories and accomplishments of the past.

PHOTO: Forrest Mellott / IndyCar.com

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