• Helio Castroneves

Racing Roundup: Indy 500 triggers memories of 1996 

Castroneves wins fastest Indy 500 in history plus other observations

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald May 31, 2021

Two days ago, on Saturday night, 65-year-old Joe Gosek strapped himself into a fire-breathing, methanol-inhaling, ground-shaking rocket of an oval-track racing car and finished fourth in the 2020 Budweiser International Classic for supermodified racing cars at Oswego (N.Y.) Speedway, a race that had been held over since last Labour Day weekend because of COVID-19.

Sunday, a little more than 12 hours later, Gosek and wife Vicky and their two daughters sat down in front of the TV to watch the 105th Indianapolis 500 and to reminisce about 25 years ago when the supermodified ace qualified for his one and only 500 after the upstarty Indy Racing League declared all-out war against the established CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) sanctioning body.

Before we go back a quarter of a century, however, the race Joe and Vicky, et al, watched Sunday was one for the ages. Winner Helio Castroneves joined the exclusive club of drivers who’ve won Indy four times. He passed second-place race finisher Alex Palou on the high side going into Turn One of the last lap and held on for the victory. Simon Pagenaud came out of nowhere to finish third.

And here’s the good stuff: the race was the fastest in Indianapolis 500 history – 190.690 miles an hour average. The race was only slowed twice by cautions for 18 laps, a race-record low. And just 1.2424 seconds separated the top five – Pato O’Ward was fourth and Ed Carpenter fifth – at the checkers.

Castroneves is one of racing’s great entertainers and his post-race celebration thrilled the crowd of 135,000 fans who watched under sunny skies and a temperature of 18. In his famous “Spiderman” tradition, he climbed the front-stretch fence along with his crew and one of the team’s owners, Michael Shank. Many of the drivers and members of other crews ran to congratulate him, with 1969 winner Mario Andretti kissing him on the forehead.

“This stage is absolutely incredible,” Castroneves said. “I love Indianapolis. The fans, they give me energy! I’m serious.”

Things were a little different back in 1996, Gosek told me during a post-500 interview Sunday. “I could write a book about what went on there that year,” he said. “That aside, I remember the incredible speed, of going wide open during qualifying. It’s just something to think about every year when Indy’s on.

“It’s just so different now; it’s so sophisticated compared to the way it was.”

There’s no doubt that Gosek had the credentials to take a crack at Indy cars. He’d won many supermodified races and championships over the course of his career and those cars are second in speed only to the Indy cars when turned loose on an oval-track speedway. In fact, Gosek once had his “super” at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina the same day several of the NASCAR Cup teams were there testing and his speed left their stock cars in his dust.

When the IRL was formed and founder Tony George made it clear he wanted to create opportunities for American-born drivers to race at Indianapolis, Gosek struck a deal with retired racer Bill Tempero to drive one of his cars. He drove the Lola-Buick during rookie orientation, and he passed his driver’s test that would allow him to make a qualifying attempt. But then came a surprise.

“One of the mechanics came to me and told me that, ‘I want you to know that you have to get out of this car. It’s unsafe; the chassis was broken and wasn’t repaired correctly; the repair papers are questionable.’ He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I can’t put you in this car anymore.’ He said it was a dangerous car and he wouldn’t let me drive it.”

Gosek didn’t talk about it during our conversation but 1996 was an unsafe year at the Speedway generally. Scott Brayton, who’d won the pole on the opening day of time trials, had been killed several days later while practicing. And Billy Boat, who’d already qualified a car for A.J. Foyt Racing, had been badly injured while trying to get a car up to speed in case his premier mount was bumped out of the field and he’d had to make another attempt. Another driver, Dan Drinan, was also injured badly enough to require surgery so there was a sense of unease around the Speedway.

“Tempero was excited because I’d used his car to get through the rookie program,” Gosek said. “Now you can go qualify it,” he’d said. “But I said no, I wasn’t going to drive the car anymore. It wasn’t safe. Besides, I could never get the car going faster than 215 and we needed 220 to get our guaranteed spot (George had “reserved” 24 starting spots for IRL regulars).”

Gosek went to see Johnny Rutherford, the Indianapolis 500 legend who’d won the Big Race three times and the CART championship once and had sided with George because his background was midget and sprint cars on pavement and dirt. Between Rutherford and some others associated with the U.S. Auto Club (USAC), he was eventually sent to Team Scandia, which was looking for a driver.

Although he had to bump his way in, Gosek was able to turn four laps of the famous race track that were almost identical (“they told me to put my left foot on top of my right foot and don’t lift”) and gave him a four-lap average of just over 222 mph, good enough for 31st on the starting grid. While qualifying was one thing, the race itself was another.

In the race, in which he eventually finished 22nd, Gosek had a myriad of problems. Remember, the IRL didn’t have their own cars and motors designed and built until 1997 and so were competing with ancient CART cars that the owners just wanted to unload. The Scandia car was a step up, however, because the Lola was in fairly good shape and there was a Cosworth engine in it.

Helio Castroneves

“The first thing that went wrong, though, was when I lost the turbo boost,” Gosek said. “I was going about 220 when I lost 3,000 rpm and the best I could do after that was barely above 200 mph. You really know you’re in trouble when you have Arie Luyendyk going past you at 230. And then I’d be going along and somebody would come up behind me and I could feel the surge as my car would pick up speed and then they’d pass me and pull in front and drag me along and I’m going ‘Holy sh—” because I’d never really experienced that before. So I didn’t get to race with too many people.

“But I do remember that Scott Harrington had gone down into the grass and I’d gone to hit the brakes and I realized really quickly that at that speed you can’t slow those things down. You come to the realization that you are really travelling around that place.

“But anyway, after that my butt started getting hot and something started leaking and I was getting water up my back and so I parked it. I did 109 laps, though. Not too shabby, all things considered.

“And at the end of the day, it worked out. I mean, how many guys have qualified there. At that time, I was one of something like 770 drivers who had qualified for the Indy 500. Vicky and I watch the race today and we talk about being out there (in Indianapolis) and I had my pal Smitty (the late driver Bob Smith) with me and he was my bodyguard because guys were trying to steal your ride and he had my back. As I said, I could write a book.”

On the morning of that race, the 80th renewal, ABC announcer Jack Arute interviewed Gosek shortly before the start and told him (and the TV audience) that no driver in the history of that race had attracted as much attention as he had. No driver, said Arute, had received more phone calls, faxes or fan mail to the Speedway than Joe Gosek.

And how did it make him feel?

“I figured that people had watched me race once, or 50 times, back here in the east or traveling, Canada, places like that, and so I had a pretty good reputation. And I’d go into the Speedway office and they’d say, ‘Holy cow, the phone’s ringing off the hook, people wanting to know how you’re doing.’

“Marco Grego, Stephane Gregoire, Eliseo Salazar – they were all in that race. And when it comes down to American race fans and who they can relate to, it’s an American-born guy, right?”


Helio Castroneves


Castroneves joined A.J. Foyt (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977), Al Unser (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987) and Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991) as four-time winners. The native of Brazil, who’s lived for years on Key Biscayne, Fla., previously won the big race in 2001, 2002 and 2009, all as a full-time driver with Team Penske.

But this time was different. Castroneves drove the No. 06 AutoNation/Sirius XM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing to the team’s first Indy win and first NTT IndyCar Series victory. And, at age 46, he also became the fourth-oldest winner of the 500.

This was his first IndyCar start of the season and he’s only going to drive in a few more.

“It’s not the end; it’s the beginning,” Castroneves said in Victory Lane. “I don’t know if it’s a good comparison, but Tom Brady won a Super Bowl, Phil (Mickelson) won the PGA, and now here you go. The old guys still got it, kicking the young guys’ butts. We’re teaching them a lesson.” . . . .

Roger Penske, whose racing team has won more Indy 500s than any other, is now the owner of both the Speedway and the racing series. In 2018, he dropped Castroneves from his IndyCar team to make way for younger blood. He had him drive two seasons for his Acura sports car team in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and provided him with a car in ‘18 and ‘19 to run the 500. When that deal ended, Castroneves signed to drive for the Mike Shank organization and won the 500 Sunday.

When Penske bumped into Castroneves in Victory Lane, he did not smile at the new champion. In fact, Penske looked like he’d been sucking on a lemon. In contrast, Penske Racing President Tim Cindric and drivers Simon Pagenaud and Will Power sought him out to say congratulations.

A year ago, NBC employed Danica Patrick as co-host of its Indy 500 telecast and – let’s put it this way – she could have done better. Frowned a lot. Didn’t seem to be having a good time. This year, she looked completely different. Relaxed, funny, polished. Seemed to be  enjoying herself. Nice to see her out there. (Of course, last year, as it turned out, she was in the midst of breaking up with Aaron Rogers, which might have had something to do with her mood.) . . . .

Okay, I know the modern-day rules of the Indy 500 allow amateurs to get into a race car and qualify it – if they can.

One upon a time, when the U.S. Auto Club was in charge of the 500, they had no problem at all telling young or inexperienced drivers to go away and learn how to drive a race car. Not any more. If you can come up with the big bucks, they let you have a shot.

Stefan Wilson has an impressive resume – recorded when he was younger. But now he drives one race a year – sometimes. Before yesterday, he’d driven in a total of three IndyCar races since 2013, all Indy 500s. That is like letting a guy who gets hot for one round play in the Masters. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So fairly early in the race, he flies into the pits for a stop and he’s going too fast and he downshifts and the rear-end seizes up and he spins into the wall, blocking pit lane. Two drivers, Scott Dixon and Alexandre Rossi, are forced to stay out and when they are allowed to make an emergency stop for fuel, they run dry and it ruins their race.

Thanks Stefan.

IndyCar has to take a serious look at who they allow to drive in the Indianapolis 500. Yes, two other drivers – Simona de Silvestro and Power – also spun in pit lane but they were experienced enough to keep their cars off the wall. . . .

Alexandre Rossi is a guy who is clearly unhappy and will be looking for a new ride and fresh start in 2022. You don’t have to even read between the lines of his quote to catch his drift. He ran as high as sixth before a vapor lock stalled the car at the first stop, putting him a lap down (when both he and Dixon ran out of fuel after Stefan Wilson crashed in pit lane).

“Nothing at all went our way. Couldn’t catch a break with anything. Just driving around waiting for some luck. Congrats to Honda for another 500 win and to our friends at AutoNation.”

They are very fortunate that they didn’t have a mighty pileup at the start of Sunday’s Indy 500. This is how it’s supposed to be at the start.

The cars have a pushoff lap to warm up the tires, etc. Halfway through the second go-round, they form up in 11 rows of three so that they complete the lap on parade in front of the massive crowd along the main straight. At that point, the pace car is supposed to pick up the pace to get the field moving at 125 miles an hour (while still lined up in the 11 rows of three) and then pull away and head for the pits so that the pole sitter can hold that 125 mph speed and accelerate away when the green flag flies.

So that is what’s called the pace lap. Ergo, you have the pushoff lap, the parade lap, the pace lap and the start. Doesn’t sound particularly difficult, does it? Except that on Sunday, they didn’t start to form the 11 rows of three until they were on the backstretch of the third lap (the pace lap) and when Scott Dixon led the field out of Turn Four at 125 mph most of the cars at the back hadn’t bothered to line up properly and were on it (as the late PA announcer Tom Carnegie would put it) and some of them very nearly rear-ended the cars in front that were playing by the rules.

One of these days, Alice. . . . .

The Speedway had permission to allow 135,000 to attend the race. The Washington Post, in its post-race bulletin, cited that number as being a pandemic record crowd. I’ll be honest: it sure seemed like more than 135,000. Just like there seemed to be more than 2,500 fans at the Toronto-Montreal hockey game on Saturday night. . . . .


This is from the Associated Press:

Hendrick Motorsports now has the most Cup Series wins of any team in NASCAR history. Kyle Larson got the team’s 269th win on Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600 to break a tie with Petty Enterprises atop the NASCAR Cup Series win list. Hendrick tied Petty the week before when Chase Elliott won the rain-shortened race at the Circuit of the Americas. For full story, please click here

Norris McDonald  /  Special to Wheels.ca