It’s Brazilian Hélio’s day! A Cinderella Story at the Indy 500

Castroneves kiss the bricks in Indianapolis On a day that could never have been imagined the very foundation of Brazilian dominance in the crown jewel of formula Indy was weakened at the very moment the race began when Mario ‘the missile’ Moraes was taken out on the opening lap following contact with Marco Andretti. The upstart Moraes had surprised everyone with the speed he found for KV racing and qualified in the 7th starting position on the inside of row 3. Many, myself included, believed him to be a legitimate dark-horse to win. 

But for Moraes the heartbreak associated with these events was both lessened and magnified by matters of greater importance. His father is currently in a Texas hospital being treated for cancer.

An aunt and cousin were providing Moraes with familial support in Indianapolis and Mario doubtless wanted to perform well for his father. The KV racing crew-chief said to me “the thing about Mario that stands out is his personality. He’s just such a great young man.”

Earlier in the day Moraes was counseled by Bruno Junqueira, a former Indy 500 pole sitter who qualified but swapped out for Alex Tagliana after a miscalculation by team management cost Tagliani, the team’s primary driver, his opportunity to make the field. Moraes had been optimistic and in good spirits.

At one point Brazilians Tony Kanaan, Castroneves and Raphael Matos were running 3rd, 4th and 5th, it appeared fortunes would once more smile on the Brazilians at Indy after all. But the skies quickly darkened for another of the boys from Brazil when his car also wrecked.

A rear suspension failure sent Kanaan, the only man to have led in each of his first seven Indianapolis 500s, screaming into the outside wall. The right side of his car all but disintegrated and Tony was done for the day, without ever having moved to the front.

The yellow cautioned flag encouraged a timely pit-stop and when the field rolled in for tires and fuel it was discovered that debris from Tony’s car had become embedded in one of Hélio’s tires. Had he not pitted Castroneves might also have soon been eliminated.

For a time it once again appeared that the Brazilians would yet salvage what was becoming a disappointing day. Castroneves and Raphael Matos, and then Matos and Castroneves, were running 3rd and 4th behind Target Chip Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, winners of the last two Indianapolis 500s.

And Vitor Meira had moved to as high as 9th place from his row five 14th starting position. But Matos and Meira simultaneously had disastrous pit stops and found themselves well off the pace, generally running between 19th and 21st place.

Matos, who won the 200 Fastest Rookie award, began to move up the field, and in a short time he appeared to be mounting another run to the front. Castroneves took advantage of opportunity as it presented itself.

In addition to winning the pole position Castroneves had won the Friday before the race pit stop competition. The pit-stops that were taxing Matos and Meira were benefiting Castroneves, and he moved to the front.

A subsequent pit stop once again caused Matos to fall well off the pace. Meira, whose car seemed to have lost speed, didn’t fall back on this pit stop but could not improve his position. Meira and Matos were once again running nearly in tandem.

As the miles passed Castroneves began to look stronger and stronger, Meira continued to hold his own without finding the speed he needed to advance on the field, and Matos remained a question mark. Was Matos going to move back up the field, and would he be able to hold any gains he might make when it came time to pit once more?

Before an answer could become apparent Matos and Meira made contact and a spectacular crash ensued, damaging the wall seriously enough to warrant an immediate repair and spraying the entire first turn with debris.

Team Penske chief engineer Tim Cindric had been asking Hélio via radio to conserve fuel, but the extraordinary number of slower caution laps required to attend to Matos AND Meira, remove their cars and all the debris from the track and repair the wall made fuel consumption a mute issue. Only 20-25 laps remained, Hélio could finish out full-bore.

In his post race press conference offered Castroneves offered that he’d been taking it easy earlier in the race, pacing himself and waiting for what appeared to be the right moment. He apparently chose his moment well. Once he moved to the front it quickly became apparent how strong his car really was.

In her own post race press briefing Danica Patrick, who finished 3rd, was asked if once Hélio took the lead she thought she might catch him. “I don’t know’ she said “how fast he was going?” “Over 220” someone said. “Oh no!” she laughed “not if he was running 220. I was running 218 without ever taking my foot off the pedal.”

So the man whose dreams and career might have ended in a heartbeat only a few weeks before, the man who had earlier given Formula Indy a boost when it seemed to be on life support, the “spider-man” who fueled the imaginations of children and the Dancing with the Stars champion who captured the hearts of television viewers, had risen from the ashes.

Hélio the now three time champion of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing could hardly contain his emotions. At times he covered his face with his hands, at other times he shed a tear or two, and when he was composed it was apparent from his expression that time and events had nearly swallowed him up, but he prevailed.

Castroneves has joined the elite of the elite in Indycar open-wheel racing, courtesy of a Cinderella story that a Hollywood screenwriter would have had trouble scripting. He won the tri-fecta – the pole, the pit-stop competition and the race in the same year.

On a day when four out of five Brazilians who were each capable of winning this 93rd running at Indianapolis were taken out by accidents, an unforeseeable calamity, Hélio stepped up to the plate and all was, after all, right with the world again.

Indycar nation is grateful to have you back Hélio, Brazilophiles and open-wheel racing fans the world over are grateful. And as much as anything else we want to say congratulations, a more gracious champion we have rarely if ever seen. 

Phillip Wagner, a long-time contributor to Brazzil Magazine, has covered the 500 since 2001. He is the co-founder and director of Georgia based Rhythm of Hope in Brazil, www.rhythmofhope.org, which is actively seeking door support after recently gaining federal nonprofit status. Phillip maintains, and invites Brazzil readers to see, a chronicle of his work at http://rhythmofhope.spaces.live.com/ and, as of today, at http://braziliansattheindy500.spaces.live.com/, a new blog for “The Brazilians at Indy.”

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