Team Penske allowed RACER's Jeff Olson inside access to its attempt to win a fourth Indianapolis 500 with Helio Castroneves, letting him watch from Castroneves' pit and eavesdrop on radio conversations. -Ed.
It's clear long before the ceremonies begin that this day will be beyond hot. It's going to be brutal. By the time the race has ended, the mercury has topped out at 96 degrees, 1,500 fans have been treated for heat-related illnesses, and the 94th version of the Indianapolis 500 is being called the hottest on record.
Around the No. 3 Team Penske car before the race, though, the mood is light and confident. Helio Castroneves talks with people milling about the car on the grid before the call to get in the car. Roger Penske is with him, as is Tim Cindric, Penske Racing president and Castroneves' strategist. If there are nerves, there is no sign of them. Penske's team has won this race a record 15 times, including five times since returning to the race in 2001 after a seven-year absence.
Back in the Penske pits, black-clad team members begin to stir as the pre-race ceremonies continue. Clive Howell, Team Penske general manager and the strategist on Will Power's car, sits quietly, head bowed, during the invocation. Jim Nabors begins singing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and Penske public relations director Merrill Cain is asked if he knows the lyrics. “Yes,” he grins, “and I can even rap them for you if you'd like.”
The call to start engines leads to a wave of activity in the three Penske pits. Cindric takes his position on the stand, with Aaron Yeager, the team's DAG (data acquisition guy) to his right and engineer Ron Ruzewski in the other front seat. They'll man the monitors and suggest any changes to the car during the race; Cindric will map out the strategy and be the voice in Castroneves' ears.
As the cars are fired and leave the grid, the tension begins to mount. Castroneves has won the race three times. Only three other drivers have won it four times. He's been fastest during practices leading up to the race, won the pole position rather handily, and is considered the primary favorite, although Power and Franchitti look equally strong.
During the parade lap, Cindric gives Castroneves a pre-start calm-down. “Don't worry about anyone else,” he says. “You're the leader. You control the start. Now give everybody a wave this time around.”
On the start, Franchitti makes a bold move around the outside of both Penske cars and has the lead on the exit of Turn 2. As the field follows, Davey Hamilton crashes. The radio is silent. No panic, no worry. It's only the start. Little is said on either end, even after Power passes Castroneves for second on the second restart of the race, on lap 12.
Two laps later, Cindric warns Castroneves of litter on the track. “There's a garbage bag floating around on the front straight,” he says. “Stay to the outside.”
Castroneves is not a big talker on the radio. Only on a few occasions does he transmit, and then it's usually basic. Understeer here, occasional question about strategy there, but never much wasted air. Cindric does most of the talking, and often he doesn't get a response from his driver.
Midway through the race, Castroneves is second behind Franchitti during a caution period. He pits with the leaders, but Tomas Scheckter stays out and assumes the lead. As Castroneves returns to the track, now third behind Scheckter and Franchitti, Cindric updates him:
“Put the weight jackers and bars where you want them. The leader will be Scheckter. He pitted a couple of laps before the yellow. One finger next time, Helio. One finger.”
Again, little is said. The restart is uneventful, but Castroneves continues to fight understeer and starts to fade. Then, on lap 145, Castroneves stalls the car in the pits. Only once before in his career has he bogged out while trying to leave the pit. Nothing is said over the radio. Two laps later, Briscoe crashes on the exit of Turn 4 and skitters down the front straight. Castroneves is on the radio talking about his car's condition. He's now 15th.“In 3 and 4 it's better, but in 1 and 2 there's a lot of understeer,” he says.
Cindric responds. “We're thinking more wing might help.”
Castroneves finally addresses the stall. “I don't believe it,” he says. “I don't believe it.”
Cindric is quick to respond. “We don't quit. We don't quit.”
The team pits again on lap 151, topping off and adding wing. As he leaves, Cindric tells Castroneves to conserve. “Save me some fuel,” he says. “Take care of those tires.”
A lap later, still idling under yellow while clean-up continues from Briscoe's crash, Castroneves comes on the radio. “Somebody want to tell me what the plan is here?” he says, sounding irritated.
“I'm working on it, dude,” Cindric responds. “I'm working on it.”
Three laps later, still under caution, Cindric orders Castroneves to the pits again. “Catch up to the field,” Cindric says as Castroneves burns out.
The race resumes with Castroneves far behind, but, with a full tank, he'll be able to stay out longer than the leaders. On lap 160, Sebastian Saavedra crashes. “Stay out there,” Cindric says. “Save some fuel.”
As the cars tiptoe around Saavedra's crash damage in the chute between Turns 1 and 2, spotter Rick Rinaman comes on the frequency. “Stay right, Helio,” he says.
Castroneves responds. “Why do I do that?”
“There's a piece of carbon down there,” the spotter says.
Cindric comes on. “Just do what you can to save your tires,” he says.
The plan works, as Castroneves eventually finds himself back up to third again, but he won't make it to the end of the race without a long caution period. During another caution, Castroneves' voice can be heard. “Yo, what's the plan, man?” Cindric answers: “I'll tell you on the front straight.”
When the No. 3 car comes around again, Cindric lays it out. They need two more yellows, or possibly one very long yellow, to make it to the end without refueling. They're third right now, with Franchitti in fifth. “Save fuel under green and hopefully keep your track position,” Cindric says.
Castroneves responds: “Do not use overtake, is that correct?”
Cindric: “Not right now. Not right now.”
After a few minutes of silence, Cindric comes back on. “Stay in front of Franchitti no matter what,” he says. “If he gets close, use your overtake. Use your overtake on the start if he gets close. Otherwise, don't use it.”
Then, in response to an unusual number of black flags for blocking during the race, Cindric says, “Make sure we don't block. Make sure we don't block.”
The strategy never plays out, as Castroneves is forced to pit for fuel in the waning laps and eventually settles for a ninth-place finish. Mike Conway's frightening crash happens directly in front of Castroneves, and he has to take an evasive left-right pull on the wheel to miss flying debris. It could have been a podium finish, but ninth in the Indy 500 isn't complete disaster. He's still in the middle of the championship – fourth now, just 28 points behind Power, still the leader – but, as Castroneves rolls to a stop in the pit, he's upset with himself for the stall.
“I'm so sorry, guys,” he tells his crew members over the radio. “That was just terrible.”
As he unbuckles, the men in black slap their driver on the back and offer hugs of condolence.
Cindric comes back on the radio. “We're a team, Helio. We're a team.”