Unser Sr. happily welcomes Helio into an elite club

Retired race car driver Al Unser hugs the Borg-Warner Trophy while waiting for other four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500 auto race to arrive for a photo session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Winner of this year’s Indy 500, Helio Castroneves, gathered with four-time winners – A.J. Foyt (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977), Unser (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987) and Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991) at the track. Castroneves won the race in 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2021. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

INDIANAPOLIS – Helio Castroneves is taking his sweet time getting his mind around the spoils of winning his fourth Indianapolis 500.

Such as pouring red-hot liquid bronze into a mold for two bricks chiseled with his name, one of which will be placed on hallowed ground: the Yard of Bricks start/finish line of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Or the chance to talk and laugh with A.J. Foyt, Albuquerque native Al Unser and Rick Mears, the only other drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 four times.

For Castroneves, that carried special meaning beyond the brotherhood of racing.

The Brazilian driver’s fourth Indy 500 victory two months ago took 12 years to achieve, and the reality of being mentioned alongside the drivers he idolizes still has him pinching himself.

“Every time I’m with them, it blows my mind away,” said Castroneves, 46. “They helped me to set goals and I really pushed for it, and … I joined their club. I asked them if there is any membership fee or something like that. They said they will (add one) if I win five.”

It had been 30 years since the club added a member and that was Mears. He, Foyt and Unser happily welcomed Castroneves into the fold and The Associated Press was present for the event last week at the famed speedway.

The foursome chatted at a table in the pagoda before they flashed their Indy 500 rings and smiled during a group photo with the imposing Borg-Warner Trophy on the Brickyard.

Roger Penske, the motorsports titan who earned nearly half his record 18 Indy 500 wins with Unser, Mears and Castroneves in particular, also praised Castroneves even though win No. 4 came with Meyer Shank Racing a year after a long tenure with Team Penske.

“He’s part of the family,” the Captain said via an online feed.

Foyt, Mears and Unser reflected on their Indy conquests over dinner last week before Castroneves arrived. They continued reminiscing at the table, emphasizing that while they sometimes made it look easy during their careers it was never that way.

“Some days the race track smiles on you and some days, you got it the other way,” said Unser, 82. “It’s not always that you’re going to think you’re going to win because your chances are very slim. There’s 32 other guys who want it as bad as you do.”

Unser recently received his “Baby Borg” – an 18-inch replica of the Borg-Warner that lives onsite at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s museum, during a celebration in May with family and friends. He was set to be honored last year, the 50th anniversary of his 1970 win, but the event was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nonprofit Unser Racing Museum, which tells fans the story of the iconic Unser racing family, has reopened this month in Albuquerque following lifted restrictions in New Mexico. It is open daily from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

As for winning at Indy, having good cars certainly helped, but their wins all involved overcoming daunting challenges and a bit of luck.

Winner of this year’s Indianapolis 500 auto race, Helio Castroneves, right, gathered with other four-time winners, from left, A.J. Foyt (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977), Al Unser (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987) and Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Castroneves won the race in 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2021. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

Foyt was the first to four, winning in 1961, 1964, ’67 and ’77, building his own chassis for several of those victories. Unser (1970, 1971, 1978 and ’87) initially wasn’t on Penske’s Indy roster for the last one but took over for injured Danny Ongais – his replacement – and famously drove a March-Cosworth show car pulled from a Pennsylvania hotel lobby. Mario Andretti exited late and Roberto Guerrero’s car stalled in the pits, allowing “Big Al” to take over and lead the final 17 laps to tie Foyt.

Mears won in 1979, 1984, 1988 and ’91, with that final victory requiring passing Michael Andretti late on the outside after being passed on the previous lap on a restart before pulling away in a backup car.

Castroneves seemed on a fast track to four with Indy wins in 2001, 2002 and 2009, though his second win over Paul Tracy involved controversy and a lengthy postrace review. Overcoming his long gap between his third and fourth Indy wins demonstrated a doggedness that impressed Mears.

“I know when I won the fourth to get up here with two of my heroes, even though the number was the same, I was still not in their category,” said Mears, 69, Castroneves’ former mentor at Penske.

“So, to be able to be with them, it was incredible. And I’m pretty sure Helio feels very similar in that way. He’s worked hard for it and he did a hell of a job getting that fourth.”

Of course, Mears also warned his former protege that if he won a fifth Indy, he’d also be lonely as the only member of that club.

“The fee will triple if you win five,” Mears said.

Foyt, 86, suggested that today’s tech-laden open-wheeled machines could eventually produce a six- or seven-time winner. The need for an engineer to start the engine brought a colorful response from the no-nonsense Texan, who also noted that winning a 500 even once brings notoriety.

“Anybody that can win the race, it’s a great victory,” he said, “because the world knows if you won the Indy 500, it’s like the Kentucky Derby. You can have a bad horse, but if he won the Derby, the whole world knows it.”

The Journal contributed to this report.

 

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