Spider Man Climbs Again
May 26, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Helio Castroneves became the first back-to-back winner of the Indianapolis 500 since Al Unser Sr. in 1970-71 with a controversial victory in Sunday’s 86th running of the Memorial Day weekend classic. Castroneves took the checkered flag under caution as his Marlboro Team Penske machine was about to run out of fuel.
Laurent Redon and Buddy Lazier crashed in Turn 3 on Lap 198, bringing out the yellow, just before second-place Paul Tracy passed Castroneves for the lead. But with Castroneves scored as the official race leader before the caution was displayed, the defending 500 winner was able to maintain the top spot as the field paraded under yellow to the checkered flag.
“This is unbelievable,” an emotional Castroneves said in victory lane following his trademark climb of the main straight fence. “To win this race twice is more than a dream come true; it is truly unreal and an honor. This team is terrific, and I can’t believe we did it again!”
Castroneves wouldn’t have even been in position to challenge for the win if not for the somewhat risky fuel strategy employed by his team. They stretched their last fuel stop 43 laps and 107 miles.
“There was .4 left on the fuel meter, which is good for about a half of lap of green flag racing,” Marlboro Team Penske team manager Tim Cidric said. “But we knew we weren’t going to win with the car we had and where we were, so we just felt if it’s going to be your day it’s going to be your day, so we took a gamble.”
The win was the 12th career Indianapolis 500 triumph for legendary team owner Roger Penske, who took his two-car team of Castroneves and Gil de Ferran full-time to the Indy Racing League this season after being a charter member of the rival CART series.
“Helio did a great job utilizing the strategy we had for him and it was a terrific drive,” Penske said.
Tracy, Felipe Giaffone, rookie Alex Barron and Eddie Cheever rounded out the Top 5. Tracy and team owner Barry Green initially felt they had the lead over Castroneves when the final yellow came out and filed a protest. But after television replays confirmed the officials’ call of Castroneves’ lead, both somewhat backed down from their position.
“I thought I had passed around the outside in Turn 3, but they said it was under yellow,” Tracy said. “We had a good car today, and even though it wasn’t the best in traffic, I was able to pass when I needed at the end.
It wasn’t a good day to be a leader for much of the race as trouble plagued several drivers who were in the top spot. Pole-winner Bruno Junqueira was the first to encounter bad luck when a bungle on his first pit stop cost him several extra seconds and dropped him from the lead to 22nd place.
Junqueira then figured into the trouble that hit the next race leader, Tony Kanaan. When the engine in Junqueira’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing entry blew, Kanaan had the misfortune of sliding through some of the oil layed down on the track and crashed into the Turn 3 wall.
“We had a fantastic car, and this is very disappointing,” said a dejected Kanaan, who started from the fifth position. “It’s just one of those things.”
Tomas Scheckter was the next leader to fall. The rookie crashed hard into the fourth turn SAFER barrier while leading with only 22 laps to go.
“The car just carried up high through the turn, and by the time I was able to control it, it was too late and I was into the wall,” Scheckter said.
Several other possible contenders also encountered trouble Sunday. Greg Ray had the dubious distinction of being the first driver out of the race when he crashed his A.J. Foyt Racing/Harrah’s entry. Defending IRL champion Sam Hornish lost his chance to contend for victory when he brushed the outside wall and damaged the suspension on his Pennzoil Panther Racing machine. And CART regular Jimmy Vasser was knocked out of the race with gearbox problems before the midway point.
In all the race was slowed by five caution flags for a total of 41 laps with the average speed 166.059 mph. There were ten different leaders and twenty lead changes during the competitive race.