How the Tom Brady effect took the Indy 500 by storm

Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing, Indy 500, IndyCar (Photo by JEFF DEAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing, Indy 500, IndyCar (Photo by JEFF DEAN/AFP via Getty Images) /

Win a ton with one team, make a late career switch to a new team after you’re effectively told you’re washed up, win in your first attempt with your new team; that story has been seen multiple times in 2021, and Helio Castroneves’s Indy 500 resurgence is a perfect example.

In every year of the 2010s decade during Memorial Day weekend, we heard all about how the Indy 500 had a chance to welcome a fourth member of the exclusive four-time winners’ club.

Only A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears had ever managed to win the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on four occasions, and Mears had become the most recent driver to do so when he won it for a fourth time in 1991.

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Helio Castroneves, who won the race in his first two attempts with Team Penske in 2001 and 2002, added a third win in 2009, setting himself up to potentially make history in 2010. Things started out well for him too, as he took a fourth pole position for the 94th running of the race that year.

However, 10 years later, the four-time winners’ club still had just three members.

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The 2020 Indy 500 marked Castroneves’s 20th start in the race, all with Team Penske.

Following his runner-up finish in 2017 and subsequent departure from Team Penske as a full-time driver after the season ended, he returned to Roger Penske’s organization but crashed in 2018, marking his first DNF in the race since 2006. In 2019, an incident in the pits ruined his race early on, as he could only manage to finish in 19th place. Then in 2020, he was a non-factor, finishing in 11th place after starting in 28th.

That race would be his 20th and final Indy 500 for Team Penske, and many believed that a full open-wheel retirement was on the horizon.

He was washed up, having not been competitive in the race he had been trying so hard to win for a fourth time for more than a decade.

But the 46-year-old Brazilian didn’t stop at 11 attempts to join Foyt, Unser and Mears.

He signed with Meyer Shank Racing, which only began competing full-time in the series in 2020 and had never won a race, to make attempt number 12 in the race’s 105th running this year.

The Andretti Autosport-affiliated team had never run two cars in a race before; this 200-lap race around the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in Speedway, Indiana would be the first.

To put this in even more perspective, Meyer Shank Racing entered the 2021 season having competed in 14 races as a full-time organization. Team Penske, on the other hand, entered the 2021 season with 18 Indy 500 victories.

But Castroneves, who did not compete in any of the 2021 season’s first five races leading up to the Indy 500, didn’t need anybody else to believe that he could do what he knew he was capable of doing: becoming a four-time Indy 500 champion, and becoming a four-time Indy 500 champion in a car owned by Mike Shank and Jim Meyer as opposed to Roger Penske.

He was solid all week in practice leading up to qualifying, and he advanced to the Fast Nine Shootout in his first qualifying attempt behind the wheel of the #06 Honda. He started the race in eighth place and ran inside the top five for most of it.

With two laps remaining, after having led 18 of the first 198 laps, Castroneves made an outside move on race leader Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing into turn one. Despite lap traffic quickly approaching up ahead, he held on to the lead and led the final two laps, winning the race by 0.4928 seconds ahead of Palou in his #10 Honda.

After 20 years with Team Penske and incredible success during that stint, a disappointing end ultimately led to him not retiring but making the move to a new team. And with that new team, he made history in his first attempt to do so.

Sound familiar?

Beyond all the “old guy” comparisons to Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson that Castroneves drew after tying Foyt, Unser and Mears, there is one comparison that simply can’t be ignored from what happened just 16 weeks prior.

And that comparison also involves Brady.

Call it the Tom Brady effect, and as quickly as it arrived in Tampa, it arrived in IndyCar and the Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What Castroneves pulled off is about as close of a thing as you’ll get to what Brady pulled off at Raymond James Stadium in early February, and this was the only time it could have happened.

Like Castroneves with Team Penske, Brady competed for the New England Patriots for 20 seasons after being drafted in 2000. He won a record six Super Bowl titles along the way.

But a disappointing 2019 season, which saw increasing tensions between Brady and the Patriots organization, led many to believe that he could hang it up.

Indeed, he didn’t return to New England in 2020. But instead of retiring, he made the move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that hadn’t been to the NFL playoffs since 2007.

There were always doubts that this move would lead to success for Brady and the Buccaneers. Would leaving a six-time Super Bowl champion organization for an unproven team that hadn’t had much time to gel — and at the age of 43, nonetheless — really pay off?

It paid off, and it also paid off in year one.

The Buccaneers, who started the season 7-5, won their final four regular season games and got into the playoffs as a Wild Card out of the NFC South division.

They then won three road games in the NFC playoffs and then crushed the AFC champion and reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, a team that had beaten them during the regular season, by a score of 31-9 in Super Bowl LV.

For two decades, the legacy of Brady had always been associated with the Patriots and nothing but the Patriots.

But he changed that as soon as he left and added to it with the Buccaneers.

For two decades, the legacy of Castroneves had always been associated with Team Penske and nothing but Team Penske.

But he changed that as soon as he left and added to it with Meyer Shank Racing.

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Now the big questions are this: will Brady win a record eighth Super Bowl title, and if so, how soon will it take for him to win another one with his new team? Will Castroneves win a record fifth Indy 500, and if so, how soon will it take for him to win another one with his new team?