Helio Castroneves won his third Indianapolis 500 in 2021.
If you read that and think there's an error in the sentence, let me explain. The 2002 Indy 500 was swirled in controversy at the end of the race. It's recorded in history as Castroneves' second Indy 500 victory, adding to his list of 2001 and eventually 2009 and 2021 to make him the fourth four-time champion of the historic race.
With a race that's now 20 years ago - and still during the era of the head-shaking IRL/CART split - it's a safe bet that there are plenty of racing and Indy 500 fans that don't even know about this controversy. That is, when Paul Tracy maintains he passed Castroneves in the closing laps just before the yellow track lights came on signifying a caution for a crash on another part of the track.
Watching the race footage, Tracy passes Castroneves, then we get a track-side angle of a crash on another part of the track, bringing out the caution flag. Since the crash happened on the last lap, the race would then finish under caution. Which is why you can hear Tracy ecstatic on his radio screaming "Yeah baby!" in celebration of what he thought was his first Indianapolis 500 victory.
But no sooner had viewers seen and heard that did broadcaster Paul Page inform us all that scoring would go back to the previous lap, meaning Castroneves would take the victory. Sure enough, Castroneves and his team did the traditional fence-climb while Tracy was left mystified as to how his pass didn't stick.
While Castroneves drank the celebratory milk, Tracy and Team Green weren't done with the outcome and looked into it further.
By July, the Team Green appeal was denied and the Castroneves victory held up for the final time. The decision rested with Tony George, president and CEO of the IRL at the time, and the man many racing fans still are upset with all these years later because of The Split. For my Minnesota hockey friends, think of Tony George in the same vein as the name Norm Green.
Anyway, the official decision for the 2002 race was 11 pages long and referenced the placement of the field following the incident on lap 199. It was called "a judgment call and is not protestable nor appealable under the Rule Book."
That's about what Tracy said years later when ABC aired a sit-down interview with Tracy and pit reporter Jack Arute, that the "appeal was not appealable," Tracy said at the time. And that was after Team Green spent about $150,000 in legal fees.
Basically, George confirmed the decision by IRL officials that it was the correct call to place Castroneves' car ahead of Tracy on that final lap after the caution period started, also indicating that there's a lot of evidence to support that. Tracy thinks otherwise, based on all the camera angles, and so do a lot of fans, no doubt.
But under Rule 11.2 of the 2002 Indy Racing League rules, such decisions about whether a car passed another during a yellow flag involving the judgment of race officials "may not be protested or appealed and the decision of the officials is final and binding."
So according to the official information, Castroneves was the one leading Tracy at the time that race control called for the yellow flag via radio. Team Green's side of things is that Tracy made the pass before the track lights turned yellow signaling the caution period. Team Penske, on the other hand, said Castroneves was ahead when the caution came and then immediately slowed when it came out.
When Castroneves won his "fourth" Indy 500 in 2021, there was much fanfare and celebrating on the front stretch as dozens of drivers, crew members, opposing crew members, and living legends like Mario Andretti congratulated Castroneves on joining the four-timers club. The cameras just followed him around for a while, basically.
But when the microphone for NBC finally made it to him, the emotional Castroneves even took the opportunity to take a good-natured shot at Tracy, who was part of the broadcast team at the time.
"P.T., P.T.! I know you've been talking about that second win, P.T. I'm sorry man, that was my win!"
It makes me wonder how much that 2002 finish was still talked about, or asked about, with Castroneves in the years since 2009 when he make his quest to win the race a fourth time. I'm sure it's never far from Tracy's mind every year, since he never did win the Indy 500, despite eight starts.
Basically, the decisions came down to some race politics. Who would the IRL want to win? A driver who's full-time in the IRL with the most successful team owner of all time in Roger Penske? Or a driver, Tracy, who's from the "rival/split" CART series that comes to race the Indy 500 as a one-off race?
Not that politics are anything new in racing. Watch the Senna documentary on the legendary and late Formula One driver to learn that tidbit. There were a few shady decisions made there by the president of the series at the time to try and screw over Senna, from Brazil, in favor of Alain Prost.
The 2002 Indy 500 and its finish will always be laced in controversy, whether anyone remembers it or not. For me, it's much like the 1981 race, which was debated for months, overturned and reversed again with Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti. Unser passed cars under the yellow flag coming out of the pits, which shouldn't be allowed. Unser ended up with three Indy 500 victories, that one included, while Andretti only found victory lane in 1969 at Indy.
So when the biggest focus of this year's Indy 500 turns into Castroneves' Drive for Five, remember that his road to get there wasn't an easy one. And remember the pass Tracy made on lap 199 in 2002 that ultimately didn't stick.
All these years later, Castroneves has celebrated four Indy 500 victories, and Tracy maintains he was the rightful winner in 2022.