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A Dire-to-Wire Victory at Indy

De Ferran wins Indianapolis 500 by .299 of a second over Castroneves, third-closest finish in race history, denying fellow Brazilian a third straight triumph.

May 26, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Al Unser couldn't do it. Neither could Bill Vukovich, Mauri Rose or Wilbur Shaw.

On Sunday Helio Castroneves came closer than anyone in history to winning the Indianapolis 500 three times in a row, only to have fellow Brazilian and Marlboro Team Penske teammate Gil de Ferran edge him by a minuscule 0.299 of a second.

Most of the estimated 325,000 fans were on their feet screaming at the finish of the third-closest race in the 87-year history of the 500.

De Ferran, 35, who finished second to Castroneves in 2001, made the winning pass on Lap 169, sweeping past his teammate on the backstretch after Castroneves was slowed by the lapped car of A.J. Foyt IV.

"I had a very close call with A.J. in Turn 2, so I decided not to take any more chances like that because I didn't want anything bad to happen," Castroneves said. "So [later] he looks like he's going to do the same thing, and he stops in the middle, so I have to push the brakes and downshift into fourth [gear].

"When you do those things here, man, that's it. So obviously, Gil passed. He was catching very fast and his momentum was going, so that was the move of the race."

Once he got in front, De Ferran was running flat out to hold off his challengers (except when his pace was slowed by three late caution flags). On his 200th and final time around Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2.5-mile rectangular oval, he was running 225.5 mph.

"I was having difficulty just staying behind Helio all the time, all the time looking for a chance to pass but seeing none," De Ferran said. "And then when I saw traffic in the horizon, and he got bogged down in Turn 2, real bad, actually, I had a full head of steam coming down the back straight. The difference in speed between us at that point was so great that I could pass him."

Both Penske drivers had Toyota-powered engines, marking the first time a Japanese manufacturer has won the 500. Toyota, in its first year as an engine supplier for the Indy Racing League, dominated by taking six of the first seven places.

The win was No. 14 for Roger Penske, his third in a row, and the second time in three years that his red-and-white machines had finished one-two.

"One of the things I pride myself on is getting here and staying connected," Penske said. "The most fun is when we get back to the plant, and the people there feel like they won. That is the whole thing. We are a team. If Gil won or Helio won, everyone in the whole organization won. That is what counts."

The win capped a remarkable recovery by De Ferran from a concussion that caused him to miss the final race of 2002 and another accident this season at Phoenix where he suffered back injuries that caused him to miss a race in Japan last month.

When he reached Victory Circle, De Ferran had difficulty climbing out of his G Force chassis.

"I was in pain, I admit," he said. "My shoulders, halfway through the race, started cramping, and I really had a hard time putting my hands, especially the left hand, [on the steering wheel]. My back wasn't hurting, but something was wrong. Maybe it was something to do with the neck, but behind my shoulders it is really painful."

Another Brazilian, Tony Kanaan, finished third in one of Michael Andretti's four Honda-powered entries. It enabled him to pass Scott Sharp, who finished 20th after hitting the wall when his engine expired, for the IRL points lead. Kanaan has 137, to 123 for Castroneves and 116 for Sharp.

Andretti, who led 28 laps in his final race as a driver, had his usual frustration at Indy when his throttle broke, ending his day before the halfway point. Andretti has led 426 laps in 14 Indy races, more than any other driver who hasn't won.

"It was a weird deal, the sort of thing that always seems to happen to me here," Andretti said after his first 500 as majority owner of Andretti Team Green. "I'm happy and sad, a million different emotions right now. I'm happy that I'm retiring, knowing that I could have won the last race. I just wanted one lap this year, the last one.

"Maybe I haven't been meant to win this race as a driver. Maybe I'm meant to win 20 of them as an owner. We'll see."

South African Tomas Scheckter finished fourth after leading the most laps, 63, just as he did in last year's race.

Tora Takagi, the highest-finishing rookie, was fifth, the best Indy finish ever for a Japanese driver.

The first U.S. finisher was Alex Barron, who came home sixth as a replacement for two-time champion Arie Luyendyk on Mo Nunn's team. Luyendyk was injured during practice for the 500 last week.

"Everyone in the Meijer [sponsor] family is pretty happy with our result, I think," said Barron, an unemployed driver from Menifee, Calif. "Maybe somehow, some way, something will happen that will get me back into a race car some more this year."

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