A Comeback For the Ages


Just a reminder…Thursday’s traffic was way down from normal. I’m thinking that many have forgotten that I will be posting every weekday in May and also on the weekends that there is track activity at IMS, up through my "Random Thoughts" on the Monday after the Indianapolis 500. Please remember to come here for a new post every weekday in the Month of May. – GP

A couple of weeks ago, a special moment in sports took place as Tiger Woods won his fifth Green Jacket, symbolic of winning The Masters and his fifteenth major gold tournament, pulling within three major wins of tying the great Jack Nicklaus.

While it was a great moment in sports and capped off a nice comeback for a golfer that many had written off for good, the media went crazy calling this the greatest comeback in sports history.

Immediately, fans of different sports started pulling examples that far surpassed what Woods had accomplished. After all, many of Woods’ problems were self-induced. One person reminded us that Ted Williams had won two batting titles, then lost three years of his baseball career while serving in World War II, flying airplanes. When he returned, he won four more batting titles and a Triple Crown. In my opinion, that is a more noteworthy comeback than reshaping your image due to infidelity.

Race fans are quick to point out two more examples that are even more drastic in contrast to what Woods did last month. Niki Lauda practically died after his fiery crash at the Nürburgring in 1976, when he inhaled flames deep into his lungs. However, in a tremendous display of courage (or insanity), six weeks later Lauda was racing again trying to win the Formula One title against his rival James Hunt.

A more recent example is Alex Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in a horrifying crash at the Lausitzring, also in Germany. Zanardi practically bled to death, his blood literally pouring out onto the track from where his legs had been. Only the fast work from Dr. Terry Trammel saved Zanardi from dying on the track that day. Although he lost both legs above the knee, Zanardi has become a Paralympic Gold Medalist in handcycling. Furthermore, he has resumed his racing career and drove a BMW for Bobby Rahal in this year’s Rolex 24.

Maybe I’m wrong, but both of these racers overcame obstacles far more life -threatening and challenging than overcoming opioid addiction or back surgery. Now before I get all kinds of hate-filled comments about the dangers of opioid addiction, I understand the seriousness of that situation. But in my humble opinion, inhaling flames deep into your lungs or losing most of your blood through severed arteries presents a much more serious obstacle – but that’s me.

This May marks the ten-year anniversary of another comeback – this one at the Indianapolis 500, racing’s version of The Masters. If you want something to compare to what Tiger Woods did at Augusta, this is a much closer comparison.

Helio Castroneves was a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. He won as a rookie in 2001 and backed it up with another win in 2002 (please don’t bring up the Paul Tracy debate – it doesn’t apply to this story). The following year, he finished second. After three starts, his average finish in the “500” was 1.33; not too shabby. In 2004 he began coming back down to earth, but still had finishes that would put a smile on most driver’s faces. He finished ninth in 2004 and again in 2005. He crashed in 2006 ad finished twenty-fifth. But in 2007 and 2008, he finished third and fourth respectively.

But in the fall of 2008, things went terribly wrong for Castroneves. The IRS took him to court for tax-evasion. It all stemmed from his quick signing with Team Penske, replacing Greg Moore; who had been scheduled to drive for The Captain for the 2000 season, but was fatally injured in the 1999 season finale at Fontana.

Helio essentially pleaded ignorance. He claimed that things were done so quickly, that he really didn’t know what he was signing. Whatever he signed had significant tax consequences that were enough for the IRS to take him to trial – about $5.5 Million from 1999 to 2004 that he had failed to report.The consequence for this was not just a fine or public embarrassment. Helio Castroneves was facing years of jail time if convicted.

As the case dragged on, things did not look good for Helio. Will Power was brought to the team as a pre-season replacement for Castroneves to do all of the testing and to be available to drive in case Helio was still tied up in court. Power was available because his sponsor for the previous year, Aussie Wines, had pulled out and his KV Technology team replaced him with Mario Moraes, who brought his own sponsorship.

At Spring Training at Barber in March of 2009, Will Power was driving the No.3 car with the familiar Marlboro colors. I went there and snapped this rare photo of Power in a Marlboro car.

Will Power2

When the season started later that month at St. Petersburg, it was Will Power in the car, while Helio was still in court in Miami. All indications were that things were not looking good for Helio. The case came to a close in April and the jury deliberated for about a week. In the meantime, the series had headed to Long Beach for the second race of the season. But Roger Penske being Roger Penske, Team Penske was prepared for whatever might happen.

Will Power practiced Friday in the Marlboro car normally assigned to Castroneves. But as the afternoon practice was winding down, word came that Helio Castroneves had been acquitted. After a tearful celebration, Helio was on a plane that night, bound for the west coast. Within minutes of learning the good news, Team Penske wheeled out another car bearing the No.12, with a Verizon livery for Will Power. Thus was born the Power and Verizon relationship that is still going to this day.

Helio drove in Practice Three on Saturday at Long Beach. Will Power put his new car on the pole and finished second in the race. After more than six months of inactivity and the stress and uncertainty of what his future held, Helio Castroneves qualified eighth and finished seventh. Not bad for arriving on site just the night before and not sitting in the car since the 2008 season finale.

But the comeback wasn’t complete until the following month in the Indianapolis 500. Castroneves put his car on the pole. Helio swapped the lead with Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti throughout the day. But on a late restart, Castroneves passed Dixon for the lead going into Turn One and never looked back.

Just six weeks earlier, Castroneves had been sitting in a Miami courthouse, not knowing his fate. Not only was his racing career in jeopardy, so was his freedom. Now he was on top of the racing world, celebrating his third Indianapolis 500 victory.

As he usually is, Helio Castroneves was very emotional in Victory Lane. The tensions from the previous six months had taken their toll and it all came out during his celebration. It was quite the comeback from where he had been just a few weeks earlier, when he wondered if he would ever be free again, much less sit in a race car.

The comeback of Helio Castroneves in 2009 is somewhat similar to that of Tiger Woods last month. Why? Because they both overcome adversity that was most of their own doing. We’ll never know if Helio had any knowledge of what was going on regarding the charges brought against him. Even if he didn’t, one could argue that he should have. Tiger Woods world collapsed around him at about the same time Helio’s did. First came allegations of womanizing and infidelity, then he was arrested for DUI. That stemmed from opioid addiction related to an injured back from years of twisting it every time he swung a club.

But that’s where the similarities end. Woods has had a reputation of not treating people very well. He walked over a lot of people on his way to the top. Helio Castroneves has continuously been a model on how drivers should behave. He is fan-friendly and has a very engaging personality – far from that of Tiger Woods.

But Woods has been the more sympathetic figure lately. About the only tragedy to befall Helio in the last ten years is a bad call in Edmonton where he tried to choke the mountain named Charles Burns, and being exiled to Penske’s sports car team two years ago. Other than that, Helio Castroneves leads a charmed life. I assume many more people can relate to being guilty of infidelity, going through a nasty divorce, addiction and their golf game going away; than they can Helio’s problems.

Helio bounced back in a matter of weeks, ten years ago this month. It took Woods almost a decade. Helio is still chasing his dream of becoming the fourth four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Woods is still chasing Jack Nicklaus. Personally, I hope they can both do it.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “A Comeback For the Ages”

  1. Andrew Says:

    I have always felt Helio was fake and I would actually rather see Montoya in the 4th Penske ride this year. I also like to forget about the 2009 race, for some reason I don’t feel like I was having a good day or something always makes that a forgettable event. I also would rather him not with a 4th.

    Ok, now that I got that little tantrum over with! I agree with you on all 3 stories. Lauda removed his helmet which was soaked in blood, I think in a different era (more engine availability), Zanardi would be offered a ride in the 500 and I hope maybe he is next year! Helio, well, I bet that was very stressful for him. Thankfully we got Will Power out of it!

    Another one that is often lost in the early IRL days is that of Allesandro Zampedri. He probably was quite lucky to not lose his feet in 1996 and made a comeback for 1997. Though his car failed before the start, he qualified with rain on the track. Buddy Lazier’s comeback in there also! Both of those guys had over 30 surgeries to repair their bodies.

  2. For anyone who hasn’t subscribed to the Gold Pass yet (which is where most of the Indy practice/qualifying coverage will be) it is currently discounted to $34.99. Everyone I’ve heard from that has the Gold Pass loves it (including myself), well worth the small price.


  3. billytheskink Says:

    Will Power has certainly come a long way since driving a partial season for Penske, breaking his vertebrae, and being mocked by Justin Allgaier in Verizon TV commercials.

  4. Bruce B Says:

    I’m hoping the comeback for the ages will be Robert Wickens! My thoughts and prayers are with him!!

  5. Your post and Miller’s recent article on this subject both provide excellent examples of great sports comebacks. Thing is, I think the average sports fan follows the big four sports, maybe soccer or golf, but probably not Motorsports. What’s worse, some of them don’t even consider auto racing a sport. So although we racing fans certainly agree the aforementioned examples are greater sports comebacks than Tiger’s, many folks likely never even considered these examples in the conversation.

  6. agree with victorlovisa above…playing golf and driving a car are
    not considered a “sport” by a lot of people who watch sports.

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    I like Helio, always have, and I wish him well. Regarding comebacks, I feel that Ted William’s comeback trumps the ones mentioned here in some respects. To make that claim, one has to separate comebacks from serious injuries from comebacks from other life situations. Tiger Woods came back from being exposed as a serial cheater and having his wife try to hit him with a golf club. “Comeback for the ages” Not hardly.

  8. Hyperbole sells. The win was a big deal for the golfing world. Let Tiger have his day in the sun, but no it was not the biggest comeback of all time.

  9. SkipinSC Says:

    While I will be rooting for Helio to get that 4th 500 crown this May, as a student of sports history, I have to give the “Comeback for the Ages” title to Tiger.

    My reasons for this are many, but largely based on how HUGE Tiger was in the overall pantheon of sports. True, Helio’s win, coming after the long,emotionally bitter tax and a 7 year absence from Victory Lane was significant, but, to be honest, racing does not have and has not had a figure who “moves the needle” since AJ and Mario were dueling and Richard Petty virtually OWNED NASCAR (with the possible exception of Dale Earnhardt.)

    Much like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, and, to a lesser extent, Pele (everywhere BUT America,) Tiger’s legend grew well beyond his sport.

    Much like Ali who virtually forfeited half of his fan base when he refused to step forward for military service, Tiger did the same through his serial infidelity.

    None of the above legends ever had to face the possibility of being unable to lead a normal life, let alone participate in the sport he had dominated for a decade. While Ali’s later fights were sad to see, and his sport took its toll on his post-boxing life, during the time he was practicing his craft on the highest level, he never faced a significant injury.

    Nor did any of the above legends ever undergo a personality transformation on the level of Tiger Woods. Old Tiger (before the fall) was aloof, guarded, and laser focused to the point of rudeness.
    Hell, even his caddie in those days, Stevie Williams, was unpleasant at times.

    Because of the hard work, physical pain and suffering Tiger went through, I believe he gained a much greater appreciation for the game, and more importantly, the fans. His win at Augusta not only moved the needle, it WAS the needle. (Watch the ratings for the PGA, U,S. Open, and Open Championship this summer: if he’s in contention, it will prove out.)

    Now, if Helio wins his 4th 500, particularly after the close calls he’s had in 2014 and 2017, he will become a part of HISTORY and Part of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world: 4 time Indy winners. We’re not likely to see another one anytime in the near future.

  10. Ron Ford Says:

    Another comeback worth mentioning is IndyCar on network TV. There were two NBC ads for the Indy500 during the Kentucky Derby broadcast this afternoon, and then another on during the NHL playoff match tonight. This bodes well for NBC coverage of he 500.

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