INDIANAPOLIS – America sure loves its "best ever" debates. Sports fans can't go a month without hearing a certain athlete is the best ever, whether it's Roger Federer, Michael Phelps, Kobe Bryant, Jimmie Johnson or even Tim Tebow.
It makes sense. Evolution pretty much dictates the current era's bodies outperform all those who came before. No offense to Babe Ruth, but he'd probably be in A-ball if he were alive today. Of course we are surrounded by best evers – just like today's microprocessors are the best ever. So these debates are pretty needless.
Except in the case of Helio Castroneves.
There is no "best ever" debate involving him, and there likely won't be, even though he has a shot at his fourth Indianapolis 500 win this weekend. Only three drivers have done that, none by age 35. No one has won five.
But even if Castroneves wins 10, he is a victim of what many see as a sport in decline. Few argue that today's Indy Racing League compares favorably with the open-wheel days of Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt and Al Unser Sr. While baseball and football have evolved, the IRL has, in popular opinion, devolved. It's more like boxing and horse racing, hoisted but also haunted by the shadows of Ali and Secretariat.
That leads to an important question: if Helio Castroneves is indeed the best ever, how are we supposed to tell?
Sure, the golden days of open-wheel racing are gone, but the IRL is now much more of a world sport, and no one knows how Foyt and Mears would have done had true globalization come a few decades sooner. Perhaps auto racing, like hockey, is better with more foreigners yet seen as less compelling because the names aren't as familiar or as easy to say. Castroneves is charismatic and popular, but he probably would be more loved in America were he from Brooklyn and not Brazil. Keep in mind: he had to change his last name – originally Castro Neves – because the press kept calling him either Castro or Neves.
"You don't win here without being one of the greats," says Michael Andretti, whose father Mario won the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, and the Formula One World Championship. "He's up there with all of them. Whoever says [winning is easier now] is speaking from ignorance. It's as tough as it's ever been."
The arguments against Castroneves are strong. Many in the 33-driver field arrived in Indianapolis with relatively slim resumés, this for what's supposed to be the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing." This year's field includes six rookies. Castroneves himself was one in 2001, and he won the race, which seems to feed into the argument that winning at Indy is actually less difficult than in past eras.
When asked if he considers himself one of the best ever, Castroneves recoiled as if "Dancing With the Stars" judge Carrie Anne Inaba asked him to do the cha-cha-cha with an iguana.
"I don't see myself that way," he said Thursday. "I have to do a lot of things: win a championship, race in different series."
Fair enough. But how will we ever know how good Castroneves really is? Al Unser got his fourth Indy 500 win in 1987 with a car he got from a display at a Pennsylvania Sheraton. Many of the favorites that year didn't finish the race. Unser was five days shy of his 48th birthday at the time. That doesn't say too much about the state of Indy racing back then. And it's hard to convincingly argue that a 35-year-old Castroneves would never have beaten Unser that day.
This isn't to discredit Unser. It's to say that a win at Indy is a win at Indy, whatever the circumstances. Those who watch the race in person see the nuance and the imperfections of every winning race. But those flaws fade over time, while the victory – and the halo around it – stands. So it's not fair to blindly dismiss Castroneves as a candidate for "best ever" unless and until he makes it to age 48 without a fourth Indy victory. Until then, he's got a puncher’s chance.
As of Saturday, the Brickyard's Mount Rushmore has only three faces. But if Castroneves wins Sunday, it might be time to at least consider looking for the chisel.
- Helio Castroneves