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Sunday, May 25, 2003
Indy offered Penske-pure racing

By Robin Miller
Special to ESPN.com

Robin Miller INDIANAPOLIS -- It won't be remembered as the greatest Indianapolis 500 of all time and there wasn't even a change for position among the top five the final 20 laps. While it was close, Gil de Ferran beat Helio Castroneves by 0.2990 of a second, you never sensed anything dramatic was going to happen during the last lap.

But the really cool thing about Sunday's 87th Indianapolis 500 was that it was pure.

There were none of those Formula One team orders, where Rubens Barrichello backs off because he's not supposed to challenge Michael Schumacher.

And you didn't see any of that blocking back stuff, like Dale Earnhardt did for Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona in 2001.

No, as messed up as open wheel racing is these days, at least it doesn't tamper with the outcome of its races. Thankfully, it maintains the spirit of competition.

Even though Castroneves was going for three in a row history here, he received no favors from his friend, countryman and teammate.

"I pushed Gil as hard as I could but it wasn't enough and he deserved to win," said Castroneves, who led more laps (58) Sunday than he did in his initial triumph in 2001 but lost the top spot to de Ferran for good on Lap 170 when he got balked by Anthony Foyt IV.

"It's always been fair game since I've been with Team Penske. Nobody gets anything handed to them and we have no trouble with that. That's the way it should be."

In those closing laps, de Ferran and Castroneves were orange and white blurs -- both running 225 mph around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"I was running flat out through Turn 1 and I don't think Helio could quite do that so that's where I had my advantage and I knew I had to keep running wide open there lap after lap," said de Ferran, who led the final 31 laps in his Marlboro G-Force/Toyota.

"I knew if I made just one little bobble, he would pounce on me."

Asked about his Brazilian buddy Barrichello's plight, de Ferran replied: "Nothing like that at Team Penske. I want to beat Helio just as bad as I want to beat Tony (Kanaan) or anybody else out there. The only orders we get from Roger is to not hit each other."

Gil De Ferran and Helio Castrovenes
De Ferran, left, and Castroneves raced hard and clean during Sunday's Indy 500.

The boys of Brazil finished 1-2-3 and celebrated afterwards. But they certainly weren't buddy buddy on the track.

"We all race hard and we happen to like each other. Helio is one of my best friends these days and I like to spend time with him. But when we put the helmet on, I know what he's there for and I respect that.

"Obviously, I knew what this race meant to him and how badly he wanted it. But I'm pretty sure he knew what it meant to me too."

De Ferran could easily be one of open wheel racing's best kept secrets. He captured back-to-back CART championships in 2000 and 2001 and was in contention for the Indy Racing League title last year before an accident ended his chances. Recovering from a nasty crash last March at Phoenix, the 35-year-old veteran barely got a mention this month after qualifying 10th.

"We all knew Helio would get a lot of attention this month and he deserved it," said de Ferran, who suffered broken bones in his neck and back, plus a concussion, after pounding the wall at Phoenix. "I wasn't bitter or jealous, he's a helluva race driver.

"I didn't qualify real fast and I'm not sure how many people considered us a threat but my guys and I knew we had a good race car."

His self-deprecating sense of humor has always made de Ferran a hit with the media and he's Rick Mears modest. But we all knew he was a warrior inside the cockpit.

"The perception is that Gil is the conservative type because he's not the outgoing, climb-the-fence type like Helio," said Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing. "But once he puts the helmet on, they're very similar.

"Gil is a class act who is great for the sport and he deserved this. It put an exclamation point to his career."

Castroneves, who was classy in defeat and climbed the fence to celebrate the Penske sweep with his teammate, told Cindric over the radio he needed a break near the end to ascend into the IMS history book.

"I guaranteed him that Gil wasn't going to give him any room and he had to be smart and make it right," said Cindric. "I guess we showed today we don't have any team orders in our camp."

No team orders, just teamwork. And a fair fight to the finish.

Just the way it should be.

Robin Miller covers open wheel racing for ESPN and ESPN.com.