Friends, I am here to tell you that you have never met fear, never peered into the ice-black soul of a born competitor, never stared down the very essence of terror until you have stood across from Helio Castroneves at a ping-pong table. There, his hands are lightning, his feet a storm of motion, his eyes shooting daggers of lava (I’m pretty sure), and his visage betraying the unquenchable fire that drove him to three Indy 500 wins and a Dancing With the Stars trophy. When Team Helio beat us, his final point came via an actual meteor from space that briefly adopted the form of a ping-pong ball, traveling at a Statcast™ speed of 4 billion miles per hour. Friends, in my time, I have lost many an athletic competition, but never one with such spectacular punctuation.
We found ourselves Wednesday night at downtown’s Smash Social, where Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden—the 2017 Verizon IndyCar series champion who qualified fourth in Sunday’s 500—hosted a driver-packed charity event centered on his less-speedy-sports love. As it happens, Newgarden and ping-pong go back further than Newgarden and racing: He started playing when he was 5 or 6, seven years before he even got into go-karting. He plays now whenever he can, gets into semi-regular social-media table-tennis beefs, and enjoys touting the game’s rising popularity. “If there’s a ping-pong table, people will normally play,” he says, accurately.
Tonight’s ping-pong event is a benefit for Serious Fun, a children’s charity launched three decades ago by Paul Newman as “a free camp where kids could escape the fear and isolation of their medical conditions and, in his words, ‘raise a little hell,’” says its website. Today, the organization runs 30 camps and programs. Newgarden’s tournament, which was announced all of three weeks ago, raised $23,000 for them.
I was on site with IM and teamed with my younger brother, a NASCAR.com writer who also tweets as @nascarcasm. It is one thing to hear you’re playing in a charity ping-pong tournament; it is quite another to glance at the bracket and learn that should you win your first match accidentally, you’ll play against either Castroneves and his partner or a team consisting of Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, who are triathletes and American Ninja Warriors and also pretty good drivers. The place was crawling with such guys: Alexander Rossi, Sage Karam, Charlie Kimball, J.R. Hildebrand, and us, two guys who basically flunked out of Little League. “We should have brought a nun,” my brother noted during our warmups, during which I launched a serve onto TK’s table, 12 yards away, somehow.
Looking hopelessly outmatched, I asked our host for ping-pong tips. “Consistency is key,” Newgarden said. “Don’t try to go for slams. People that try to slam the ball too hard normally miss. Chances are someone’s not as good; they’re not gonna get it back. If you focus on volleying, you’ll probably come out better in the long run.” Also: Don’t mess up your serves. “It’s an easy way to lose points.”
We focused on volleying. And in so doing we unwittingly toppled our first-round sportswriter opponents and found ourselves waiting to face Helio, a process that requires precisely four seconds. One does not wait to face Helio in competition. One simply enters a location where Helio is already competing. By the time I figured out it was my serve, we were down 3-0.
But we rallied! And held our own! And by that I mean we sporadically scored points while Helio and his partner quick-stepped around us. I am not lying when I say that I have rarely been involved in a game as competitive, and I have definitely never sweated this much while playing a game whose name contains the word “ping.” And I’m telling you, if they ever make a ping-pong movie, it would end with his final shot, the “Jimmy Chitwood I’ll Make It” of table tennis, which left a smoking crater in my shirt.
Naturally, all of this makes sense: These guys’ blood runs with sweat and competition, while @nascarcasm (he makes us call him that) and I were there to hang as best we could. It was a blast, one that I hope returns next year, if not before. Incidentally, Newgarden went on to win the tournament, beating Team Castroneves in the mightiest ping-pong battle I’ve ever been witness to, one that left me with this thought: I kind of can’t believe they also do this in cars.
Gallery of the event: