Helio chasing No. 4 as his Indy 500 career winds down
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The screaming yellow firesuit made Helio Castroneves easy to find at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The glowing smile didn’t hurt, either.
Castroneves is wrapping up another May at his favorite race track and getting another chance Sunday at a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 victory. The Brazilian has a seat as a favor from Roger Penske, because when the boss needed Castroneves to anchor his new sports car team, the company man agreed.
With a caveat: Castroneves could still run this year’s Indy 500.
And if he happens to win in the Pennzoil-sponsored “Yellow Submarine” that Johnny Rutherford and four-time winner Rick Mears made famous? Well, Penske told The Associated Press, “he will have an open ticket to go for a fifth, for sure.”
The tightknit Penske lineup rolled its eyes at Penske’s promise. Castroneves desperately wants to be in IndyCar, where he won 30 races and finished second in the standings four times. He also never finished lower than fifth in points his final six seasons.
“If he wins, he’s never going to go away,” teammate Simon Pagenaud said. “He’s going to come back for five. If he wins Sunday, then he’s going to Detroit (next week), and he’s going to do really well there and then he’s going to finish the season. And look at that, now he’s back.”
If only it was that easy.
Penske is a businessman first and race fan second, so when Team Penske had to downsize its IndyCar operation to three full-time cars, the 43-year-old Castroneves was cast away to its nascent sports car program. He’s the longest-tenured Penske driver, side-by-side with “The Captain” since 2000, and the two are intertwined in businesses beyond racing. But moving Castroneves into that sports car program was the best move for the Penske brand, and as such, an easy business decision.
“You have to be careful because if you make your business decisions with emotion, you’ll probably make the wrong decision,” Penske said. “This was a planned process with Helio. We talked about it.
“Helio has a nice career for him. He’s able to utilize his racing skills, his business contacts to deliver him other things he wants to do. To me, it was a business decision. He’d probably like to race every weekend, but I think he’s in the right spot.”
It took Castroneves some time to come around to Penske’s way of thinking.
He didn’t know what to do with himself at the season-opening IndyCar race in Florida, where he was the grand marshal. There was no reason to sit in team meetings, and not having driven the 2018 car, he had nothing to offer his teammates. He had nothing to do for an entire weekend until he gave the command to start the engines, and ever the showman, he did it hanging from the St. Petersburg fence to mimic his signature fence-climbing celebration.
When IndyCar next raced in California, in a companion weekend with IMSA, it was easier for Castroneves because he was busy with his sports car. Still, that longing to get back into the sleek, fast IndyCar was there — and the cars were just across the paddock.
He’s on board with Penske’s plan, but he doesn’t have to love it.
“I believe it wasn’t maybe the right time to leave,” Castroneves told the AP. “Nothing lasts forever. Maybe one more year? It is what it is. I hope next year we’re going for five. I hope this is the last year we are going for four. When I get four, why stop? You know? Right now the plan is to keep going.”
He’ll start eighth Sunday in a Chevrolet many believe is among the fastest in the field. The pole was his to lose in the final round of qualifying, but he didn’t get the speed his rivals anticipated in his effort. Pagenaud qualified second, Will Power was third and Josef Newgarden fourth.
So, the old guy was the slowest of the Penske quartet on qualifying day. But he might be the winner on Sunday, which just might make him forget about his three second-place finishes — including last year, when Takuma Sato held him off in the closing laps.
It’s been so frustrating that his teammates don’t want to be the one to beat him.
“It’s a terrible situation to be in,” Newgarden admitted.
“Imagine,” Pagenaud said, “if you are fighting with him and you beat him and he’s second? Again? You pass him just before the finish. You win with regret?”
“What do you even say to him? ‘Sorry, bro? It was my move, bro?’” Newgarden added with a shrug. “I think if Helio wins, we are all happy. Unless you finish second to him, then it sucks. You want a team car to win. You say that, and you mean it, and if your car is not the car of the day, you want one of your teammates to win and we all would be happy for Helio if Helio won.”
Penske has a promise that a fourth win gets Castroneves a fifth chance, but Castroneves will want more no matter what. He admits that if nothing else, he will always want to race the Indy 500, and that age does not matter.
“If person keeps themselves healthy, sharp ... I guarantee they can go a long way,” he said. “When you love what you do, there is no other place I want to be. Driving the car, not just be in the race.
“Watching race is not so much fun for me. But driving the race, that’s what I enjoy.”
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