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Helio Castroneves Is Young at Heart, Hungry for More Glory

The win column has gotten sparse lately, and so the critics have started again, but IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves is right to point out that he's been a victim of circumstance.
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Five years ago, at the age of 36, Helio Castroneves had just ended a dreadful season by his own high standards, finishing 11th in the championship. On top of the sadness and introspection that every IndyCar driver went through in the off-season following Dan Wheldon's death, Castroneves could have been forgiven for asking himself, 'Is it worth it?' and answering in the negative.

Aside from the underperformance, there had been far too many on-track incidents. It was reminiscent of that pitstop in Days of Thunder, where Robert Duvall's character, as crew-chief, leans into the cockpit of Tom Cruise's stock car.


Harry Hogge: "While we're still under caution, I want you to go back out on that track and hit the pace car.
Cole Trickle: Hit the pace car?
: Hit the pace car!
Trickle: What for?
: Because you've hit every other goddamned thing out there, I want you to be perfect.

The problem was that having perceived that left-foot braking had been teammate Will Power's prime advantage over him in 2010, and with the forthcoming DW12 being just a two-pedal car, Castroneves felt the need to adapt. It caused issues when in close proximity to other cars and resulted in by far his worst championship finish since joining Penske way back in 2000. He's past it, said the critics; he should quit.

But instead, Castroneves responded brilliantly by winning the first race of IndyCar's DW12 era, and went on to finish fourth in the 2012 points standings. Since then, his championship finishes have been 2nd, 2nd, 5th, 3rd and he's achieved four wins, 19 other podium finishes, and 11 pole positions. In other words, he's still got the speed, and he's beating on the gate to Victory Lane several times per season.

Now the win column has gotten sparse lately – Helio's last trip to Victory Lane was in June 2014 – and so the critics have started again. But Helio's right to point out that he's been a victim of circumstance.

"It was a really big frustration for me that we didn't win a race this year or last year," he tells, "but I think we showed we have the speed. You just need everything to come together on the day. And I believe it will eventually if you create the opportunities for yourself by being quick and running up front – which is what we do.


"We, on the #3 team, we want to do better. We completed a 1-2-3 for Team Penske [in the championship], and that was good and nice for Roger Penske in his 50th year owning a team. But we want more, really bad. I feel that all these years, I've been learning, getting better and better.

"And I think that age is just a number, for me. I know, I know, it's a cliché to say something like that, but for me it's absolutely true!"

Photo by Guy Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The 41-year-old from Ribeirao Preto in Brazil, with the perfect hair, the permanent cheesy grin for the cameras, the goofy sense of humor and the heart-on-sleeve emotions, surprises no one when he reveals that in his last chat with The Captain, he said he wished to press on with his IndyCar career.

"I just love what I do. I really, really do, man," Helio says with a conviction that makes you feel bad for even asking if he sees an endpoint to his driving career. "I told Roger, 'It's great that we're partners in a dealership, I love it, and I'll probably be able to focus a little bit more on that some time in the future. But right now, I'm too much in love with racing.'

"But apart from loving it, I think I've still got it. I'm excited for next year because I think Penske in 2017 will be very strong like this year. We'll have this great baseline, plus all the things we learned in 2016. So for now, I just want to focus on winning the Indianapolis 500 again, and then the championship."


There will be a different dynamic within the Penske team next season as Josef Newgarden has replaced Juan Pablo Montoya in the #2 car. But there are no misgivings from the man who's about to start his 20th season in Indy cars, and his 18th at Team Penske. Since he's worked with Roger, Castroneves has seen Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish Jr, Ryan Briscoe and Montoya come and go; he's seen Will Power and Simon Pagenaud come and stay. None of them have shaken Castroneves' belief in his own ability to get the job done, so he's perfectly comfortable lavishing praise on his teammates, including the newbie.

"Simon [Pagenaud] did a phenomenal job – what an impressive season," he says. "Will is always great, obviously. And now we have Josef too. In Elkhart Lake, for a first test with us, I thought Josef did really, really well. He started to show straight away why Team Penske hired him and I do believe he's going to be a great fit. The good news is, we all got along well even before. Josef was like a friend living in a different neighborhood. Now he's come over to our neighborhood so we get to hang out with him more often.

"But going back to Simon – he really deserved that championship, but we've got to cut him short now! Will and I – and I'm sure Josef – want to prove we can beat him. And by us all doing that, we're going to make the whole team better."

Castroneves says that his ability to match Newgarden's youthful vigor despite being 16 years his senior probably comes from loving the job, loving his place of work – and for not thinking of it as just a job nor considering what he does as 'work'.


"First of all, let me say that I can't thank Roger enough – and Tim Cindric obviously – for everything that's happened in my career. Roger gave me a home, and a strong partnership, which is very difficult to find in racing. We are all doing what we want and what we love to do, but to get a chance to do that journey together, year after year, and follow that path together makes it so, so special.

"Maybe that's why I love it so much. If I had spent many years in not-so-good teams, maybe I would have said by now, 'OK, that's it. Time to retire.'"

However, Helio also states that despite his addiction to the sport, he won't let his heart rule his head when it comes to thoughts of retirement, even if RP gives him the choice.

"I will know when to stop, I'm sure of that," he says solemnly. "I love racing, but I don't want to be the old fart going out there just because I love it, just to be there. I want to be the number, I don't want to be a number. So I will know where to draw the line.

"But to be honest with you, I think I'll feel it before it shows in my lap times," he continues. "I speak to Rick [Mears], speak with Gil [de Ferran], speak to all the people who retire while they're at the top, and they talk about that feeling of, 'Oh, thank God it's over!' OK, maybe I'm psychologically blocking out that feeling! But I don't think so.

"I'm still pissed when I have to get out of a racecar, man. I'm trying to find excuses to keep going! I mean, we did 320 laps in the Phoenix test, and that was a good workout, I can tell you. But when we were packing up, I checked with the guys, 'That's it for the year?' They said yeah, and I'm like, 'Damn!' I was just so disappointed.

"I think if there's a day I get up and I don't want to race or even just go testing, then that will be it. I'll know it's time to tell Roger, 'OK, I think I see the end of the road.' But I can tell you I'm not close to that point yet."

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