The Racing Capital
of the World
August 21, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
In 2002, Helio Castroneves was in his first IndyCar Series season after Team Penske had made the switch from CART. He was part of a two-driver lineup that included two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran. Many expected the Team Penske contingent to wipe up on the teams that came from the Indy Racing League.
But Castroneves quickly discovered how formidable a young driver for Panther Racing was at that time, as Sam Hornish Jr. was still just a kid but already an IndyCar champion.
Castroneves and Hornish battled each other all the way to the final laps of the final race of the season at Texas Motor Speedway, and Hornish claimed his second consecutive title.
At that time, Castroneves was young and very enthusiastic and energetic. But he may have lacked the experience of a championship battle.
Eleven years later, Castroneves is in charge of his championship destiny. If he finishes ahead of his challengers, including Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti over the season’s final races, he will finally be called a series champion. The next step in Castroneves’ quest comes Sunday, Aug. 25 at Sonoma Raceway in the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.
“It’s like in life, you change so many things that you did in the past with the experience that I have today,” Castroneves said. “There are a lot of things I would have done to have clinched the championship in 2002, but it’s experience. It’s many years you keep going and learning. But it’s experience. It’s many years you have to keep going and learning.
“I feel mature. I feel I know what I want. The team understands me, as well. When you’ve spent that much time with the team, that has been the biggest factor for me. I’m able to really understand and have the same interaction with my team. We have a good chemistry with each individual out there.
“Now I know what I want so I’m able to make clear: ‘This is what I want.’”
Castroneves’ lack of a title indicates how difficult that feat is to achieve in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
“The competition level is absolutely amazing,” Castroneves said. “Every team, every driver, is racing on the edge. In the past I was thinking about it and going out there and winning a championship, but circumstance out of my control unfortunately have not allowed that to happen. In 2008, we finished second place many, many times. If that were today, it would be very different.
“You learn from it, and at this point we have to keep doing what we are doing. It seems to be working. When you have a good car, you push for it, and when you don’t have a good car, you squeeze as hard as you can to maximize points that day.”
That is the voice of experience speaking. In the past, Castroneves may have tried to take a fifth-place car and push it beyond its limit in an attempt to win a race. The more experienced drivers will take a fifth-place car and get it up to fourth or third place without taking any unnecessary risks and end up in the tire barrier.
“It’s one of the keys for this season,” Castroneves said. “I did make mistakes in some of the places where we could capitalize on points, but hopefully those mistakes won’t affect the outcome of the season. Right now at this point, I’m judging everything a different way.
“You have to remember, as well, the name of the game changed with the rules. We used to have single-file restarts, and we raced mostly on ovals and the blocking thing was different than it is now. During those five or 10 years, the name of the game changed a lot. We also have a different car. For me, I may have gone to the slower side, but thank God right now we are putting ourselves in the opportunity to win races or collect points.”
Castroneves leads Scott Dixon by 31 points. If past history is an indicator, he could add to his points lead at Sonoma. In 2008, he won the race just a few days after his car and team transporter were nearly burned to the ground when it crashed en route to California. That victory ended a 30-race winless streak for three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves.
“That was an amazing victory,” Castroneves said. “For the team to overcome that – I won the race, and my teammate at the time, Ryan Briscoe, finished second. It was a 1-2 finish for us, and it showed how Team Penske could overcome adversity. We are glad we were able to do that. We do have a good setup for Sonoma, and hopefully we can continue to succeed as we have in the past.”
Castroneves has one win and five top-five finishes in eight starts at Sonoma. Team Penske swept the top-two positions in last year’s race with Ryan Briscoe the winner, followed by Will Power.
By comparison, Dixon has one win and four top-five finishes in eight races at Sonoma but has two 13th-place and one 12th-place finish in the past five years. Ryan Hunter-Reay never has finished higher than eighth and was 18th last year at Sonoma.
Team Penske has four wins and is going for its fourth-straight victory at Sonoma this season. That could be a tremendous opportunity for Castroneves to build his points lead.
“A win would help a lot,” Castroneves said. “Every point counts at this point. We know the other guys are breathing down our neck, but we have to do what we have to do what we do. We have to focus on our job. Competition is heating up at the end of the season, but we are going to light it up, push as hard as we can and put ourselves in a good position.”
Castroneves has been in the points lead since the beginning of June at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit. Before that, there was a different points leader after each preceding IndyCar race.
The key to Castroneves’ success is consistency.
“It’s great teamwork,” Castroneves said. “Team Penske has been doing a hell of a job. The boys are doing great and Chevrolet, as well, keeping the car to where we can finish the races. Strategy has been up and down, but we have put ourselves in a very good position. It’s the combination of a lot of little details.
“It’s not much different than last year when we had a very consistent season, but one or two races took us out of a chance at the title. This year, it’s been a matter of paying attention to details.”
John Erickson calls the race strategy for Castroneves, as well as team owner Roger Penske. Erickson has been one of the unsung heroes working with Castroneves.
“Our group at this point is very well-connected, and with John Erickson it’s been key people making the connection even better and smoother,” Castroneves said. “With John, it’s awesome because he tells you what he thinks – there is no filter. If some of the bad words have to come out, they will come out. There is no discretion, but I like that. I like it because he is sincere. He pushes you, and at this point when Roger is on the timing stand, it is amazing how Roger’s leadership translates to everyone on the team.”
Although there are 20 drivers still mathematically eligible for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series title with five races left, Castroneves showed his championship caliber by finishing one position ahead of the hottest driver in the series up to that point – Dixon – at Mid-Ohio.
Dixon was attempting to increase his winning streak to four races but finished seventh – one position behind Castroneves.
“We took the necessary risk, not the unnecessary risk, and I was proud of myself to judge that," Castroneves said. "When I saw Scott was behind me and that Hunter-Reay was in front of me, it was like: ‘OK, boys. If they try to do something silly, it will benefit me.’ They're experienced enough though to do the same."
It was Castroneves’ 10th consecutive top-10 finish. He remains the only driver to complete every race lap.
"It felt like a win, with the expectations going into that race, what happened in the past, not having any yellows," said Castroneves, who has been involved in the title chase four of the past five years at this point of the season. "We were able to put ourselves in that position and stay ahead of our main competitors in the championship. Hey, I'll take it. We have to keep doing what we're doing; it's been working.”
Dixon has been involved in several incidents at Sonoma the past few seasons and is hopeful he can regain his championship form this weekend.
"The swing can happen," Dixon said. "We were 92 points out (entering the July 7 race at Pocono), and now we're only 31. It really shows the never-give-up attitude of the team.
“We had a bit of an upset at Mid-Ohio, where it didn't go our way, but we've got to bounce back and dig deep and try to get some good results for the last five.”
While this season has been extremely competitive with nine different winners in the 14 races held so far, one driver that hasn’t made it to victory lane is Castroneves’ teammate, Will Power. Power has won the Mario Andretti Trophy three times as the best road course driver in the series and is hoping to finally get his first win of 2013 at a track where he has excelled in the past.
“Definitely, especially the year we've had, I can't wait to get back there,” Power said. “It's a track I've had a lot of success on. Although the competition has definitely heated up this year, we still expect to be running right at the front.
“I think the next two, for sure, are good tracks for me. I’m always quick there. Then you've got Houston, as well, and even Fontana, obviously I haven't won on an oval for a long time. Sonoma is definitely a good chance for us. But you know, as you said, there have been nine different winners this year, so it's really hard to predict how fast you're going to be, and you know, who is going to be in the front and who you're going to be challenging.
“Chevy has also made a gain recently, too. I think it's obviously changing, but I'm hoping that at Sonoma we get our pace.”
It has all the ingredients to be a great championship charge. But the popular Castroneves may be the sentimental choice among fans who want to see him finally win his first series title.
“It’s amazing – I’m so thankful,” Castroneves said of the fan support. “My Twitter account – @H3lio – people are really sending me good vibe, good energy, I feel that from them. It feels good to have that kind of support.”